The miracle of the Loaves and Fishes hardly needs description. This miracle of Jesus is reported in all four Gospels (twice in Mark, actually) and thus meets one of the measures of historical probability, multiple attestation, in the “quest of the historical Jesus” undertaken by Scripture scholars. Of course, its historical probability in no way clarifies exactly how Jesus performed this feat of mass feeding, as none of the evangelists felt compelled to explain this process; certainly it was impressive enough that the crowds sought to carry him off and make Jesus king according to St. John’s account yesterday.
Again we stick to what we know with certainty: each evangelist was guided by a specific theology or understanding of the living Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, while the act of feeding thousands in a miraculous fashion is reported in all four Gospels, each Gospel writer will address the episode from a different stance, consistent with the overall theme of the Gospel in which it appears. As Year B highlights the miracle in John’s Gospel, we have to approach the miracle and all its subsequent scenarios through the eyes of Johannine theology.
John’s Gospel is very different from the three preceding “Synoptic Gospels,” the three which parallel each other fairly closely. Some portions of the Christian world did not accept the Gospel of John till well into the fourth century. John’s overarching theology is the infinite glory of the Word made Flesh, set in a world where men accept the light of truth or reject it. John depends upon Jesus’ words as much as his actions to make his case to the world on behalf of his Father. So while Mark recounts multiple miracles, John reports only a few, most without precedent in the other Gospels, and these are just about always an entree into a discourse or full blown confrontation with obstinate followers or hostile Jewish leadership.
John’s Chapter 6 thus begins with the miraculous multiplication, but no pun intended, this is only the first course. Next Sunday (the Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time) will pick up the story of the day after the miracle, where the crowds are rather surprised to find that Jesus has somehow crossed the lake. I should note here that the editors of the Lectionary have omitted John 6: 16-23 which describes the disciples crossing the lake in a heavy wind and encountering Jesus on the water near the shore. (See text.) While the crowds are puzzled about Jesus’ whereabouts, he in turn launches into a not particularly friendly observation that they are hounding him because of “signs” and the fact that their bellies are full. It is interesting that Jesus (6:27) would refer to the previous day’s menu as simply “perishable bread,” suggesting that at this stage of the encounter Jesus has not yet entered the Eucharistic phase of his discourse in Chapter 6.
In verse 27, Jesus introduces the more noble quest of hunting food “that remains unto life eternal” which Jesus for the first time identifies with the real gift of the Son of Man upon whom the Father “has set his seal.” Here we see John’s theology at work, his emphasis upon Jesus as the Son of Man who enjoys the love and credibility of his Father. Typically the crowd seems to miss the point and demands to know the key to this better bread (a response very similar to that of John’s woman at the well scenario in John 4 where the five-time divorced woman asks how she can get access to the “living waters” and avoid a troublesome daily task.)
Jesus proceeds to equate the work of God—the key to the better bread-- with faith in the One God sent. Again we see John’s brilliance here: he (John) reports no puzzlement among the crowd that Jesus is the One God has sent; this raises the crowd’s response to a higher level of insolence when they demand yet more signs, going so far as to say that Jesus has not even measured up to Moses’ performance with the manna. Jesus continues by underscoring a misunderstanding: Moses had not worked his signs of his own strength, but rather it was the Father, the same God who (present tense) comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. In response to yet another demand, Jesus makes one of the signal teachings of Chapter 6: “I myself am the bread of life:” those faithful to him by doing his work, i.e., acknowledging the Father as true sons of Israel, will never hunger or thirst again. This is where Sunday’s reading comes to an end, but the dispute is only warming up as Jesus continues this disputation with more intensity about his own relationship with the Father.
The antagonism between Jesus and Jewish opponents is a noticeable feature of the Fourth Gospel. This is particularly surprising when one considers that John’s Gospel may have been composed around 100 A.D., long after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the diaspora or scattering of Jews around the world. In other words, this Gospel had no contemporary reason to single out Jews with hostility. A number of theories have been put forward over the years. Father Raymond Brown, perhaps the greatest New Testament scholar to emerge in the United States in the twentieth century, was working on a study of John’s Gospel and the Jews when he suddenly died in 1998. I am including here a link to the book’s summary, written by another scholar, Father Francis Moloney, for those interested in pursuing the question further.
By the way, the USCCB (Catholic U.S. Bishops) offers free email subscription service to anyone interested in receiving the daily Scripture readings of the Mass, including Sundays. Simply scroll to the bottom of this page to register. Your Catholic Communications Collection dollars at work.
(Next Monday we will be back to our Monday weekly discussion of matters liturgical and sacramental.)
It is good to be home again after several weeks on the road. I had hoped to post over the weekend, but this proved to be impossible. We left the northern suburbs of New York City around 6:30 AM Saturday with our goal for the day being Fayetteville, North Carolina. This is normally a ten-hour drive, but we wasted two hours stalled in traffic on I-95 between Washington and Richmond. So a ten-hour trip stretched out to twelve, and by the time I reached our destination I could barely eat, let alone bring forth lofty thoughts. The next morning (Sunday, yesterday) we left at 7 AM for the remaining eight hour trip through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and half of Florida. This trip was uneventful, just hot and dull, but we were home by 3 PM. Having been away for nearly four weeks, it is always a bit of a relief to drive up your street upon return and discover your house is not cordoned off with yellow “criminal investigation” tape.
Again, arriving at our final destination left us in less than optimum mental alertness, and my wife and I each relaxed in our own ways. My wife downloaded her Ireland pictures and started editing them for a master album. I, on the other hand, find relaxation in cleaning out my email box, which had about 900 entries even after I had cleaned it once from the host site early in the trip. I guess there is something relaxing about watching the mail counter progress through 899…898…897…896, etc. Unfortunately many of the emails call for action: like reviewing international cell phone bills and then filing such financial records in electronic storage. So it is not always a matter of just clicking the delete button for each piece of mail, satisfying as this might be.
As I was eating my free continental breakfast yesterday in readiness for the Sunday final drive, I had an impulse to pray in thanksgiving for the fact that this trip was plagued with no injuries, illnesses, unforeseen accidents or painful incidents. On the eve of the 1969 Apollo XI launch to put the first men on the moon, and today is the 46th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, astronaut Mike Collins of the crew was asked for his forecast of the flight. His answer was remarkably candid: “I think I have a 50-50 chance of coming home alive, and we have a 10% chance of a successful moon landing.”
Obviously twenty-first century travelers with much more modest destinations do not usually look at their ventures with the same hard and grim statistical analysis as Mike Collins. But it is true that good fortune is a blessing, and most spiritual persons and those in twelve-step recovery programs end each day with a prayer of thanks for the things that did not go wrong. In the case of traveling, I am always pleased when the plane does not crash. If we have wheels up and wheels down in good order, I can bear the “steerage conditions” of Row 42, the engine under my window, and the nine children directly behind me who must have missed their ADHD medication that morning.
Statistically, the auto is much more dangerous than air travel, and I logged 2300 miles behind the wheel in commuting to Westchester County, NY, and back to Orlando. The worst problem to overtake me, I guess, was that ridiculous stretch of I-95 between Washington and Richmond on Saturday that necessitated a self-generated detour to Richmond by way of U.S. 1, which gave us a chance to see some beautiful rural Virginia countryside. I also now understand why it took the Union four years and seven generals to get from Washington to the capital of the Confederacy. My driving experience was nothing compared to my wife’s, who drove our entire two week stay in Ireland, handling the “wrong side of the road” conditions masterfully in big city Dublin and extremely rural Valencia, dealing with, among other things, cow stampedes, open sheep grazing, less than one-lane roads with stone fences on both sides, and the ever present rain. Never once did she find herself in harm’s way.
I could go on and on about the bad things that didn’t happen. None of us in our traveling party of four became ill, unless you count wind burn and sunburn as catastrophes. (For a place as chilly and rainy as Ireland, it is surprising to me that I got sunburned twice!) Everyone got along famously. We had no issues of crime or theft, no mechanical breakdowns, no lost luggage, no unpleasant experiences with the citizenry or vendors. Even when the power went off on Valencia Island several times, the town’s main pub stayed open. The wireless always worked.
I am grateful for the opportunity to experience the island of my wife’s roots, to meet the very elderly relatives who were eager to see if she married well. I enjoyed the opportunity to sip tea and eat cakes by the warmth of a true peat fire. It is equally true that I am grateful nothing bad happened. Good fortune is neither the norm nor the reality of life. We are not born the children of entitlement. A pleasant day, a successful venture, an awe-inspiring trip are not ours for the picking. They are blessings, not preconditions. And we do ourselves a great injustice if we do not stop and give thanks each day that life has treated us well. Viewing a number of serious accidents this weekend on I-95, it is clear to me that the absence of “trouble” is guaranteed to no one.
Our troop of Irish tourists, all four of us, left Valentia Island on Saturday morning (July 11, Feast of St. Benedict) and crossed the country by car to Dublin, about a four-hour drive on the major expressways M8 and M7. I feel like an extra in a James Bond movie when I see those signs. We did make two stops, for a lunch and bakery purchase-brown Irish bread is my favorite so far--and a second one on the mount overlooking Cashel, site of an enormous castle/church/monastery that has fallen into disrepair. I included one picture on today's post before my phone screamed-"no space available." But, as I learned in Italy a few years ago, amateur photos rarely do justice to massive structures and impressive art. (However, they do serve adequately for bragging on Facebook.)
Yesterday being Sunday, we found a church just around the corner from our apartment rental. This was a Carmelite oratory with an 8 AM Mass. As you may remember, I was not overly inspired by last week's Mass; this week's experience in Dublin was mildly improved. The celebrant spoke at greater length and did work to include the three readings. Or so I was told...between my deafness, the brogue, and the celebrant's tendency to speak faster than his sound system, I was able to gather in about every fourth word, so I took away a message that was probably different from what the general congregation received.
What intrigued me again was an absence of any sense of "rite." This Mass, much like the other last week, was a good example of the medieval principle "ex opere operato," that is, say the right words and the sacrament "works." The non-sermon parts of the Mass were executed as "things to be gotten through" interspersed with the Hail Mary and even the Angelus. Again this week, there was no music (I can live with that, shame on me) and no kiss of peace. Communion, as one might expect, was under one form only. There were later Masses scheduled for 10, 11, and 12, a timetable that would never work in most U.S. settings where most celebrants acknowledge the importance of a worshipping community exercising a baptismal right of active and engaged worship.
This oratory is located quite near St. Stephen's Green. Downtown in the shopping district is another Carmelite Church, St. Teresa's, where a later Mass was in progress and a homily about the Pope's encyclical. What intrigued me, though, was a large sign advertising the parish's coffee shop, open all day Monday through Saturday. It does not hurt that St. Teresa's is located off Grafton Street, a shopper's paradise, but the concept is an intriguing one to me, and I must get back and look at this concept closely before leaving Dublin.
The grand experience of the day yesterday was visiting Trinity College and seeing with my own eyes the Book of Kells, the famous early medieval rendering of the Gospels and a marvel of calligraphy, art and survival. The exhibit itself is state of the art, with examples of various pages blown up to back lit wall size displays for study and curators' commentary. The copyists worked scrupulously to transmit the Scripture accurately; my guess is that they were working from St. Jerome's Vulgate Latin translation, though it may be that Celtic translations were also at hand.
One of the challenges of this project was spatial and narrative coordination between the copyists and the artists, who shared space on each page. In quest of accuracy, the copyists did not erase mistakes but developed code for what must have been common errors of the day (or, conceivably, they were improving existing translations; it is hard to say.)
The copyist expansions created challenges for the illustrators; the curators point out that the illustrators on occasion had interpretive views that their pictures could illustrate as a visual commentary, so to speak. A few examples will suffice. Although reference to the second creation account (Chapter 2ff of the Book of Genesis) does not appear in the Gospels, imagery of man's confrontation with the serpent does appear in the illustrations along the pages, evidently at the initiation of the illustrator, possibly to bring home themes of human weakness, sin, and the fall.
A rather bizarre illustration has proved difficult for modern scholars to decipher: there is a depiction of two rats consuming a round communion wafer. Animals play a highly symbolic role in early Christianity (think of St. George and the Dragon) and a number of theses have been put forward about the meaning behind these rodents. Other commentators in this particular exhibit wonder if this illustration is related to a desecration of the communion bread and contains some allusion to transubstantiation or real presence.
Aside from the artistry and the reverence of the Gospels, the curators go to considerable length to explain the importance of symbol and myth in understanding the faith of a given age. I photographed several texts from displays for posting in future days, on the subject of integrating art and literature into theological/religious discussion.
I learned a lot of other things today, too, as we were using a city shuttle bus with historical commentary all day long. I discovered that Bram Stoker's girlfriend had previously dated Oscar Wilde, that Jonathan Swift was bishop of St. Patrick's Cathedral, and that Rev. Swift endowed Dublin's first mental hospital. Who says travel is not educational?