What do you think of when you hear this Gospel passage? I think for most of us our minds go immediately to the Eucharist, and for good reason. “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples…” Those are the actions of Christ at the Last Supper and the words repeated in one form or another in all of our Eucharistic Prayers: he said the blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples. And beyond that action, the context of a miracle is the same that we experience here – a large gathering of people who are fed by a miraculous food.
So this miracle was preparing the disciples for what we do today, a foreshadowing. Yet we’ll miss something very important if we go directly to our own experience of communion. When we think of this Gospel we think of Eucharist, but when the disciples experienced this miracle, what did they think of? What did their minds turn to? It would have been the feeding of Israel in the desert by the mana from Heaven. The people of Israel followed Moses into the desert, and in that wilderness they became hungry and desperate for food. The Gospel starts with Jesus withdrawing to a deserted place; the vast crowd follows him into that deserted place and as evening comes they are hungry with no food. In the desert God provides the mana, a miraculous, bread like substance that fell from heaven for the Israelites to eat. In the Gospel Jesus provides in a miraculous bread, multiplied thousands of times over, for them to eat.
But there is a key difference in the Gospel; as always Jesus was taking what the crowds knew, what God had revealed to them already, and bringing it to a greater fullness. The difference is that the Israelites in the desert were told to collect only enough mana for that day; in the miracle that Jesus performs, there is an over-abundance of food remaining, such that it fills twelve wicker baskets. The Old Testament tells us and told the disciples that God provides. Our first reading: come to the water, come receive grain and eat. The psalm: The eyes of all look hopefully to you, and you give them their food in due season; you open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing. God provides and sustains His people, and now in the fullness of Christ we see that God provides and sustains in abundance, giving beyond what we need and desire. As St. Paul said, we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.
So now we can see a greater depth to what this Gospel tells us about the Eucharist. This great sacrament, what the Church calls the source and summit of the Christian life, is something that we approach with a great hunger. We come to this table looking for peace, looking for purpose, looking for joy… but most of all we come looking for holiness. There is a silent, personal prayer that the priest says right at the Lamb of God that speaks this beautifully. The priest bows while saying quietly: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who, by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit, through your Death gave life to the world, free me by this, your most holy Body and Blood, from all my sins and from every evil; keep me always faithful to your commandments, and never let me be parted from you.” In one form or another I think that is the prayer that all of us make as we come forward to receive communion, that by receiving the Eucharist we may never be parted from Christ.
St. Ephrem the Syrian commented on this Gospel that “his power was not the measure of his miracle, but the people’s hunger… what God does goes beyond anyone’s desire.” We desire holiness. We desire to be united with Christ. And we know in great confidence that this desire will be filled in abundance. We come here hungering to experience Christ in our lives, and Christ responds not just with a presence but with the entirety of his life\dots\ and he offers us his suffering, death, and resurrection that we may never be parted from him, that in him we may know life eternal.
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Homilies are meant to be heard, not read… and part of the Eucharistic liturgy, not words that stand alone. Please remember that no homily is written with this blog in mind.