Homily for Mass for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 2 August 2020
Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, for the Solemn Mass of the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Some have gathered here at the cathedral and many more are joining us by livestreaming. I ask you to join me in continuing to praying for those who have died from COVID-19 this week past, the sick and those caring for them, the anxious or at risk, those who are suffering economically and those leading us through this crisis.
To everyone present, physically or virtually, a very warm welcome to you all!
Where to from here?
For some, this pandemic-enforced retreat has been an opportunity to connect more deeply with family and God – to give time to conversation and prayer so often crowded out by the busyness of our lives. Many have maintained their connection to Mass and parish by live-streaming; others, who can’t normally come to Mass, have enjoyed Mass coming to them at home. But when at last we can all return to Mass, will many have lost the habit and be seen no more at church? Or will there be a resurgence of attendance, as happened after the pandemic a century ago? Time will tell.
Clearly some people miss the experience of community at Mass, their union with Christ’s mystical Body the Church; not being able to congregate physically has been isolating for them. Others miss the experience of communion at Mass, their union with Christ’s sacramental Body the Eucharist; not being able to receive Him has been a terrible loss for them. For all sorts of reasons – social and emotional, moral and spiritual – we miss congregating in our usual way. This is the ecclesial consciousness: that salvation is not just between God and me; it’s through and with others I am saved and God is mediated; through community and communion.
Yet so much of life is now ‘virtual’. We meet by Zoom, research by Google, socialise by FaceBook, discuss on WhatsApp, learn from podcasts, worship via YouTube. Not only does on-line keep the bug away, it saves on commuting, allows more interactions, and is more comfortable than a pew! Do we really need to be at Mass in person?
“Come to the water,” God says in our first reading today (Is 55:1-3), come be baptized. Come to the table, for the Bread that satisfies and the Wine beyond price. It’s through such physical proximity that spiritual blessings flow. This is the sacramental consciousness: that through physical realities like oil and water, bread and wine, incense and vestments, ritual, music and architecture, bodily creatures like us are joined to spiritual realities like God. Blessings, like messages, can be delivered even virtually; but sacraments require physical or ‘moral’ presence.
In our Gospel today (Mt 14:13-21) the crowd seeks Jesus out. Just hearing reports about Him is not enough. They leave the comfort and security of their homes, pursuing Him even into the wilderness. They want to see and hear and touch Him. And they get more than they bargained for…
On seeing the hungry crowd Jesus gives His disciples three simple commands. First, He says, “Give them something to eat yourselves”. Those words are for us. Australians respond generously to crises like bushfires and pandemic; we should be equally responsive to the crisis of faith in our community. Yet like those first disciples we wonder: “What can I really do about it? The problem is so great, my resources so small.” Jesus’ answer is very simple: start where you are, with what you’ve got, if only some bread and fish. Don’t worry if you don’t have the right degree, or billions of dollars, or political clout. You’ve got what it takes: a heart and hands, and God by your side.
So now Jesus gives us a second direction: “Bring what you have to Me to multiply.” Be generous and leave the rest to God. What transforms our ordinary giving into works of divine charity is that God receives our bread and fish, our time and talents, given in service to others and makes them really fruitful.
Finally, Jesus says, “Now distribute to the world.” Jesus’ disciples must offer their gifts become His words, His food, His life given to the multitude.
Which brings us back to ecclesial gathering and sacramental proximity. Jesus doesn’t address the crowd virtually: no, He gathers them around Him. And He doesn’t send His miraculous gifts by drone: the disciples minister them in person.
The gathering, offering, blessing, breaking, distributing and collecting: it’s a premonition, of course, of the Eucharist. At His Last Supper Jesus will again congregate with His friends. He’ll wash their feet. John will recline at His breast. Jesus will offer them not just thoughts or symbols but His own Body and Blood. He could not be more immediate, more intimate, than to give His substance to ours. This is truly the God-who-comes-close.
The Eucharist is, of course, a sharing in the one sacrifice of Calvary. Mother Mary, John and the holy women could have stayed home and prayed from the comfort of their lounge rooms; instead they stood by the cross and accompanied to the tomb. And there at Easter Day they discovered what Paul says in his Epistle today and what the Church has never tired of proclaiming: that “neither death nor life, angel or prince, nothing now or ever, no height or depth, no power or creature, nothing can come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Rom 8:35-9)
Ours is a God-come-close religion, a come-close-to-God religion, sacramental, ecclesial, up close and personal. “That which was from the beginning,” John said, “which we have heard” with our own ears, “seen with our own eyes… touched with our own hands — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” (1Jn 1:1) Because we are bodily, God became bodily. Because we are hungry, God became food. Because we are substantial, God lends His substance. No virtual reality, or spiritual feeling, or ghostly presence: God in the flesh, body-and-blood, for us to receive.
Our pandemic-enforced retreat has highlighted that there’s more to life than keeping alive and affluent. Other things like family and friends, arts and entertainments, issues of justice or service, the worship of God – such things also matter and matter very much. Our long fast, not for the Eucharist but from it, has shone a spotlight on our common life and worship. Now we may better appreciate the personal connection the Mass occasions with our God and our fellows.
Which is not to say that God’s grace can’t reach us if we’re not in His house! No, as St. Paul makes so clear to us today, nothing can come between us and the love of Christ. But if ever there were an example of a physical proximity sort of guy it was Paul himself. He travelled far and wide to get close to others and bring them close to Christ. He preached the Word to them. He brought them to the waters of Holy Baptism, and to that satisfying Bread and priceless Wine of the Eucharist. Not just out of habit, or obligation, or warm feeling: but in response to the God-who-comes-close. Nothing but our own neglect can come between us and the love of Christ.
Do we really need to return to Mass in person when it’s safe to do so?
“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when,” the late great Dame Vera Lynn sang and the Queen recently repeated. We’ll meet again, soon I hope, at the altar of God: let us never get used to not doing so!
ANNOUNCEMENT IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE AGNUS DEI
Because current circumstances continue to impede attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion, I invite those who are joining us by live-streaming to ask God that by spiritual communion you might receive the graces of sacramental communion. Offer this Mass and your hunger for the Eucharist for the safety of your loved ones, of yourselves and of our world.
 See Dominic Langevin OP, “Why we can’t confess over zoom,” First Things 3 April 2020 https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/04/why-we-cant-confess-over-zoom