God’s providence and compassion: sermon on the sixth Sunday after Pentecost

“If I shall send them away fasting to their home, they will faint in the way.”

This gospel of the feeding of the four thousand illustrates the providence of God over our lives. Providence is that divine attribute by which God governs the creation that He has made. Since He is perfectly wise and perfectly powerful, not a single thing that happens in creation is outside His knowledge or His control. Since He is perfectly good, He governs all that happens for the benefit of His rational creatures, that is, us human beings, and especially for the sake of His friends. “All things work together for good, for those who love God.”

We shouldn’t be surprised to find our Lord exemplifying this divine attribute of providence during His earthly life. As He says somewhere, “The Son can do nothing but what he sees the Father do.” Christ saw His Father’s providence over creation, how His Father made the sun to rise on the just and the unjust, how He feeds the birds even though they don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, and so, as a faithful Son, He imitates this providence. Jesus has a fatherly care for the multitude who are following Him, and who having been with Him now for three days, find themselves in the wilderness with nothing to eat. “I have compassion on the multitude,” He says, for behold they have now been with me three days.”

Of course, not long before this, He Himself had spent 40 days in the wilderness with nothing to eat. But He doesn’t expect the same degree of abstinence from people in general; He has compassion on their weakness. So, He shows His providence by working a miracle of multiplication. It is the second multiplication of bread and fish; the first was the five thousand in the lush country around the Sea of Galilee, but this is for four thousand, and in the wilderness.

Now, as always, this gospel also has another lesson, beyond that which appears on the surface. In fact, it has many lessons, but the one I want to mention is the need for divine grace if we are to reach heaven. “Behold,” He says, “I have compassion on the multitude; if I shall send them away fasting to their home, they will faint in the way.” What is our home? St Paul tells us the answer, when he says: “We would rather be away from the body, and at home with the Lord.” Our home is heaven; but like the multitude in the desert, we don’t have the strength to reach it. Our natural powers are not enough to get to that heavenly home; we will faint on the way. Whoever tries to keep all the commandments and to stay true to God until the end of his life without the help of divine grace is like a person who tries to run a marathon in the heat of the day without taking any water. He will faint; sooner or later, he will fall into sin.

That’s why the providence of God is at hand to supply to us not only what we need for our body, but also and above all, what we need for the soul. When I say the Dominican rite of Mass, I have to begin at the altar with a silent prayer that says: “Precede our actions, O Lord, by Thy breathing, and carry them out by Thy help.” The priest says this prayer because he wants to say Mass well. But we can use this same prayer in any number of situations. “Precede our actions, O Lord, by Thy breathing, and carry them out by Thy help.” God’s breathing means the grace of the Holy Spirit. Unless divine grace goes before us, we shan’t even be able to desire to carry out God’s will, let alone actually accomplish it.

Our Lord told the apostles at the Last Supper: “Without me you can do nothing. ”They didn’t deny it, or dispute it. All the same, I don’t think that at that stage in their lives they were fully convinced of it. If they had been, surely they would have prayed more earnestly not to be led into temptation, and then they wouldn’t all have run away from Christ when He was arrested. To be fully convinced of our need for grace, it seems to me, is itself a grace from God. Some of the saints had this grace to a high degree. St Philip Neri used to pray, “Lord, look out for Philip, or else he will certainly let you down.” Sometimes he even used to pray, “Lord, watch out for Philip, or else he might become a Muslim.”

Our Lord illustrates both the natural and this supernatural providence of God by the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The natural providence, because He provides the food which the people need for their weary bodies, so that they will be able to make the journey back to their homes in Galilee or the Decapolis or wherever else it may be. His supernatural providence, since this bread is a symbol of the Holy Eucharist, which, along with prayer, is our main means of seeking for God’s grace throughout our lives, just as the Israelites were fed with manna throughout their 40 years of wandering in the desert. 

But finally, notice that there is a reason why Christ works the two miracles of multiplication of the loaves in slightly different ways each time. Although we are always going to be dependent on divine grace to persevere, we can still hope to grow in union with God during our lives on earth. This second miracle symbolises the progress we can hope to make. Last time when He multiplied the loaves, it was in quite a comfortable setting, by the lake-side, where there was much grass, and for a crowd who had not gone far from human habitation. This time, it is for a smaller group, who are fasting in the desert. The more we can abandon ourselves to the providence of the Blessed Trinity over our lives, the more we too will find that we can do without. May God grant us all this grace of relying on His grace alone.