Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Mass on the 17th Sunday in Ordinary time, July 22, 2012)

July 29, 2012

Eating and drinking are two activities that all human beings need to do in order to stay alive. For those who have food and drink readily available the activity is a regular part of life. The activity is something we do, not only to satisfy a biological need but something we enjoy.

Many of us have favorite meals or beverages. Sometimes for special occasions we have a favorite meal. Growing up, Mom would always make our favorite foods on our birthdays. The special meals bring joy and satisfaction not only that we can eat or drink something we like, but because we are together and sharing the meal with each other. Similar occasions occur with friends as well.

What happens when we go without food or drink? Remember how it feels on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday when we fast. There is a longing we feel in our bodies to be nourished. Did you ever go without water on a hot day? The metabolism starts to slow down, we can feel tired or lethargic, and sometimes it’s hard to focus. Food and drink are so important that when we go without our bodies cry out in need.

The Gospel for the upcoming Sunday (Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time) recalls Jesus’ feeding the great multitude (John 6:1-15). In this account a large crowd is following Jesus because of the healings he was doing. He goes up on a mountain and sits down. This action is telling. He is on the mountain.

Many times in the Scriptures there is a special encounter with God on the mountain. Recall Moses on Mount Sinai, or the Transfiguration, or the Sermon on the Mount. Hearing that Jesus is on the mountain we can expect something great is going to happen. Jesus “sits down” on the mountain. We may not regularly think that “sitting” is something unusual. Most people “sit” a lot during the day. Yet the posture is noted for teachers. In the ancient world the teacher would teach from a seat. The activity that Jesus will engage through His actions on the mountain will be a “teaching moment.” He teaches not only through His words but also through His actions.

Jesus sees the large crowd and says to Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” St. John tells us that Jesus knows where the food will come from but He asks the question as a test for Philip, who replies, “Two hundred days wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” Andrew joins in: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” Both disciples fail the test.

At this point in the Gospel Jesus has already performed three great miracles or signs. The first occurred in Cana at the wedding feast. There He turned seven containers of water into wine; not just table wine but the finest of wines. The second occurred when the royal official came to Jesus asking Him to cure his son who was at the point of death. The third occurred when Jesus healed the lame man by the pool of Bethesda, a man who had been ill for 38 years. Jesus can surely provide food for these people by Himself.

Jesus has the people recline. We are told that there were 5,000 men (to say nothing of women and children) who were there on the mountain. Jesus takes the loaves and in actions similar to the Eucharistic action “took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them.” The people ate until they had their fill. The remaining fragments fill 12 wicker baskets.

When the people see this “sign” they say, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.” St. John then tells us that since Jesus realized they were going to come to make Him king, He withdraws to the mountain alone.

The feeding of the multitude gives us insight into who Jesus is and what He is about. The first reading from the Second Book of Kings recalls a feeding of 100 people with 20 barley loaves. Here Elisha tells the man carrying the loaves to feed the people. He responds, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” This response is similar to that of Philip and Andrew in the Gospel. A contrast can be identified between the two accounts that highlights the magnitude of Jesus’ feeding.

In the Kings account 20 loaves are used to feed 100 people; in the Gospel five loaves (along with the two fish) feed 5,000 people. The similarity returns when we consider the words Elisha says afterwards: “For thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and there shall be some left over.” The author concludes the passage, “And when they had eaten, there was some left over, as the Lord had said.” The one who provides the food is the Lord. Similarly in the Gospel Jesus provides the food.

Jesus feeds the 5,000. He does not want them to be hungry but seeks to satisfy their needs. As we will see later in the Gospel the need of humanity for food for the soul as well as the body is provided by Jesus as well. He is the Bread of Life. At this point, however, Jesus does satisfy the hunger of those gathered around Him. Not only that but He satisfies them to the full. And still there is much left over for others.

Associated with this is the Eucharistic theme that runs through the feeding account. As already mentioned, there is a similarity in Jesus’ words and actions just before he distributes the bread with those of the institution accounts.

A further consideration should be the gathering of the remaining fragments into 12 baskets. The Didache (a second century Christian writing, “The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles”) when recalling the prayers used at the Eucharist states: “As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered from the ends of the earth into thy Kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.”

Thus, the 12 wicker baskets may serve as an image of the 12 apostles who gather the people scattered over the earth into one.

As we gather this Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist, we are nourished by the Word of God and the Body of Christ. Jesus comes to us every time we celebrate the Mass. He comes to feed, to nourish, to satisfy and to fill us with the food of life, His very self.