This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 14:13–21:
When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” Then he said, “Bring them here to me,” and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over — twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.
How difficult is it in our times to seek quiet? Even in the middle of a pandemic, it seems like life is as busy as ever. Zoom meetings, coordinating issues with family over distances, home projects (ahem) … life just buzzes by, seemingly at breakneck pace even inside the home.
Do we do this to ourselves, though? Do we purposely structure our lives so that we avoid silence and inward reflection? With so many options for real or virtual connections, and so many choices in entertainment, the noise of life overwhelms our ability to be still and listen for what God has to say to us, and what we have to say to ourselves. And at times in my life, it seems that is a deliberate choice — a way to push off that connection and its call for authenticity and honesty.
Today’s Gospel makes me think of the necessity of that quiet and stillness. Today we have one of the most marvelous of Jesus’ miracles, the multiplication of the fishes and loaves, in which He fed multitudes from a modest amount of food. Faith brings sustenance in abundance, and this miracle made that point clear. The word of God is our true food and true sustenance, and the Lord will give us the means to come into communion with it when we make that effort.
And make no mistake, those crowds put everything on hold to hear Jesus’ preaching. We tend to see this Gospel and others like it through modern eyes, when we have plenty of free time to go to concerts and theater in the park. It’s not unusual, especially in this country, for thousands of people to show up to see something entertaining, even on short notice.
In those days, however, only the wealthy had any kind of free time. In Judea in those days, almost everyone else had to scratch for subsistence at best. They kept the Sabbath holy, but they worked from dawn to dusk every other day just to stay alive. They didn’t worry about paying a cable bill; they worried about not being able to eat. It would have been an extraordinary sacrifice to walk away from the farms and trades that these thousands would normally have worked just to hear Jesus preach. The act of feeding them, especially in such abundance, was a miracle to the disciples who knew that Jesus had miraculously expanded the food, but just the meal itself might have been miracle enough for most of the rest of the crowd.
They came to listen to Jesus preach, of course, but pay attention to what Jesus does first. The death of John the Baptist hits Him hard, apparently, so Jesus withdraws to be by himself. Nor is this the first or last time that Jesus finds quiet and solitude to draw Himself into closer communion with the Father. In fact, as Luke writes (5:15-16), as the crowds grew, Jesus went to pray alone often:
Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
We know that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. Why did He need to pray alone? He often prayed with the disciples as well, but Jesus needed His solitude, too. The noise and the busy-ness around Him was necessary, but so was His time with the Father, and that could only be accomplished in the silences. Only in silence can we truly listen, and truly give our full attention to the Lord.
In our first reading from Isaiah, the prophet relays the Lord’s message about abundance, but also about the necessity of listening, emphasis mine:
Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare. Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life. I will renew with you the everlasting covenant, the benefits assured to David.
This kind of listening in silence is not a rejection of the world. Jesus worked in the world to provide us with salvation; He could not have achieved His mission through utter silence. No crowds would have shown up to see someone not preaching. However, that silence in which we make ourselves still and listen to what the Holy Spirit may be saying to us is what can sustain us in our own mission, just as it did with Jesus. All the noise around us acts as a cocoon to shield us from that kind of deeper connection.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has a soliloquy from the demon about the usefulness of noise in isolating us from God:
Music and silence—how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since Our Father entered Hell—though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express—no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise—Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end.
Not all noise is vice, and it’s fair to say that not all silence is virtue, either. (Lewis has something to say about silence-as-sloth through Screwtape’s letters, too.) However, some silence is necessary when put to the use of the Lord, in opening ourselves to His Word. It is only by listening that we can hear, and it is only by quieting ourselves that we can listen. We may not work miracles from that connection, but we can help align our will with the Lord’s once we allow Him to speak to us. That can form us to be the Lord’s instrument more fully, to be more fully the children of God, so that when we do speak, we can speak in love and truth.
The front page image is the Garden at the Church of the Multiplication, Tabgha, Galilee, Israel. Photo from my own collection.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.