Saturday in the 1st Week of Advent: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-26, Matthew 9:35-10:1, 5a, 6-8.
As I read today’s readings, I search for a synthesis in the Old Testament and New Testament readings. In general, this has been my method over the past year. It seems that the architects of our Catholic Lectionary have had several millennia to arrange readings not just seasonally but day-by-day in a way that helps to reveal to us the mysteries of our faith in important ways. Today, there are many themes to explore, from the richness of God’s promise to the use of agricultural imagery. In order to keep this reflection from ranging all over the place, I’d like to focus on one thing that strikes me the most: how God’s compassion is the moving force behind all of salvation, from His promises to the prophets to Christ’s coming to our ongoing work as the Church.
Isaiah proclaims this Word of God: “He will be gracious to you when you cry out, as soon as he hears he will answer you.” We can recognize this promise of responsive generosity throughout the Old Testament, and it is usually tied to the Old Covenant, which required the Jewish people to abide by God’s precepts and commandments. Isaiah continues, using an image that will be central to Christ’s sacramental sharing of Himself: “The Lord will give you the bread you need and the water for which you thirst.” Isaiah hears the Word of God, but the world does not yet understand the significance or the type of bread and water that God means. Christ will perfect this understanding when speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well: “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14). And the bread is likewise much more generous, much deeper, than earthly bread alone. We know that the sacramental Bread of Life is Christ’s very Body that we eat in the Eucharist, and Christ explains how His Body contains life-giving sustenance: “I have food to eat that you do not know about. … My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (Jn 4:32, 34). We partake in this heavenly food, which is in fact doing God’s will, when we take Christ into our own bodies (see If You Knew the Gift! for a longer reflection on this). Simply put, God’s generosity and purpose in giving is so much greater than we expect or can even imagine.
Isaiah then prophesies in a crystal clear way the coming of Christ: “No longer will your Teacher hide himself, but with your own eyes you shall see your Teacher, While from behind, a voice shall sound in your ears: ‘This is the way; walk in it,’ when you would turn to the right or to the left.” Let’s consider for a moment that this act of giving us a Teacher in human form is another compassionate response to something for which we deeply yearn. A person who loves God longs to see His face, to do His will, but the mystery of our invisible and silent God is often a stumbling block. God knows this and has compassion for our lowly condition, scrambling about in this world blindly. The Incarnation of Christ as a baby in Mary’s womb is an incredible act of compassion for humanity. God comes to Earth so that we can see Him, hear Him, touch Him, and sustain ourselves sacramentally on His Body and Blood throughout these End Times. There is no other reason but His love and compassion for His people, all of humanity.
And the second part of Isaiah’s prophecy above, where the voice of the Spirit tells us that “This is the way; walk in it,” is reported by St. John when Jesus tells Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (Jn 14:6-7). Jesus reiterates that He is the answer to humanity’s longing to see God here on earth, but there’s more. By being the way, the truth, and the life, Jesus is giving us access to the heavenly food he references in the episode of the woman at the well: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” So, what is the “bread you need” that the Lord gives us? This multi-faceted mystical food is both the body of His Son — uniting the spirit and the body, heaven and earthly needs — as well as an entire way of being that as Jesus tells us serves as sustenance for the body, too. This is the significance of Isaiah prophesying the Spirit saying “This is the way; walk in it” and of Jesus telling us “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” It’s not just a moral lesson! Yes, living in the Way of Christ inherently means good moral choices and upright living, but this Way is a mystical link to our trinitarian Lord, whose love sustains us, even biologically so! Here’s the great leap for modern minds ruled by scientific “laws.” Do we really believe that a way of living can sustain us biologically, even if that way is God’s Way? Well, I share your skepticism, being a child of modern times, too. But let’s consider our saints; that is, those who have come closest to actually living the Way of Christ. I’ll take one of our great Dominican saints as an example: St. Catherine of Siena. Her confessor and biographer, Blessed Raymond of Capua, writes in The Life of Saint Catherine of Siena:
After the virgin had had the first vision she was so full of the Holy Spirit that she went without food or drink for the whole of Lent until the feast of Our Lord’s Ascension; and yet despite this she was always bursting with life and happiness. … she was able to eat on Ascension Day, when she had wheaten bread and oil and vegetables. For it was not possible for any rich food to enter her stomach, either by natural or by supernatural means. When that day was over, however, she resumed her habitual fasting. Then she gradually reached a state of total abstinence almost unheard of in our times. But if her body took nothing, her spirit fed most sumptuously in its stead. While these things were happening, in fact, the holy virgin was devoutly receiving Holy Communion very frequently indeed, and on each occasion she was given so much grace that, with her bodily senses and all their inclinations thoroughly mortified, her soul and body were both equally nourished by the power of the Spirit. From this anyone with any faith must conclude that her life was wholly miraculous.
I myself have often seen that poor body, sustained by no more than a few glasses of cold water, reduced to such a state of exhaustion that we were all worried, imagining that she was about to die at any moment. Instead, as soon as any opportunity arose to honour the Divine Name, or do good to some soul, there would be a sudden wonderful change, and without the help of any medicine Catherine would regain all her life and strength and be strong and cheerful. She would get up, walk about, and go about her work as easily as the people who were with her and who were in good health: she did not know the meaning of fatigue.
I ask you: where did all this come from, if not from the Spirit who delights in such works? What could not be done by nature, He did by miracle. Is it not perfectly clear that it was He who gave strength to her soul and body? (155-156).
We see from Raymond the two sources of Catherine’s miraculous sustenance: the Body of Christ in the Eucharist and the Way of Christ in her prayer and good works. And don’t think this is some exaggeration by an eager biographer and friend — her lack of eating was so well documented and commented upon that she was ridiculed for it by many devout religious people, saying it was a trick of the Devil or her trying to seem holier than the rest of them while taking food on the sly. She wanted to keep others from their hateful thoughts, so she tried to eat tiny morsels when at dinner with them but Raymond tells us, “The holy virgin did not swallow any of the vegetables or other things that she masticated, for she spat out all the large bits; but because it was impossible for some little bits of food or juice not to go down into her stomach, and because she liked to drink fresh water to refresh her throat and jaws, she was obliged to throw up everything she had swallowed every day. … She did this throughout the rest of her life because of the grumblers, particularly those who were scandalized by her fasting” (162).
Let’s restrain ourselves from diagnosing some eating disorder or extreme food allergy here. Raymond details how Catherine had utterly given her thoughts, will, and soul into God’s hands. She was a saint by any measure, and lived the Way of Christ. There is ample evidence that she was sustained not only spiritually, but bodily by that Way.
My only point is that God’s generosity is so great that it goes deeper and farther than we even expect. Many people would just be happy with physical bread for a day. Others with pain in this life but happiness for eternity. But God gives us both, here and now, because the Reign of Christ has already begun and we have both His Body and His Way to sustain us spiritually and bodily – in this life and the next.
Caveat: I’m not suggesting that any of us try out the “St. Catherine Diet.” But this wordplay on diet fads tells us much about how we approach food, our bodies, and biology. The science of intake and output is a pathetic shadow of what’s important and lasting when it comes to our bodies on this earth. Jesus and the saints open up to us a new understanding of bodies in time, bodies and their interplay with spiritual food. I find this fascinating and inspiring, even if I doubt that I’ll ever experience it.
One of the lessons in this different way of looking at food is that, unlike today’s body-image-obsessed thinking, it operates on eschewing thoughts of oneself and thinking of others instead. This frees up our concern with our own bodies and using food simply for our own benefit. What, then, in this heavenly worldview, is food? Does it lose meaning? Is it just something we need and use in this life, but really holds no value? As a devoted home cook who loves food, this is a depressing thought!
I think an answer can be found in the use of harvest imagery by both Isaiah and Jesus in today’s readings. Isaiah proclaims, “He will give rain for the seed that you sow in the ground, And the wheat that the soil produces will be rich and abundant.” God’s life-giving water, the rain for the seed we sow, is His Son. He is the life! And He produces a rich and abundant harvest. How He goes about this is detailed in the Gospel. Matthew tells us, “he summoned his Twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to drive them out and to cure every disease and every illness. Jesus sent out these Twelve …” This is the establishment of the Church and the Way, where Jesus establishes a new Israel with 12 Apostles taking the place of the 12 tribes. God’s plan is to very overtly establish a new Way, Truth, and Life by having Christ work through his Apostolic Church. Christ bestows on them miraculous powers, making them adopted sons of God, allowing the love and action of the Trinity to flow through them. Could Christ have snapped His fingers and cured everyone in the Holy Land? Sure, but that wasn’t the Way that God had planned. The Way is important because we must “walk in it” in order to receive the grace and sanctification that prepares us to be in God’s presence for ever. Having us be active participants in the Way rather than doing it for us gives our lives meaning.
This higher meaning gives us focus beyond the immediate and beyond our individual bubble. It’s an outward turning rather than an inward turning. The gifts Christ bestows on the Apostles are meant to be used for the benefit of others, not for the benefit of the Apostles. He tells them to proclaim “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand” as they cure, resurrect the dead and drive out demons. (Just imagine the burning glow of Christ’s glory infusing them as His inexorable Reign begins in human history!) Importantly, though, He ends His instructions with, “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.” He knows the sad temptations humans have when granted power, to use it seeking personal glory. He reminds them that they have freely been graced with these miraculous powers and they should freely give them. The subtext is that the power is not theirs at all — it’s God’s. They must be turned outward towards their fellow human because this is God’s posture, always giving, always generous, always loving. They are the first to walk the Way of Christ, and it entails not just the doing but a pure, loving generosity of spirit.
But let’s get back to the harvest and what this heavenly perspective on food might be. Jesus invokes the now-famous saying “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few” before charging His Apostles with their mission. But what makes Him say this? Matthew tells us: “At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.” It is His overwhelming compassion for humanity that prompts Him. When we are ashamed of our sins or feel completely unworthy of God’s love, remember this! It is precisely our fallen state, our flailing about in temptation and sin, like sheep without a shepherd, that makes God want to help us. He not only knows all of our flaws, He is so overwhelmed with loving compassion to help us that He will do anything, including allowing His Son to be hung on a cross. Christ looks at the suffering and pathetic people and what is His response? Is it condemnation? No. Is it scolding? No.
It’s an excitement for a plentiful harvest.
Yes, this is so unexpected that we must slow down and take notice. To Christ, crowds of troubled people = abundant harvest. What logic is driving this? There is only one logic at work, the logic of love. Only love, which soothes trouble and heals deep wounds, would consider crowds of suffering, troubled, sinful people to be wheat to harvest. This is because love — God’s love in particular — isn’t just a nice emotion or a feel-good moment. It’s entirely transformative. This is demonstrated through healing lepers, raising the dead, etc., but the bodily miracle simply mirrors the deeper spiritual miracle. It’s deeper because bodies will eventually wear out and die, but the soul will last forever. God’s love transforms sinful souls, doomed to spend eternity away from God, into healthy, flourishing souls that will feed others spiritually as they walk the Way of Christ. I must imagine that this is why Christ sees a plentiful harvest in these crowds: because His transformative Way (which is itself sustenance) will create more food for others, multiplying its way around the globe.
Christ’s vision for humanity is a vision of glory. It is a perfecting vision; what we are called to be, feeding one another in the same way the Three Persons of the Trinity endlessly pour out their love for one another. Food, as we are starting to see, has a deeply multiplied meaning in this heavenly perspective. Food, of course, sustains our bodies; it is something coming from outside that nourishes us. God shows us that we can be food for others, too, in a similar way that Christ is for us (minus the Holy Eucharist). The concept of something-from-without-nourishing is evident as we are transformed from being inward-facing to being outward-facing. We become spiritual food for others, focused only on being a nourishing agent for them. We become travelers on the Way of Christ, joining in the great mystical Church, proving humanity with a new model of living, both here on earth and later in heaven.
Ideas about the use of harvest imagery in scripture have been rattling around in my head for some months now. I’m very happy to have begun to flesh out these thoughts in this reflection. I look forward to considering this more and more, hopefully coming to a greater understanding of how generosity and spiritual harvest are at the heart of the Way. More importantly, I can only pray for God’s grace to help me start to walk in the Way of Christ through my actions as well.