A reflection drawn from Mt. 14:13-21.
One day Jesus learns that his cousin, John, has been beheaded in one of Herod’s prison cells. The news has a profound impact on him. Aside from Mary and Joseph, no one understood Jesus’ mission as well as John. No one had labored as actively in that mission as John. Jesus needs some space. He withdraws to a deserted place, presumably to pray, to take stock of the situation, to draw strength from the Father who is always there, in the desert.
Jesus seeks solitude but the people seek Jesus. They catch wind of where he is and follow him on foot from their towns. A crowd gathers. As ever, Jesus is moved by their needs, by their sick, by their thirst for God. He greets them. He heals many. He preaches and teaches by his mere presence.
Evening comes. The disciples think sensible thoughts. It’s late. They are probably tired. They think the people should move along now. Go to the nearby towns. Get some food. They tell Jesus what they are thinking.
He has a different idea:
“There is no need for them to go away,” he says. “You feed them.”
This simple phrase gives us our light for the week. There are something like 5,000 people gathered here. More when you count the women and children. So Jesus has just told his disciples to feed more than 5,000 people. Pause and take that in; put yourself in the shoes of the disciples. It’s nonsense what Jesus is asking. It’s impossible. Feed 5,000 people when you have made no prior preparations to do so?
Why would Jesus ask the impossible of his disciples?
They gently object: “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” They think that will settle the argument.
Jesus is unfazed. “Bring them here to me,” he says. Bring me the loaves and the fish.
You know the story. He takes those few loaves and fish, raises his gaze to heaven, blesses the food, breaks the bread, then gives it to the disciples. The disciples in turn take the blessed bread – this foreshadowing of the Eucharist – and they distribute it to the people. Somehow the bread keeps burgeoning, like the water from the rock, like the manna from heaven. All eat, all are satisfied and there are 12 baskets of fragments left over.
I want to focus on one particular aspect of this story: Jesus makes his disciples confront the impossible; makes them pass through the veil of the impossible. Why do it that way? What is going on here?
Well, I ask myself: Have I ever seen the soul of a disciple confronted with the impossible before? Let’s review some history.
God called Abraham. Said he would be the father of a great multitude. Said that this blessing would pass through his only son, Isaac. Then Isaac is born in Abraham’s old age and God calls Abraham to sacrifice his only son. Abraham has to pass through the veil of the impossible (Gen. 22).
Joseph was favored by God with two dreams as a young child; these dreams foretold he would be a mysterious blessing to his family. Then his brothers, in a jealous rage, sell him into slavery after which he is falsely and unjustly imprisoned for over a decade. Joseph has to pass through the veil of the impossible (Gen. 37-45).
Moses was called by God to lead his people out of slavery. He obeys despite his reservations and the difficulties of the path. He succeeds in freeing the people from Pharoah’s grip only to be trapped, at the very beginning of their journey, between the Red Sea and the advance of Pharoah’s army. Moses is faced with the impossible (Ex. 14).
Gideon is called by God to rescue his people from the Midianites. God trims his army down to a minuscule fighting force – just 300 men against a myriad of mighty Midianites. No way they can win this battle, so it would seem. Gideon must pass through veil of the impossible (Judges 6-7).
David, while still a young man, is sent by his father to visit his brothers on the military front. He learns of a major menace to his people, the Philistine army and their invincible giant, Goliath. No one is willing to confront the impossible, to confront Goliath. But David, a man after God’s heart, does so. He passes through the veil of the impossible (1 Sam 17).
One day Peter hears Jesus preach to the crowds from his boat. He had fished all night the previous night and caught nothing. Then, in the heat of the very next day, Jesus tells him to put out into the deep water and lower his nets for a catch. Peter doubts, but he obeys. Peter passes through the impossible (Lk. 5).
There is a clear thread here. At the heart of a disciple’s path toward God is this passage through the veil of the impossible. Why?
I think it’s this: what looks to us to be impossible is actually a crossroads of mind and heart. Something happens here. When the soul stands before the impossible, when we pass through the impossible because God calls us there, God performs a kind of spiritual surgery; He brings about a kind of transformation in the psyche.
Before the impossible, we encounter that which our own minds cannot unravel, we come upon a path that we cannot ascend with our own powers. There are only two options. We can leave Jesus, like the rich young man, convinced that what he has asked is impossible. Or we can follow. We can assent to a light that is higher than our own, higher than what we can conceive through our human intelligence.
It is an act of metanoia that God asks of the soul. An act of the nous. An act of spiritual intelligence. In these moments, God is calling us to leave our thoughts and assent to the thought of God. To open ourselves to receive the nous Christou, the mind of Christ: an intelligence illuminated by divine intelligence; a heart empowered by divine dunamis.
When we do so, we discover that what is impossible to man is possible to God.
Lord Jesus, I think of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, David and Peter. I see that you sometimes draw your disciples to pass through the veil of the impossible. So that they might undergo a metanoia. So they might leave behind the thoughts of men and assent to the thought of God. Assent to the nous Christou. Amen. Where you lead me I will go. Have mercy on me.