My daughter Lauren was 18 months old when we had her sister Meredith. In the following days and weeks many visitors, friends and family came over to meet Meredith, offer congratulations and drop off a present or a meal.
Lauren took her role as hostess very seriously. Everyone was given a doll sized coffee cup and offered coffee from her ‘magic’ coffee pot. As adults we knew that the food and drink were of course symbolic, and our part in the game was to use our imaginations to draw a connection between the symbol and the reality.
Do you have a memory involving food that brings vividly to mind a certain time or place, as Lauren’s magic coffee pot does for my wife and me ? Maybe it’s a certain candy your grandparents always had for you, or the memory of a special birthday cake. These associations trigger a whole world of remembrance of the past and hope for things yet to come.
Because food is not just about eating. Yes, we need to eat to survive, but ever since the earliest days in the Garden of Eden eating has always signified more than just calories.
This is a sacramental way of looking at things. Since God creates all things, all things are sacred. And when you look at an object, even just a coffee cup or a piece of furniture, in the right circumstances it has layers of meaning that reach much further than its form. It is a cup or a chair and at the same time much more. That is what we say about the sacraments- they signify much more than is visible.
Bread is one of those things that triggers memories and hopes far beyond its physical presence. When we encounter bread in the scriptures, we remember the manna in the desert, when the Jews ate the bread of angels, and the showbread present in the temple, there not as a sacrifice but as a thanksgiving. We remember the unleavened bread of the Passover meal when the Jews fled Egypt, and the Passover meal when Jesus broke the bread and offered himself as food.
In today’s readings we are shown the connection between the miraculous feeding of the multitude and an earlier miracle recounted in the Second Book of Kings, in which the prophet Elisha gives the first fruits of the harvest to the people to eat. The offering is small but complete; too small for the number of people, yet complete in honoring God. God honors Elisha by making up what is lacking in his offering. Think on this when you fear your faith is too small or weak. Offer it to God who will supply what is needed, and more. We do not allow our vision of ourselves to be tainted and contaminated by the world but we take our vision of ourselves and our possibilities from the Lord.
John the Evangelist gives us some context around the miracle of the feeding of the multitude. He tells us that the feast of the Passover was near. Later in the same chapter, in next week’s Gospel, we will hear that people came to find Jesus on the other side of the sea, when he will tell them that he is ‘the Bread of Life’. ‘the Bread of Life’. John wants us to understand that what Jesus is about to do has its roots in the past, in the Passover, but has a fulfilment which is yet to come.
Jesus gave thanks before he distributes the bread. This is profoundly eucharistic. Jesus gave thanks to God the Father thus showing what he says over and over in John’s Gospel, that he is sent by and doing the will of the Father. God honors his son by making up what is lacking in his offering of bread and fish.
Then, Jesus distributes the food himself. He doesn’t ask the people to line up, he asks them to recline. They sit on the ground, in touch with the earth on which they depend, and the meagre offering of bread and fish brings abundant satisfaction to the great multitude. There is plenty left over, too.
There is a superabundance to God’s graciousness. He opens wide his hand. God’s love is not reducible to necessity or sufficiency but is maximal and lavish.
The fragments left over were gathered up – nothing will be lost. The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish was preparing for an even greater miracle where Jesus’ word would expand to fill the whole world, with no one left behind. The eyes of God’s human creatures look to him for far more than bodily food because we know that we live not on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. He opens wide his hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing.
God accepts the little we have and multiplies it. Even the most commonplace things such as bread are glorified when joined to Jesus’ mission. Physical things can signify much more than what is visible. God creates all things making all things are sacred. There is a superabundance to God’s graciousness. These are some of the lessons available to all who study the Gospel.
The Holy Spirit shows us more. It is one thing to understand and admire the imagery, the symbolism, invoked by bread. It is more difficult to realize the mystery it makes present: that in the Eucharist we become one with him as we eat his flesh and that we are identified with him as we drink his blood. Lauren’s magic coffee pot symbolized hospitality. The difference between the Eucharist and the children’s game is that in the Holy Eucharist what is symbolized is made really present. Christ feeds us, healing our souls and raising us to eternal life. We are fed with something that is simple and great – simple bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus.
We respond to God’s generosity by imitating it. Experiencing God’s benevolence to us, we should neither seek to set up our own independent economy of limited mercy in which we settle for less; nor should we characterize God as some easy answer to difficult questions. We receive the immeasurable grace to go out and preach the Good News of repentance and salvation to be united — in the words of St. Paul — in one and the same hope: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.