The miracle of five loaves and the pandemic of hunger

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon

God’s Blessings upon all the human family. Let the healing hand of God continue to touch each one of us. We await the day of total cure of this planet. We continue our imploring our Lord on our knees. If an invincible virus could shake the world, we strongly believe our faith, even of the size of a mustard seed could move and melt the COVID mountains.

Our prayers to all of you. Stand firm, the Lord works every minute for us, even when we are not aware. He is our miracle maker.

On this Sunday, the readings turn our attention to the problem of hunger and the miracle of the multiplication of five loaves and two fish to feed more than five thousand people. That story is so moving when we read in the background of the ravages of COVID. 

Hunger the more Lethal Virus

Starvation is the new virus during COVID. Hunger the permanent pandemic. Already around the world, 821 million people do not have enough of the food they need to live an active, healthy life. One in every nine people goes to bed hungry each night. Now, organizations like Oxfam say the Hunger Virus will attack more than 122 million people. At least 12,000 people will die of hunger everyday if the COVID continues. COVID kills about 6,000 to 9,000 every day. Hunger will kill more every day.

The Gospel says the reaction of Jesus when he saw people starving: “His heart was moved with pity for them.” His heart would be broken today when he sees millions, especially children going hungry. Lockdown has closed livelihood opportunities for the poor, daily wage earners and farmers. There cannot be a lockdown for hunger. The stomach never has a lockdown for human beings. Stomach is the most dangerous organ in the body. Starvation can make people become slaves and lose all their dignity.

Today’s Gospel tells us that Jesus felt the stomach-wrenching hunger of the people. Jesus saw the crowd and ordered his disciples to “Give some food to them.”  

The same words resonate as a challenge to each one of us: “Give some Food to them.” To the millions whose food was deprived by a virus, to the 12,000 whose precarious conditions may bring them death, Jesus says: Give some food to them.

Already poverty kills nearly 20,000 children in poor countries. A rough estimate of death by hunger — caused by poverty and now COVID — would result in at least 10 million deaths a year — more than COVID sickness death.

This is a silent hunger genocide as dreadful as world war victims numbers! 

What is in short supply? Not a food shortage. But a shortage of Justice. 

As Pope Francis has agonizingly pointed out, humanity suffers because of an overdose of “the culture of indifference and a culture of waste.” This paradox involves mechanisms of superficiality, negligence and selfishness that underlie the culture of waste. Even in Myanmar tons of vegetables and fruits were thrown away near the borders whilst thousands faced grim prospects of starvation. Hunger overshadows COVID-19 for Yangon’s Poorest.

One third of all food produced is wasted when millions starve. The amount of food lost or wasted costs US$2.6 trillion annually and is more than enough to feed all the 815 million hungry people in the world — four times over. Even amidst all these wailing by hungry stomachs, multinational food companies have made a huge profit. During the COVID carnage, eight of the biggest food and beverage companies pay out US$18 billion to shareholders as new epicenters of hunger emerge across the globe. Hunger is a lucrative business.

Food and Christian Faith Journey

Food is not only a biological function for the Christian. It has deep faith ramifications. The first blessings of God to the first parents came through food:

Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food” (Gen. 1:29).

This blessing was followed by the heart-wrenching betrayal of our first parents through — Fruit.  

When God liberated the Israeli slaves from Egypt, it would happen through a paschal meal. God fed them with Manna in their wanderings until they reached the promised land.

Christ would use the symbol of food in his mission. "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." (Jn 6:51). He promised those who give a cup of water to the thirsty (Mk 9:41) and food to the hungry (Mt 25: 31) would merit eternal life. He multiplied loaves and fed thousands. In the institution of the Eucharist he would proclaim: Take and Eat This is My body. Take and Drink this is my Blood. (Mt 26:26) Ultimately he would break himself as the bread on the cross as our paschal lamb as St Paul affirms: "Christ our Passover Lamb was sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7). 

In the Catholic Church, food is the center of our faith celebration. The Eucharist is the source and summit of our Catholic Faith. (CCC 1324). We come to celebrate the meal of liberation and salvation. 

Sadly, COVID has thrown a challenge to our communal breaking of the bread and Word. But we are inspired by Our Lord Jesus example. The world has become the altar, our breaking of the bread is done in our reaching out to suffering people through service and sharing. The Eucharist continues in other forms.

But the words of consecration continue to challenge us: Once a priest who lived in war areas told me: I find it so difficult to say the consecration words “Take and Eat” — because hundreds of my people do not have anything to eat. Yes  during these COVID ravage, when 122 million will go without food, when nearly 12,000 will die of hunger, the words “Take and Eat” throw a great challenge.

God has already given us Five loaves and two fish: Time to Multiply

We shall go back to the gospel of today. What are the five loaves? What are the two fish. If we understand this in our context, we can still boldly say the words “Take and Eat.” We are not Jesus. We cannot multiply loaves. But on a deeper reflection, we realize that God has given each one of us  “five loaves and two fish.”

The five loaves are our five senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. Through these, we can multiply our good actions hundred and thousands time and reach out to millions. Remember Mother Teresa: her loaf of love was multiplied and given to millions. Let us multiply our five loaves  during these hard times:

  1. Let my eyes see everyone as my brother and sister created in God’s image.
  2. Like Yahweh, let my ears hear the cry of the suffering people.
  3. Let me taste and see that the Lord is good and asks me to go out to his people
  4. Let me go to the suffering people and come back with the smell of the sheep.
  5. Let my hands reach out and touch those who starve and are ill.

The two fish are the two qualities we are asked to cultivate as true Christian. Compassion (Karuna) and Mercy (Metta) (Lk 3:36).  Be compassionate and merciful as our heavenly Father is compassionate and merciful. ( Lk 6:36) We can multiply our good acts. We are already given five fish (five senses) and two fish. (Two Christian Virtues of Compassion and mercy). We can multiply our good acts to thousands of people. 

Like Jesus, we can share the bread of healing, the bread of sharing, the bread of comforting, the bread of love and justice. Let the streets become the altar. Let our good acts become the loaves of bread. Let thousands benefit from these loaves of bread of good acts. 

With Peter we can proclaim to our suffering brothers and sisters: Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk

The world and the five loaves and two fish

During these COVID times, God is getting a bad name from those cynics who do not believe in God and asking the nagging question: Where is God? And worse than these atheists are the end time fake preachers who preach a gospel of doom implying COVID is the punishment of God before the second coming.

Those who do not count the blessings of God are like the men castigated by prophet Jeremiah: “Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear.” (Jeremiah 5:21)

After creation, the Creator God, blessed Adam with all blessings. He blessed him to “Go and multiply.” Even after the Fall, God did not abandon Adam.

God has given to humanity Five Great Loaves that has been multiplying and sustaining the whole creation for millions of years.   

These five loaves are:  Land, water, air, fire and aether. The human body is made of these elements, all the flora and fauna are made of these elements, nature is made of these elements. 

Graced by God and sanctified by God’s blessings, these elements have been feeding and providing everything human beings need. Earth and Water multiply the food and sustain billions of our people and animals. The air keeps us alive. The fire keeps our civilization going.   

God blessed the creation, found it good and asked the man to “As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.”

As Gandhi  said, God gave everything for man’s needs not for his greed. God has provided everything. The whole world is a Garden of Eden. As the responsorial psalm affirms:

The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs. ( Ps 145)

Greed took over humanity. Millions are exploited, thousands die of starvation every day. There is not only a coronavirus that is ravaging humanity today. The virus of avarice, the virus of exploitation, the virus of hunger, the virus of oppression is destroying humanity. Human suffering is a man-made disaster. As St Paul indicates in the second reading Anguish, distress, persecutions, famine, peril, and nakedness have mutilated the human family. COVID is just a symptom of the churning malice.

In stem the slide to inhumanity, Pope Francis suggests two Fish: Economic Justice and Environmental Justice. Yes, for too long, Justice was in short supply and the biggest social sin is the exploitation of the economy and nature by a minuscule minority of mega-rich. 

Christ’s miracle of the multiplication of loaves has very contemporary relevance. This world needs SHARING. The coronavirus came as a slap on the face of all “superpowers,” those who invested more on arms than on the health of the people. The invisible virus has become the invincible virus, bringing the superpowers of the world to its knees. Let us pray for a more Just world and pray with Prophet Amos who said:

Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Amos 5: 24

All blessings.

Homily of Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar, on Sunday, August 2, 18th Sunday of the Year