“I have compassion on the multitude”
It must seem strange in the sultry heat of the quiet summer and in the lush richness of nature’s bounty in the beauty and peace of the valley, to hear about sin and death and about being in the wilderness with nothing to eat. Perhaps, such things merely confirm our current prejudices and biases about religion as something negative and threatening, judgmental and hateful.
To the contrary, it seems to me, these rich and wonderful lessons open out to us things that we need to hear and to hear in the context of the Eucharist, things which have to do with a larger, more complete and more honest view about human life. Ultimately, it is about life with God in Jesus Christ, something of lasting worth and meaning in which we participate here and now. To put it more simply, there is a spiritual and scriptural wisdom here which challenges the all-too-easy complacencies and certainties of our ordinary lives. The culture of full bellies and empty souls faces the deep and great question about what it means to be human. The spiritual and biblical view is that it has altogether to do with the dynamic of our life with God. This is wonderfully illustrated in the Collect, Epistle and Gospel for today .
“The free gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ,” St. Paul tells us. “I have compassion on the multitude,” Jesus says. These are the strong positives of our spiritual life that speak directly and profoundly to the human condition and to the primacy of thanksgiving “at all times and in all places,” as our liturgy puts it, emphasizing in a phrase the freest and truest aspect of redeemed humanity. They are profoundly suggestive of the dynamic of our spiritual life expressed sacramentally in terms of Baptism, on the one hand, and Communion, on the other hand, that capture the distinctive interplay between the theological themes of justification and sanctification; or more simply put, Christ for us and Christ in us. As Richard Hooker notes: “we receive Christ Jesus in baptism once as the first beginner, in the eucharist often as being by continual degrees the finisher of our life” (Lawes, Bk.V, ch. LVII), suggesting exactly how Christ is “Alpha and Omega,” something which even the architecture of our churches often reveals. You need only look up and marvel at the Alpha and Omega beams of Christ Church and of many other Maritime Churches in the Carpenter Gothic style. The idea belongs to a basic and universal or catholic Christian understanding. Again, as Hooker notes: “nevertheless touching Baptism and the Supper of the Lord, we may with consent of the whole Christian world conclude they are necessary, the one to initiate or begin, the other to consummate or make perfect our life in Christ” (Lawes, Bk.V, ch. LXVII).
Baptism is about nothing less than our personal and individual incorporation into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, “being made free from sin and become servants to God.” To what end? That we may have our “fruit unto holiness and the end everlasting life.” Something which we cannot earn and do not deserve. It is not something to which we are entitled. No. It is “the free gift of God.” Yet, it is meant to be lived. If we have the beginning of our spiritual life personally and individually in Baptism, then we have the continuation and growth of that spiritual life in us through Holy Communion.
In a way, it is as simple as that. And as hard. Why? Because we have to think it and will it. We cannot take it for granted or assume that we deserve anything that is good.
I know. We have it so good. Full bellies, lots of toys and gadgets and things to amuse ourselves. That is just the problem. We are, I fear, and as the educator, Neil Postman, suggests in a book of the same title, simply “amusing ourselves to death.” And yet there is a deep fearfulness that lurks behind our complacencies and expectations; “fear in a handful of dust.” It has altogether to do with our arrogance and our ignorance: the arrogance that refuses to contemplate the spiritual principles that belong to human dignity on the premise of our own self-sufficiency and completeness; and the ignorance of the spiritual wisdom belonging to the institutions that shape human lives giving them purpose and direction. Left to ourselves, the biblical view suggests, we are “slaves to sin,” slaves to “the weakness of human nature,” offering our “bodily members to serve uncleanness and to iniquity after iniquity.” This is what we don’t want to hear – it seems so judgmental and negative. After all, we do enjoy all manner of good things, don’t we? The warmth of the summer that allows us to complain about the heat just as in winter we complain about the cold? No doubt we will now complain about the rain welcome as it is. A professor of mine had a poster: “We do not talk about the weather.” But of course we often do.
Well, we do enjoy all manner of good things. But the spiritual wisdom here is that we do not properly enjoy anything that is good unless we acknowledge, as the Collect puts it, “the author and giver of all good things.” Why? Because that is part and parcel of our human dignity, namely the capacity to acknowledge – not just to know passively but to know actively, naming our knowing, if you will, or to put it another way, knowing that we know God is “the author and giver of all good things.” This is what our lives of prayer and praise are about, especially sacramentally. The idea of giving thanks is utterly important; our service in the heart of its mystery is “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”.
Our lives are lived in the wilderness, to be sure, in the awareness of our insufficiency and our incompleteness in and of ourselves; in short, our dissatisfaction, something which even Mick Jagger got right – “Can’t get no satisfaction!” The wisdom here is that human dignity is ultimately to be found in our life with God in Christ. It involves our whole being. The body is necessarily included in the equation of what it means to be human. “I have compassion on the multitude,” Jesus says. That compassion is about more than a picnic lunch in the park. It has to do with the fuller meaning of the Incarnation. God does not simply look down upon our wayward and meandering ways of arrogance and folly; in Christ he has entered into the human condition, become man for us, even made sin, in the sense of taking upon himself all that belongs to the disorders of our lives, but in order to redeem and restore us to fellowship with him and with one another. It is about far more than the provision of food in the wilderness. The fuller meaning of this as something spiritual is seen in the actions of Christ in taking the bread, giving thanks, breaking the bread, and giving the bread to the disciples to set before the multitude.
I don’t have to tell you about the obvious sacramental significance of this passage. Seen in the long, long light of the tradition of the Church, it is about nothing less than the continuing means of our participation in the life of God, given to us as a free gift through the sacrifice of Christ. By Baptism we are born anew or grafted into that divine life so freely given. But it is not to be taken for granted. “We do not presume to come to this thy table, trusting in our own righteousness” but only “in thy manifold and great mercies.” We are meant to live from it sacramentally.
“Prayer the Churches banquet,” as the poet, George Herbert, puts it, “Angels age,/ God’s breath in man returning to his birth,/ the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,” and goes on in a series of images about the banquet of prayer including “Exalted Manna,” – the bread of heaven – “gladnesse of the best.” The images capture something of the same richness and wonder that the Scriptures proclaim. We have only to live it with joy and thankfulness. It means being in the place where the Word is proclaimed and the Sacraments celebrated, “nourish[ed] with all goodness, and of thy great mercy [kept] in the same.” Such is the compassion of Christ. What he tells us is what he feels for us. It is what he wants to live in us.
“I have compassion on the multitude”
Fr. David Curry
Trinity VII, 2015
Christ Church, Windsor, St. Andrew’s, Hantsport.