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Eighteenth Sunday of the Year

Mirable of Multiplication

For today's gospel the Church has selected the episode of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. All the evangelists present this event as a miracle. This is important. It stakes out the claim that we are not dealing here simply with a human phenomenon. It draws attention to the divine power at work.

We've all seen a road sign that means 'men at work'. A miracle is a sign that says 'God at work'. Only if some kind of direct involvement of the Creator in his creation is going on could a miracle be possible.

But the occurrence of a miracle doesn't as yet tell us what God is at work to do, what his purpose is, what the new truth is which the miracle is helping to convey, why - in a deeper sense - the miracle is significant.

Road signs, signposts, flashing signals on the railway are useful things, even invaluable things, but they have a stereoptyped meaning. They get their meaning from the system of transport and communications of which they're part. We don't say, 'A signpost! Goodness, how life-transforming!', or, 'A signal at a level-crossing! I must change my existence, my outlook on the world!'

But by contrast with this there are some signs in human affairs that don't belong to any system, because they define themselves precisely by standing out over against a system, a predictable background.

Some breakthrough in human relationships, for instance, can be signalised by a dramatic gesture that breaks the deadlock and takes the whole thing up to a new, higher, better, plane of reconciliation and amity. Then one party sees the other party in a new way, a way that makes everything different for ever afterwards.

The miracles of Scripture are not only signposts in the sense of the highway code. They are signs that are dramatic gestures, telling us that what God is working at is novel, unexpected, extraordinary, breath-taking.

Unfortunately, we don't have one English word that stands for this aspect of miracles as acts of God that draw the world out of a previous system onto a new level of divine-human relations. Latin, however, does have a word for them. It calls them God's mirabilia, his wonderful works, actions so stupendous and comprehensive, so much re-setting the terms of our place in the universe, that even miracles can only be signals, signposts for them. Let us agree, then, to call them mirables.

What, then, is the mirable that today's miracle is for? The mirable to which today's gospel points is God's decision to make himself - to make his own life - the food of man.

As St Matthew presents it, Jesus is a new Moses, presiding in the desert at a feast for the poor. From among the illiterate masses, 'the crowd', God is forming at the hands of his Son a company of guests at his table. He is going to make himself humanity's nourishment, man's satisfaction.

He is not going to do this in favour only of clever people or of highly spiritual people, much less for the sake of important people. He will do it for everyone who will accept with humility his gift of himself, accept it with an expression of hunger for it, of basic need.

And so it should in fact be more easily appreciated by the disadvantaged, the uneducated, the failures, the forgotten, the tramps outside the door. That is why the Church is what the German theologians call a volkskirche, a popular Church, and not a network of intense little specialised high-level cells, intent on their committees and group discussions.

When will this mirable happen? Ultimately, the mirable of God's feeding us with himself will happen in the future, in glory, when by the Holy Spirit we shall see the exalted Jesus Christ face to face as who he is - God from God, Light from Light - but in a human form, in a humanly accessible way. We shall see him as God's very life poured out for us and into us, and we shall be supremely satisfied by that vision.

But secondly, and so in a subordinate way, the mirable is also happening now, in the time of the Church and her sacraments. In the Holy Eucharist we receive the sacramental foretaste of the food of heaven, the nourishment that heaven is.

O sacred Banquet, in which Christ is received,
the memory of his passion is renewed,
the mind is filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory is given to us.

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