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Seventeenth Sunday of the Year

Fasting and Feasting

Even in these tough times, we still assume a lot will be there as normal. Like electricity, for example. A couple of winters ago, there was quite a long power-cut one evening in the area around St. Dominic's Parish in London, where I'm a priest. Mass had to be celebrated with every candle we could find, and for several hours there was no electricity at all. No lights, no electric cookers or kitchen gadgets, no hi-fi, TV or computers. That very dark evening, struggling to read by candle-light, I reflected on how much we can take things for granted.

Today's Gospel is a well-known and much-loved story about how Jesus took pity on the great crowd of people who were following them, and taking the five loaves and two fish offered by one of them, turned it into a meal for thousands, with twelve baskets left over. A story so well known and loved that we can take it for granted. We can take it for granted too that we instinctively recognise it's meant to make us think about Mass - because it involves bread.

That's just what St. John wants us to think: he tells us that it was 'shortly before the Passover', which is also the time when Jesus celebrated the Last Supper, the first Mass. Later on in the same chapter, in next week's Gospel, we will hear that people came to find Jesus on the other side of the sea, when He will tell them that He is 'the Bread of Life'.

This is a wonderful thing, a far greater miracle and wonder than the feeding of the five thousand: at every Mass what we bring to the altar as bread really becomes the Body of Christ, and we receive it as our food.

Yet because this happens at every Mass, because it's a matter of course that every Sunday we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, our Lord and God, we can easily take it for granted. It's as much part of our life as electricity, and indeed that's how it should be. For us here in London, anyway, we're more likely to suffer a power-cut than suddenly to be deprived of Mass. And that makes it all the more easy to take the Eucharist for granted.

But the trouble with taking things for granted is that we can become a bit indifferent, and so fail to enjoy them as much as we might. Children have a lot to teach us here - their gift for perceiving so many things as miracle and wonder makes them enjoy life a lot more than many of us do. And maybe that's also why traditional peoples in poor countries have such a gift for festivals, and are so hospitable - if you don't have much, then when something special does happen, you really celebrate it.

What about the people in today's Gospel? They don't understand what Jesus is about - he does not want to become a secular ruler who provides endless free meals. They have not gone beyond the surface in finding out the truth about him. But it will be to their credit in next week's Gospel that they come after him - because they want more from Jesus. Even if what they most obviously want is more free food, there is a deeper desire at work in them - the desire for God's love, the desire for eternal life.

Because Jesus has left them - because he has passed over to the other side - they will come and seek him out. So if sometimes God feels a long way from us, or if Mass has become a rather ordinary and humdrum affair for us, let's actively seek the Lord out, and ask him for more.

Equally, we might think about preparing for the Eucharist each Sunday. I know that idealistic preachers sometimes tell us to arrive early and spend some time in prayer before Mass, or read through the Sunday readings the night before. The reality of getting children to church and sorting everything else out may mean that's a bit unrealistic for most of us. But I suggest we can all manage, however we do it, to fast a little before Mass. Nothing dramatic here - all we're meant to do is to abstain from food an hour before Holy Communion. Not because there's anything wrong with food, but because putting off for a little bit the marvellous pleasure of food really helps us to focus, without being distracted, on the wonderful miracle of the Eucharist in which we're about to take part. Jesus used to fast, and so did his disciples.

Obviously it doesn't follow that the more you fast the closer you will get to God - that is a very dangerous idea, and forgets that food is one of the good things God gives us! But a sensible, manageable fast is just one of the ways we can free ourselves up to seek Jesus as He really is, and to find the happiness that he wants to give us, and pass it on to others. So let us seek the Lord, and seek him with all our hearts - and enjoy the miracle and wonder that he wants to give us.

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