Christ the Teacher

A Meditation on Matthew 14:13-21

“His heart was moved with pity for them.”

This Gospel is so extraordinarily rich that we can hardly begin to do justice to it in a few pages. Jesus, upon hearing of the death of John the Baptist, withdraws to a deserted place to be alone, something which he habitually does. Certainly he feels sorrow and grief at the death of his cousin, and in the face of this event steps away from the crowds in order to immerse himself again in intimacy with the Father in prayer. It is here that he drew strength; indeed, much more, this intimacy with the Father is his very life-blood, the very essence of who he is as beloved Son of God. We can imagine him, laden with all the human pain, anxiety, and suffering that this event, and his entire ministry has laid upon him, laying his own head on the breast of his eternal Father. He abides here in prayer—indeed, through every moment of his life—drinking from the wellspring of his Father’s love, which is the never-ending source of his own identity, joy, and life. And here, too, he receives, in receiving all from the Father, the flame of loving compassion that bends down to the suffering of his brothers and sisters to whom he has united himself in his Incarnation.

We see this immediately in the text, for the crowds follow Jesus into his solitude, and, seeing them, his heart is moved with pity for them. The Greek word here expresses a profound, heartfelt or “gut” reaction of compassion: his insides turn within him. And so he returns to the people, he goes out to them because of pity. He ministers lovingly to them, even though himself exhausted. And, when the apostles recommend that he sends them away, that he “scatters the sheep” so that they can seek food for themselves, he shows himself to be the true shepherd, the magnet that draws them back to God, and in so doing unites them with each other. Yes, he receives bread and fish from the people, and raising his eyes to heaven, thanks his Father for this gift, for from the Father has it truly been received. And then he offers it to the hungry people, in order to satisfy their hunger. Surely, this is what occurs in the Most Holy Eucharist, here expressed in the twofold gesture of Christ.

So at this point we see two essential movements beginning to reveal themselves before our eyes with great clarity. This is important for us, since it is, as it were, the key to understanding who Jesus is, as well as for understanding who we are as children of God. The first movement is Jesus’ withdrawal into solitude in order to immerse himself in prayer, in intimacy with his Father. It is also expressed in his thanksgiving to his Father in prayer for the gift of bread, his reception of this gift before it is then given. The second movement is his return to humanity, aflame with loving compassion; it is his offering of the bread, a symbol of himself, which he has first received from the Father. In its deepest reality, the first movement is his filial acceptance of the gratuitous gift of the Father’s love. The second movement is his total gift of himself to us in the Father’s name.

And yet these two movements are not of equal primacy. Rather, the first movement enfolds the second within itself and alone gives it meaning and value. Christ comes into the world from and for the Father, yet moved also by his own deepest desire for us and for our salvation, a desire enkindled in him by the radiant vision and ineffable intimacy that is his with the Father in the bosom of the Trinity for all eternity. In the Trinity, he is nothing but the beloved Son, drinking forever from the Father’s breast, receiving eternally his perfect gift. Indeed, he is this Gift, begotten by the Father, and surrendering himself as a gift back to the Father without reserve. And this mutual self-giving, this mutual acceptance of the Father and the Son, allows them to abide in the most perfect intimacy, the most blessed communion, in the embrace of the Spirit whom they share.

Then, from this all-encompassing reality of love, this inner mystery of the Trinity that is utterly perfect and complete within itself, the whole creation springs. It is an overflow of the superabundance of the Trinity’s life of love. And it is created precisely to share in this same mystery of love and intimacy. Yet, turning away from God in sin, refusing to share in the same movement of acceptance and self-surrender that is the essence of love, the world is cut off from intimacy with God. Then begins the long journey of salvation history, by which God compassionately descends to his sinful and suffering people, in order gradually to draw them back to himself and to his blessed life.

In Christ this compassion of God, springing from the intimacy of the Trinitarian embrace, is perfectly and fully manifested. In his solitary prayer, we glimpse the inner mystery of intimacy between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. In his walking among us, in his pity and compassion, which leads him to spend himself lovingly for our sake, we see this mystery opened out to us, enfolding us, drawing us into itself. In his repose against the Father’s breast, Jesus is who he is, the beloved Son. Yet, without leaving this repose for an instant, and precisely on the strength of this intimacy, Jesus enters into the anguish of our world and takes it upon himself. This is his mission, as it were, which is undertaken for our sake, but precisely in order to take us, at last, with him, into the filial intimacy with God for which we too have been created.

Is this not the mystery that is played out in every moment of our own lives? We too have been created and redeemed in Christ as beloved sons and daughters of the heavenly Father. This is who we are, no more, no less. And, returning to this place in the solitude of our own hearts, returning to this place in prayer, returning to this place, indeed, through the very heart of the community which surrounds and enfolds us, we return thus to the wellspring of our own identity. I am a beloved child of God. I am a gift springing gratuitously from the bosom of the Trinity, and I am created to share in the very innermost reality of this intimacy for all eternity. Therefore, I am constituted not by what I do, by what I have or achieve or even give, but simply by the gift of God which I receive in poverty and dependency.

And yet precisely from this mystery of pure acceptance, and always enfolded within it, I too become a gift back to God, I become a gift for my brothers and sisters. In this process, it is true, I am led deeper and deeper into my identity as a child of God; and yet nonetheless, it is not through my mission that my identity comes. Rather, my childhood before God overflows for the sake of others, a pure and gratuitous gift in the likeness of the gratuitous love of Christ. I am, in Christ and with Christ, a “eucharist of love” before God and others. Finally, this overflowing gift of myself, this pouring out of my life, occurs precisely so that, mingled together with the perfect gift of Jesus and poured out for others, it may help them to share in the same intimacy with God—so that I may be joined together with them, so that we may all be joined together in Christ, and together be drawn, in the end, back into the heart of the Father’s loving embrace, where we are simply beloved children of God.

Here, beyond all the distinctions of our vocations, and indeed the particular paths we have walked in this world, we discover the deep uniqueness of each person: the unique mystery that our Father sees when he looks upon us in love, the beauty that Christ embraces in holding us in his arms. And yet here too, at this inmost place of childhood, we discover the deepest and most profound communion: for in this place of intimacy with God, in this uniqueness of each of our hearts, we are also most profoundly united with every other person. Yes, this is the fullness of our sharing in the most intimate life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.