Sunday, July 29, 2012

Feeding More than 5000 (Sunday 17.B)

The London Olympics opened with a pastoral pageant celebrating Britain in song and dance. The filmmaker Danny Boyle had announced his plans to turn the stadium into a copy of a rural village, but the stunning scene was still something of a surprise.

What was no surprise was hearing the notes of “Jerusalem.”  The song, with words by the poet William Blake and music by Sir Hubert Parry, has become an unofficial national anthem in England, and it’s often heard at sporting events.

However obvious a choice, “Jerusalem” is still thought-provoking. Although its opening words:   “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountains green”  fit perfectly with the lush landscape created in the Olympic Stadium, the next line “And was the holy Lamb of God/On England’s pleasant pastures seen!” draws attention to a Christian heritage increasingly forgotten in modern Britain.

The anthem also perfectly illustrated the contrast between the idealized England of old and its darker side, represented by excesses of the Industrial Revolution:  “And was Jerusalem builded here/Among these dark Satanic Mills?”

The Canadian painter William Kurelek would have heartily approved of the contrasts between the bright and beautiful and the dark and dismal. With deep conviction and glorious talent, he painted a vision of Canada and the world that embraced both.

His paintings of a prairie boy’s life enchanted me with their luminous depictions of a vast Canadian prairie and childhood innocence. In his book A Northern Nativity, Kurelek sets the birth of Jesus in a snowed-in chalet, a fisherman’s hut, a garage, a cow barn; the Holy Family finds refuge in a soup kitchen, a grain barn, and a country school. The Nativity never seemed nearer.

But there was more to the genius of William Kurelek. While he was painting these delightful images, he was painting what one art critic recently called “sermons of wrath for what he considered an ungodly world.” Grim, even terrifying canvasses showed the evils of abortion, nuclear war, and environmental destruction.

He painted as Blake wrote, seeing both the pleasant pastures and the modern equivalents of dark Satanic mills.

Kurelek struggled in his early life with mental illness, finding relief through art, and eventually by the whole-hearted embrace of faith. His profound Catholic faith eventually shaped totally his life and work.

Why so much about this painter today? First, because we are lucky enough to be able to see the largest exhibition of his work ever presented, and the first retrospective in 25 years for the cost of a ferry trip.  The Art Gallery of GreaterVictoria is showing “William Kurelek: The Messenger” until September 3, and it’s well worth the trip.

Second, because someone criticized my homily last week for being too short! With an introduction this long, I won’t have that problem today.

But most of all because many years ago Kurelek connected today’s Gospel to real life for me, and I never get tired of telling how he did it.

He was a parishioner of Corpus Christi Parish in Toronto, the church I attended when staying with my great aunt, and the church that my great grandparents had attended many years before. In 1977, the very year he died, he left it the precious legacy of a mural, about which I have preached many times.

Intended to surround the actual tabernacle, it is a vibrant depiction of a lakeside park and beach a few blocks from the church.  Parishioners are assembled in a long line, as the parish priests, vested for Mass, help Jesus to hand them bread from large baskets.

The faces of the priests were recognizable, even to me. The miracle of the loaves was not something historic for Kurelek; it was immediate and real. He believed we are living that miracle.

You can reach the same conclusion in the chapel of St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, which I saw just a year or two ago. Kurelek uses a different scene – the background is the Saskatchewan plain rather than Lake Ontario, and Basilian teachers rather than parish priests help Jesus to feed the multitude.

But let's go back to that picture at Corpus Christi parish—a church named, of course, for the Body of Christ, prefigured in the feeding of the 5000. Imagine if Kurelek were at our parish today, and willing to paint our whitewashed walls.  It would be you and you and you and me in the painting. Would this not bring home a central truth of today’s Gospel? Jesus still feeds the hungry 2000 years later, still in such abundance that there is never a question of shortage and want.

But if this miracle is about ordinary human food, there’s something cruel about it. Because millions remain hungry, millions die for lack of what their bodies need. They are not fed today by a miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish. The Christian answer to that, which has to do with our willingness to share what we have, is something for another homily.

Today, the tragedy we must consider is for men and women to starve spiritually when this abundant bread from heaven is offered freely.

It would be outrageous if we had a storehouse of food and hungry neighbours. But it’s positively bizarre to have a storehouse of food and be starving ourselves.   The fact is that at every Mass we encounter God's extreme generosity and his desire to feed his people.

But the meal is clearly not like a Depression breadline, with sandwiches handed out as the poor file past. “Make the people sit down,” Jesus tells the disciples. Let them listen to me for a while so that they may look beyond the bread they eat and see the gift I am.

Today begins a series of readings from the Gospel of John that take us to the heart of the Eucharistic mystery.  It’s a privilege we get only every three years, and we must not waste it. For five Sundays in a row we have a special opportunity to deepen our love for Jesus in the Eucharist, to think about what we’re doing at Mass, and to sit down with hearts open to receive what Jesus wishes to give.

If Father Xavier and I, together with an unknown bearded man in robes and sandals, led you down to Ambleside and began to feed you from bottomless baskets, we wouldn’t need William Kurelek to paint us; even our cynical newspapers and television would be taking the pictures of a modern miracle.

But there’s something greater in church this morning. There are countless ways to describe it, but I will close with the succinct words of St. Thomas Aquinas: “O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory to us is given.”

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