In the Gospel reading for this Sunday we hear the account from John of Jesus feeding five thousand people with bread and fish who had gathered to hear him preach near Passover along the shores of the Sea of Galilee (called Tiberias in the reading).
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiber’i-as. And a multitude followed him, because they saw the signs which he did on those who were diseased. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a multitude was coming to him, Jesus said to Philip, “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” This he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place; so the men sat down, in number about five thousand. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. (John 6:1-15, RSV)
The miracle of Christ feeding the five thousand– aside from the Resurrection– is the only one mentioned in all four gospels. The miracle is important within the context of the Gospel of John because it forms the co-foundation, along with the miracle of turning water into wine at the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), of John’s emphasis on Jesus as the “bread of life” (John 6:35-59). This idea forms the backbone of our catholic liturgy where Christ gives Himself in the bread and wine forming the Body and Blood and feeding the multitude of His faithful (CCC 1335).
The passover is mentioned three times in the Gospel of John (supporting a three year public ministry of Jesus). It was an annual Jewish celebration to commemorate Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. It involves gathering for a liturgical feast called a seder in which the story of Exodus is retold, unleavened bread with dressed lamb is served and psalms are sung. The importance of passover in this story from John’s gospel is an undercurrent of the on-going narrative as Jesus’ coming to be that of the true “Lamb of God” (John 1:29), whose redeeming work would accomplish a new deliverance from sin (John 8:31-36). The connection between our liturgy and the liturgical meal inherent in the seder is made evident in John 6:53-58:
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.“
And further expanded on by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 bringing the seder feast, Christ and the Lamb of God together (no doubt strongly inspired by the Holy Spirit):
Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Jesus gives thanks to the bread and fish before distributing it to the people. The Greek word used in the original translation of the gospel account is eucharisteo which is where the English word Eucharist derives from. This miracle is a clear foreshadow of the institution of the Last Supper and has a direct link to the celebration of Mass that we catholics gather for on Sunday (and everyday for that matter, all around the world).
God be praised!