The first Sunday in this six-week series narrates the miracle of the loaves and fishes. In the study of the Gospel there is a principle called “multiple attestation,” meaning that the more an episode is repeated over the four Gospels, the more likely it has a strong historical event underlying it. Thus, the Baptism of Jesus, the desert Temptation, the calling of the Twelve, the Transfiguration, the Last Supper and the Crucifixion most certainly occurred in history. This does not eliminate other events narrated in individual Gospels nor Gospel accounts created by the inspired evangelists to bring forth divine truth. The rule of multiple attestation simply highlights what the early Church believed were the most critical and the memorable of events handed down by the first generation of Jesus’ witnesses.
The feeding of the thousands by Jesus, multiplying a few loaves of bread and fish, appears in all four Gospels [In Mark, twice!]. John, the last Gospel to be written, around 100 A.D., has very few miracles, about six. When John includes a miracle, which he calls “signs,” he uses the story to introduce a lengthy instruction, which occurs here. After the miracle of the feeding, there is a protracted discussion and controversy about the true bread from heaven which occupies the rest of Chapter 6, a masterful doctrinal piece that sets the table [no pun intended] for understanding the nature of the Eucharistic meal.
John’s story of the bread and fish miracle has strongly Jewish overtones. By the time of John’s Gospel, relations between Jewish Christian converts and Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah had deteriorated badly, and John wishes to make the case that the Jewish promise made to Abraham and Moses had passed along to Jesus as the center of a new covenant. We can see clever hints in John’s narrative of his intention. For example, John inserts these details: a large crowd followed Jesus to a mountain because they had seen signs [think Moses and Sinai]; Jesus went up a mountain, like Moses; the Jewish feast of Passover was at hand; there was a great deal of grass in the place [springtime, the season of Passover].
In his account, St. Mark observes that Jesus was moved with pity at the crowd which had been with him for three days. St. John does not mention this. For John, the sign value of what he will do is the primary concern. So, Jesus sends up a test balloon to Philip in the form of a question, “where do we get enough food to feed them?” In the preceding Chapter 4, Jesus had assured his disciples that he was the source of a food that never runs out, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me.” [John 4: 30-38] The correct answer from Philip would have been something along the lines of “I trust that you have the true bread from heaven that will save us all.” [A Jewish reference to manna would have been appropriate.]
Instead, Philip answers with the mundane observation that two hundred days’ wages of food would not feed the crowd at hand. He does not yet have faith in Jesus to save, and his answer is only marginally more polite than the Hebrews in the desert who “murmured” against Moses that he had led them out to the desert only to die of hunger. Andrew’s faith is not much stronger. He comes forth with five barley loaves—historically, the bread of the poor—and two fish, lamenting that “what good are these among so many?”
What happens next is one of the great wonders of the Gospel. We get our first idea of the size of the crowd, as Jesus orders them to sit in the grass. There are five thousand men, not counting the women and children. What follows is one of those maddening Gospel narratives—like the Resurrection itself—that provides enough description to take the reader to the edge of faith and leaves him or her to assent or deny. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, and distributes it. The term “to give thanks” is rendered in Gospel Greek Eucharisteo; the word that has passed down as the backbone of the Christian worshipping assembly as well as our theology of communion.
The miracle itself is not described, only its origins and its results. How did Jesus feed thousands of persons from his small offering of bread and fish? I have heard over the years efforts to explain the event in natural terms. For example, some have theorized that everyone present was hiding their precious stash of food, but the example of Jesus giving his away led everyone to share what they had. The problem with this theory is reconciling it with the recorded actions of the people at this mountainside meal. John records [6: 14-15] that the people exclaimed Jesus as “truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into this world.” Jesus, having performed this sign, “knew that they were going to carry him off to make him a king….” So, the Gospel itself, without giving technical details, conveys that the witnesses were so overwhelmed by this sign that they moved in almost mass hysteria.
Much has been made in recent years of the apparent lack of understanding of the Eucharist as the real Body and Blood of Christ. I suspect that most Catholics think of communion as a fellowship around Christ, but that in today’s culture it is hard to believe in real miracles that transcend the law of nature. John’s Gospel does not contain very many miracles, but they are all of the “in your face” type, starting with the Wedding Feast of Cana [water changed to wine] and concluding with the raising of Lazarus from the dead. At some point in our lives, we must come to grips with the idea that Jesus truly worked miracles that defied science and logic. After all, we are banking on the most irrational concept of all, that some day our graves will open, and we will experience a life beyond death.
I neglected one point in the miracle narrative: the collection of the leftovers. After everyone had eaten to their fill, Jesus commands that the uneaten portions be collected, which totaled twelve full baskets. This is not an incidental item. There is a biblical theme throughout that when God feeds his people, he does so in copious amounts and with the finest foods. Joel 2:24 states: “And the floors shall be full of wheat, and the fats shall overflow with wine and oil.” Second, the number twelve is symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus is demonstrating his establishment of the new and eternal Jerusalem in his person. And finally, there is a peculiar literary insertion. St. John’s Greek narrative states that the baskets were full of fragments, or klasmata. The Didache, a first century description of the very early Church, uses the same word klasmata to describe the pieces of Eucharistic bread broken during the worship rite. Thus, the connection between the miracle of the loaves and fishes and the Eucharistic celebration of then and now is unmistakable.
Belief in the Eucharist as the eternal Christ is belief in unity with him after death. “He who eats this bread and drinks this cup has everlasting life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Believe it.