The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes by James Tissot
The Eucharist -- Heart and Center of Our Faith: Part 1
Since the end of the Easter season and the beginning of Ordinary time we have been winding our way each Sunday through the Gospel of Mark.
But now, all of a sudden and without warning, we find ourselves in the Gospel of John. And not only that, but we jump right into the 6th chapter of John, one of the most theologically complex chapters in the Gospel.
For a priest, John 6 is one of the most exciting and enjoyable Gospels to preach about because it reveals to us the mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, the very heart and center of our Catholic Christian Faith.
The sixth chapter of John contains several stories which are interrelated. The first is the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5,000, which brings to mind the story of God feeding the Israelites with manna in the desert.
The second section contains Jesus giving what is called "the Bread of life discourse" in which He explains how He Himself is the true Bread that came down from heaven, which we must eat in order to have life.
In the third and final section we hear how Jesus' clear and firm teaching that this bread is literally His flesh, causes many of His disciples to depart from Him, a phenomenon that continues today whenever the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist is criticized, watered down, and abandoned.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The more controversial parts of this chapter will be addressed in following articles. For now we have the pleasure of focusing on Jesus miraculously multiplying bread to feed the masses.
Some scholars, and I use the term loosely, have suggested that Jesus did not in fact multiply ANYTHING. They claim that the "real" miracle was Jesus getting the people to share the food they already had, hidden on their persons.
This view is absurd and opposes what is plainly stated in the text. The people were hungry, they clearly had NO food, and after Jesus takes the little they DO have they are AMAZED that there is enough for everyone with food to spare.
Then they acknowledged Him as the Messiah and tried to carry Him off to be their king. They would not have done this if all He did was encourage them to share.
We further know that this was a miraculous and spiritual event because of an important detail St John is careful to include. In the beginning of the Gospel he wrote, "The Jewish feast of Passover was near."
This is not just an indication of what time of year it was. We are told this event occurred at the time of Passover in order to make a clear connection.
Just as God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt by instructing them to sacrifice a lamb and eat its flesh, so now God saves US from slavery to sin through the sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God whose flesh we must eat in order to be saved.
Hindsight is 20/20 so perhaps Jesus' followers can be forgiven for failing to SEE this connection as the events were taking place.
Jesus tests the Apostles by asking, "Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?" The CORRECT answer would have been, "We don't need to buy ANY food Lord, because You have the power to feed us on Your own!"
Instead both St. Philip and St. Andrew are stuck thinking with an earthly mindset. Philip said, "Two hundred days' wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little."
You can almost hear the despair in ANDREW'S voice when he says, "There is a boy here who has 5 barley loaves and 2 fish; but what good are these for so many?"
It is significant that the child had BARLEY loaves. If you remember the first reading from 2nd Kings a man brought 20 barley loaves to the prophet Elisha who instructed that they be given to the people to eat.
Once again there was an objection that this would not be enough to feed 100 people, but the prophet insists not only will it be enough, but there will be food left over.
What Jesus does with the gifts that are offered should sound very familiar to us. He took the loaves, gave thanks, then broke and distributed them.
This is the very same language that is used in the other three Gospels when the Last Supper is recounted. St. John's Gospel is unique in that it HAS no account of the Last Supper. Instead this story of the multiplication of the loaves takes its place as it were.
At every single Mass, Jesus, through the words and actions of the priest, takes bread, gives thanks and blesses it, breaks the bread, and then distributes it to the people.
Finally, Jesus instructs the Apostles to gather the fragments so that nothing will be wasted. Isn't this what WE do as well? After Holy Communion all of the hosts that were NOT distributed are gathered together and placed in the tabernacle for us to visit and adore.
We do not waste the hosts that were not used nor do we again treat them as ordinary bread. Furthermore we treat even the smallest fragment of the Eucharist with awe and devotion.
This is why the white cloth called a corporal is always placed on the altar during the offertory. The corporal is meant to catch any straying particles of the Eucharist so that they are not lost.
After being used the corporal is soaked in water so that the particles will be DISSOLVED rather than thrown away. Then the water is poured directly into the ground so that it does not end up in the sewer.
All of this takes place behind the scenes, but I think it's important that we all know how much honor the Church gives to even the smallest portion of the Eucharist.
The Church teaches that Christ is FULLY present no matter how small the fragment may be. This is also why, after he has consumed the host, the priest takes the paten, holds it above the chalice, and wipes any particles into the Precious Blood before he consumes it.
After they are used at Mass, all the chalices and ciboria are purified with water, which is then consumed or poured directly into the ground, and only an instituted acolyte, deacon, or priest may do this. This process is called "purification" and is never referred to, even jokingly, as "doing the dishes."
The account of the loaves and the fishes prepares us for a long process of learning and understanding that the Eucharist is the greatest gift we have because it is Christ Himself.
We can never be too devoted or too careful when we ENCOUNTER Our Lord in the Eucharist. We CAN, however, become too comfortable with this sacrament and approach it with purely human eyes.
The Gospel account of the loaves and fishes shows that even the Apostles did not fully appreciate Jesus' divinity and looked for solutions that were worldly rather than heavenly.
There is another trap we can fall into, and it is that of the people in the crowd. They REALIZED something divine and miraculous had happened, but they wanted to use it for their own purposes.
Rather than simply adoring Jesus for Who He is they wanted to carry Him away and make Him king for what He could do for THEM.
They were more eager and desirous to be freed from the oppression of the ROMANS than from the oppression of satan and sin.
When we approach Our Lord. let us be careful not to fall into EITHER of these traps. We must be VIGILANT against the tendency to look at the Eucharist with worldly eyes that disbelieve and question "HOW can this TRULY be God?"
At the same time we must at all costs avoid receiving our Eucharistic Jesus as if He were a magic charm that can be put to use for our own desires and purposes; someTHING that we grab and run away with as soon we've got what we came here for, rather than SomeONE that we love and desire to spend as much time with as possible.
The Gospel showed us Jesus' response when He knew people wanted to treat Him as a MEANS rather than an END. He withdrew from them and went up the mountain alone.
Instead let OUR response to Him be one of LOVE, so that He will REMAIN with us, further teaching and leading us into all truth, and MOST importantly, giving Himself to us as the TRUE bread from heaven which satisfies ALL of our hunger, both physical and spiritual.
--The Priest Who Shared This Reflection Asked to Remain Anonymous