Every three years in the lectionary cycle of readings, we hear, on five consecutive Sundays, readings from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Saint John. We begin this Sunday, July 29th, with the first fifteen verses of John 6, the account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. Then, on the next four Sundays of August, we will hear the great discourse of Jesus in the synagogue of Capernaum in which Our Lord reveals himself as the Bread of Life.
Saint Augustine taught that The New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old is made manifest in the New. We see this in John, chapter six. This Sunday’s first reading from the second book of Kings, like this Sunday’s Gospel, describes a hungry crowd, someone bringing forth barley loaves, and another objecting that the bread is too little for the large crowd. In both accounts, all the people were able to eat their fill; there was a multiplication of the loaves and there was bread left over.
The Old Testament reading features Elisha as the prophet who performs the miracle. Of course, it is Jesus in the New Testament who multiplies the loaves and the fish. There are several other miracles performed by Elisha that are also akin to the later miracles of Jesus. Elisha the prophet prefigures Jesus. The New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old is made manifest in the new.
The hungry crowds in both readings are fed. Their physical hunger is satisfied. But the New Testament account of the miracle is followed by the great discourse of Jesus that we will hear the next four weeks in which Jesus identifies himself as the Bread of Life. He is greater than Elisha the prophet and miracle-worker. In fact, as we continue reading chapter six of John’s Gospel, Jesus reveals himself as greater even than Moses, the one through whom God fed the people with manna in the desert during the Exodus. Jesus will say words that Elisha and Moses would never dare to say: I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. Our Lord manifests himself as the One who is capable of satisfying forever the hungers of our hearts.
In the Gospel miracle, Scripture scholars have identified another level of meaning in the multiplication of the loaves and fish: a Eucharistic meaning. The early Christians definitely recognized the connection between the multiplication of the loaves and the Eucharist. In second-century catacombs, we find artistic representations of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves to symbolize the Eucharist. Already in the four Gospel accounts of this miracle, we see a strong Eucharistic motif. We find the same verbs used describing Jesus’ action at the miracle as are used in the account of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper: He took the loaves (the bread); he blessed them; he gave thanks; and he gave (distributed) them. The verb in Greek for he gave thanks, eucharistein, became the word the Christians used for the sacrament: Eucharist.
When the people had their fill, Jesus told the disciples to gather the fragments that were left over so that nothing would be wasted. Scholars see a Eucharistic echo here since these words about gathering the fragments are very similar to the words of the Eucharistic Prayer in the second-century writing, the Didache. There was also in the early Church great care taken with the Eucharistic fragments that were left over. Notice also that the disciples filled twelve wicker baskets with the fragments, perhaps symbolizing the gathering of the Church with the twelve apostles, that it may not perish.
It is good to place ourselves, along with all our brothers and sisters, into the scene of today’s Gospel. Many people in the world today are indeed hungry for material food. All of us hunger for truth, justice, love, peace, and beauty. In a word, we are hungry for God. Saint Augustine once exclaimed: We must hunger for God!
Jesus’ miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, prefigured in the Old Testament, teaches us that the bread we need is first and foremost Jesus himself, the Bread of Life. The bread we need is his Word, the word of truth that illumines the path of life for us on our earthly pilgrimage, Jesus’ teaching that helps us to lead good and holy lives. The bread we need is also his grace, the life-giving power and nourishment we received in the sacraments, most especially in the Holy Eucharist. We need to be fed with the Bread of life: the Word of God accepted in faith and the Body of Christ received in the Eucharist (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2835).
Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has said that the Church receives and gives to the faithful the bread of life from the two tables of the word of God and the Body of Christ. That is why Sunday Mass is so important. We go to Mass not only because it is our duty and obligation. It is our deepest need. We need Jesus to satisfy our hungry hearts. Every time we say the Our Father, we pray Give us this day our daily bread. Jesus is our daily bread. He is the Bread of Life. May the Lord Jesus multiply his bread for us and for all who are hungry in the world today!
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