Readings of the Day
It was the world premiere of a new piece of music. One of the great composers of his day had a new work for chorus and orchestra, and the city of Vienna was buzzing in anticipation. The composer had a difficult time organizing the performance: there was trouble getting a hall for starters, then difficulty in getting an orchestra and a chorus. They ended up with a pick-up orchestra, a group recruited almost individual by individual, which is usually the last thing you want to do in organizing a performance. Many of them weren’t professional musicians, just people who admired the composer and pitched in, although when the music got difficult they stopped playing and waited until they got to a part they could play. The chorus parts were difficult and the soloists had trouble with their parts. They only had two rehearsals for the concert, and that was only enough to play through the music a couple of times. There ended up being four different conductors at the performance, and by the way, did I tell you that Beethoven, who acted as the main conductor, was mostly deaf at the time?
The first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was probably one of the worst it has ever received. It was far from a fiasco. In those days, there was a censor at all concerts to stop applause, because the emperor was supposed to receive the longest ovations. That night, the crowd refused to listen to the shouts to stop. It was something unique in music history, and it happened with a group of people who weren’t sure of what they were doing or how they were going to get it done or even if they were doing anything worthwhile.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus presents his disciples with a seemingly impossible task. They are on the run: John the Baptist has just been put to death and everyone must have wondered if Jesus were going to say or do something that would get them into the same kind of trouble. They followed Jesus away from civilization, not to a barren place, but somewhere off in the sticks, well away from any village. At the end of the day, it’s time to eat, and there’s nothing in sight. The disciples turn to Jesus, saying: “What are we going to do? We’ve got to punt; there’s no way we can take care of everybody. Send them away, and let everybody fend for themselves.” It makes sense; there’s nothing else that can be done, right? But Jesus has another answer, as usual. Jesus tells them that they have what they need to feed everybody. Imagine how that must have gone down. “No, no, you must be crazy. We can’t do that. We don’t have what it takes. It’s impossible”
Jesus quickly shows them that it’s not impossible. He shows the disciples that they can do it. Like a lot of stories, it tells about a situation that existed many years after the beginning of the Church, when the Gospel was written. The number of 5,000 was probably about the number of Christians there were in the world at the time the Gospel was written. Having them sit down to a meal in groups of 50 to 100 were probably the number of people who were in the small communities that made up the Church in those days, and the fact that bread plays a big role in the meal has a reference to the Eucharist. The feeding of the multitude told the followers of Jesus that by following His example under the leadership of the disciples, there would be enough. Whatever might happen, they had what they needed in their midst to take care of the world. Some commentators say that the people in the multitude brought forth what they had to share to help feed the great number, but it is through Jesus’ blessing of their work that this happened, and whether the people there were able to share or not, I don’t think that’s the main point of the story. The point is that with Jesus’ blessing there will be enough.
We gather here today to be fed by Christ. It’s easy to wonder whether what we have will be enough for a world in trouble. We may feel inadequate to the task of discipleship, just as some of the musicians Beethoven hired to play the Ninth Symphony felt that they were in over their heads. For us, the issue isn’t whether we play all the right notes. It isn’t the issue of having the great answer to the great questions, or being enough people to swim upstream against the current of popular opinion which would lead us in different directions than Christ would have us go. We ask Jesus to bless the Bread and Wine, to bless us and what we do in response to the Gospel. What is important is to remember than when we go out to feed the world the food that it needs at Jesus’ command, it will be enough.