Today we did not hear from the Gospel of Mark like we have been doing for most of this liturgical year. Today we heard from the Gospel of John. We began in the 6th chapter of St. John’s Gospel and will continue to follow this single chapter for the next four Sundays. This single chapter of John’s Gospel is so important that we devote five Sundays to it, every third year during the summer. The reason for doing so is because John’s Gospel does not have an institution narrative; John does not have a narrative account of the Last Supper, where Jesus institutes the Eucharist, a topic so important to us as Catholics that we refer to the Eucharist as “the source and the summit of the Christian life.” Rather, John chapter six, what we began today, is where John has written a deeply rich teaching on the Eucharist, typically referred to as the “Bread of Life Discourse,” which I hope to start to unpack with you today. Today’s miracle story sets up the teaching that will come in the following weeks. As such, we don’t want to rush through this chapter, but we, as the Catholic Church, want to take 5 whole weeks to go through it so we can pray with it and let John’s teaching move our hearts to a deeper faith and love in Jesus through the Eucharist.
So today’s story we heard with Jesus and his miraculous feeding of the 5,000 is a story already probably familiar to us, but I want to challenge you to look at it deeper with me. St. John puts this story at the beginning of his teaching on the Eucharist and so this story helps not only in understanding the Eucharist but also helps in understanding the Mass. So this morning I am going to walk through this story with you and show how it relates to and reveals the deeper meaning behind the sacrifice of the Mass. The story begins with Jesus going up the mountain. This action of Jesus that has a great significance. It symbolizes an encounter with God, which would recall the events in the Old Testament, in particular that of Moses beholding God on Mt. Sinai, the heart of Old Testament revelation of God. Recall that at that time, Moses, in the book of Exodus, had just led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt when he went up the mountain to encounter God and receive from God the book of The Law, the Ten Commandments. Moses encountered the Lord in a very real way and today John is showing us that Jesus is the fulfillment of Moses began. Whereas Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land, Jesus is preparing to lead the people of God out of slavery of sin and death into the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus goes up the mountain today not to encounter God, for He is God! Rather his disciples encounter Him when they go up the mountain with Jesus. This is what happens each and every time we come to Mass. We “go up the mountain” so to speak, we go to the Church to encounter God in a very real way, just like Moses did on Mt. Sinai and the disciples did today, trusting that God will lead us out of slavery of sin to the life of grace.
After Jesus goes up the mountain, He sits down with his disciples. This simple gesture also has significance. This gesture is one of a teacher with his students. In the ancient world, a teacher sat and taught rather than stood behind a podium like we would typically think of today. This is still seen today at Masses with the Bishop when he preaches the homily from his chair, not from the ambo. This moment of Jesus with his disciples is symbolic of the Liturgy of the Word. The disciples sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to Him and learn about the kingdom of heaven. So, too, do we when we come to Mass. We begin by sitting, as students and disciples, at Jesus’ feet to hear and learn from Jesus, the teacher, through His Word in the Scriptures. That is what we are doing right at this very moment! We just listened as the Word was proclaimed through the Readings and also through my proclamation of the Gospel. And, through the grace of my own diaconate ordination I am standing before you as minister of Christ Himself teaching you in this homily, just as Jesus taught his disciples.
The Gospel story continues and we hear that Jesus sees the crowd and he knows that they are hungry. But Jesus sees deeper than their physical hunger, He knows that they are also spiritually hungry. They are looking not only for physical nourishment, but also for meaning in their life and are coming to Jesus in search of that meaning. Jesus sets out to feed them and Philip points out that there are so many people and not enough money to feed each just a little. And this is my favorite version of this miracle story because at this point, the apostle whom I am named after, Andrew, gets to play a role in the story. Often I think Andrew is overshadowed by his brother, Simon Peter, but not today! Andrew jumps in and points out a young boy who has some barley loaves and two fish, an amount that is obviously not enough to satisfy 5,000 people and yet Jesus isn’t concerned at all! This directly echoes what we heard in the first reading with the prophet Elisha. Elisha fed a crowd of people with just a few barley loaves as well. The miracle of Elisha directly foreshadows what Jesus did today and the dialogue between Jesus, Philip, and Andrew point out the enormity of the miracle about to occur.
At this point in the story, the events have shifted to reflect the second part of Mass, the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Jesus has the crowd recline and then he took the bread, gave thanks, and distributed it to the people until they had their fill. The words and actions of Jesus are a direct allusion to the Last supper when Jesus instituted the Eucharist. Each priest at Mass during the Eucharistic prayer follows Jesus’ words and actions seen here and at the Last Supper. The other accounts in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke make the words even more explicitly tied to the narration of the Last Supper, unlike John today. The key point here is this miracle story in all the Gospels directly foreshadow the later institution of the Eucharist. It is intimately connected to what Jesus will do at the Last Supper. Also an interesting note is that in John’s Gospel, Jesus Himself is the only one who distributes the bread to the people, unlike in the other Gospel accounts. St. John does this to highlight Jesus as the ultimate source of that bread from Heaven, Jesus Himself is the bread of life that will be given in the Eucharist, a point that will be expanded on in the rest of this chapter in St. John’s gospel. The people listened and learned from Jesus and are now being physically and spiritually fed by Him as the ultimate source of the life and were satisfied.
The same thing happens to us each and every time we go to Mass. When we gather at Mass each Sunday, like the multitude of people with Jesus, we, too, are hungry. We are looking for meaning in our lives, meaning for our pain and suffering, meaning for our joys. We are looking to be filled with authentic love and fulfillment in the only place it can really be found, in Jesus Christ himself. We are hungry and we come to Mass to be fed by Jesus in Word and in the Eucharist. In the Mass we sit with Jesus and learn from Him as his disciples in the Liturgy of the Word. And like the small boy, we bring what little we have to Jesus, seen in just a little amount of bread and wine that we use in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. And just like in the gospel, that small amount seems too small to feed the amount of people at Mass each day, and yet what happens? Fr. Brian, who is acting in the person of Christ, will take the bread, give thanks, and distribute it to us. That bread will be transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ Himself, not symbolically, but actually. The essence of the bread and wine will change into Christ all the while keeping the physical characteristics of bread and wine. We will then receive the Eucharist and our souls will be completely satisfied because we have received God Himself. The people in the gospel today ate and were satisfied because God Himself nourished their souls, not just their stomachs. Today at Mass, Jesus will do the same for us. The final part of the story tells how after the people ate and were satisfied, the disciples gathered the leftover fragments so none would go to waste. This is also seen in the Mass. After communion we will gather the fragments of the Eucharist and place them in the Tabernacle so they do not go to waste but can be a way of encounter with the Lord. Jesus is brought to the sick and homebound because of this and since Jesus is truly in the tabernacle it is always a good practice to stop by and visit him in the Eucharist as often as we are able.
And so my friends, as we gather here together today, as we climb the mountain for an encounter with the Lord at this Mass, I encourage you to follow the example of the disciples today. Sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from Him by listening to His Word in scripture each and every day. Acknowledge your hunger for God in every aspect of your life. Life may be extremely challenging right now or perhaps God has blessed you with very few hardships. No matter what situation you have in your life, however, nothing on this earth can ever truly satisfy our hearts except the Lord and His love. So, come receive Him in the sacraments as often as you are able to, in daily Mass in the Eucharist where He will satisfy your spiritual hunger, but also receive Him in the beautiful gift of confession where our sins are forgiven no matter how greatly we have sinned. Only once we have received the Lord in Word and Sacrament will we be able to go forth from Mass to proclaim the Kingdom of God to all those whom we will encounter.