2 Kings 4:42-44
This week we begin the five-week reading of the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, which is one of the most beautiful and important in the whole of Scripture. The Old and New Testaments are full of all sorts of powerful stories, inspiring messages, and encouraging quotes, but it seems to me that John 6 ranks even ahead of them for the simple fact that it is Jesus Christ Himself talking about the Eucharist. The Eucharist, as Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium tells us, is the source and summit of the Christian life; it is the starting place of our life and it’s the end goal toward which we perpetually move. The Eucharist is everything because it is Jesus Himself. And what a joy it is to have these five weeks to pause and reflect on that blessed gift.
The whole section begins with a reading from 2 Kings to help set the stage because we begin at a disadvantage being 2000 years after the events. The Jewish people of the day were a verbal culture that told their story over and over again in great detail to recount the many ways that God had worked in their midst. They were able to recognize in daily life the many stories and little details from the Old Testament, much like we are able to do from time to time with the Gospels, and apply them in their own day. We Catholics are infamous for not being strong in our Old Testament studies, so the Church gives us a little foothold to start with in the person of Elisha the prophet.
Elisha, being the successor of Elijah the prophet, was a man of great notoriety and did many wondrous works. Today we hear that there are a hundred hungry people before him and the only food available is twenty barley loaves, which we’re told would not be enough for the whole crowd. Knowing the Lord’s desire to work a miracle, Elisha commands the bread to be passed out anyway and the miracle of the multiplication happens in the midst of the people, much to their amazement. God has provided for His people!
It is this miracle that sets the background for us to commence the reflection on John 6, which begins in much the same fashion. The Gospel begins with the Lord getting out of the boat once again and walking ashore with His disciples. Rather than stop on the shore of the sea, they continue forward and climb the mountain. Here the Jewish people would likely have paused with great anticipation at what was about to happen because they knew that anytime you climb up a mountain, it is for one purpose: to meet God. Adam and Eve begin in Eden, which was a mountain. Abraham climbs a mountain to encounter His God. Alongside Him is Isaac who also encounters the Lord. Jacob too. Elijah, the same. And Moses has the most notable of all – he sees God face to face! So radiant was his face that the people asked him to wear a veil to cover his face because it hurt their eyes. He encountered God on that mountain and communed with Him so deeply that He was physically changed. And so Jesus climbs the mountain with His disciples and the people look on in stunned silence awaiting the event that was surely about to unfold. And then – He sits! This, too, might seem an unimportant detail but it has great weight in Jewish tradition because to sit was a sign of authority that one has over what is about to be said and done. Interestingly, these two still carry over into our Catholic faith, though you may never have realized it before. Have you noticed that nearly every Catholic church you’ve ever stepped foot in has a step or multiple steps to ascend to the altar? Even in our churches we recognize the need to ‘climb the mountain’ to meet our God. Often it is three steps, signifying the encounter with the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And the sitting too has a place. In the manner of preaching the Word of God at Mass, a deacon is permitted to preach from the ambo where the Gospel is proclaimed. A priest is permitted to preach from the ambo or standing at the presider’s chair. A bishop, however, is permitted to preach from the ambo, standing at the presider’s chair, or sitting at the presider’s chair. He as a successor of the Apostles has the authority to speak sitting, unlike myself. It’s beautiful to realize how these things bear great significance even in our rituals today.
Continuing on, we see that Jesus has climbed the mountain and sat down. Now He raises His eyes to see the throng of people coming His way and turns to Phillip and asks where they can buy some food for everyone to eat. At this point I feel really bad for Phillip because it’s obviously a setup. Phillip, frustrated, responds that 200 days wages of money wouldn’t even put a dent in the cost to feed the people at their feet. Here Andrew pipes up with what I personally presume is a joking response of ‘Lord, this boy here has five barley loaves and 2 fish!’ as if that were going to help anything. Twenty loaves shouldn’t feed a hundred. What are five loaves to five thousand? And yet the Lord acknowledges it is enough and has everyone seated on the green grass, spoken of in Psalm 23, ready for the Good Shepherd to feed them. Note that it is barley loaves once more, just like Elisha had. He takes those loaves and gives thanks and distributes it to the people and, in like manner, the fish. Pretty soon all the people gathered have had their fill and the leftovers fill twelve wicker baskets. The Lord has provided for His people again, just like with Elisha! But something is different this time because the people see in the Lord something different and recognize Him as THE Prophet, not just A prophet. The Lord sees this and quickly wraps up the day, departing to be alone on the mountain.
The Lord Jesus worked a miracle that was absolutely incredible to everyone present there that day and to all who read it even now. But the question we must ask ourselves is this: how is it different from the miracle of Elisha? Yes, the Lord feeds more people with less bread, but is that all? I suggest that it is not and I further suggest that the key to understand the ‘something new’ that Jesus does is found in one little phrase that St. John includes and yet which doesn’t seem to fit: “The Jewish feast of Passover was near.” This insertion by John could easily be taken as a mere time indicator, but it is in fact the key to understanding the rest of John 6 and much of the theology of the Eucharist that has been taught from the earliest days of the Church. To assist us in this, let’s travel back in time to revisit the Passover.
It came about in the time of Israel’s slavery in Egypt. They had previously gone down in a time of famine and the people quickly began to prosper. They became a great nation of people and the Egyptians, fearing their takeover of the country, forced them into slavery. For several hundred years the people of Israel, the Jews, labored as slaves to Pharaoh. After a great time the Lord God came and told them it was time to leave Egypt and take possession of the Promised Land, the land promised to Abraham long ago and as yet unclaimed. Pharaoh rejects any possibility of the people leaving and increases the weight of their labors. In response the Lord sends the 10 Plagues. The water turns to blood and Pharaoh’s magicians do the same. The locusts come and Pharaoh mimics it as well. Even turning stick to snakes and other such marvels has no effect on the wicked master of the Israelites. And so the Lord send the 10th and final plague: the Angel of Death. On a particular night, the angel would pass over Egypt and kill the firstborn of every man and beast in the land. And to the Israelites He gave the directions on how to avoid such a death. He commanded that each family was to procure a spotless, unblemished lamb with no broken bones and to sacrifice it. They were to take the blood and sprinkle it on the doorpost of their homes with a hyssop branch and then roast the lamb, whole and entire. Once cooked, they were to sit down and eat the lamb as a family, but not in normal fashion. Instead, they were to be packed for travel and dressed to leave, sandals on their feet and their walking stick in hand. All the families who did so and partook of the lamb would be guaranteed to live to the next day and not suffer the terror of the final plague. And the people did it. That night as the Israelites slept in their bed, their stomachs full of fresh cooked lamb, the Angel of Death passed over Egypt killing every firstborn child and beast in the land. Pharaoh and the Egyptians woke up to a seen of absolute horror and actually commanded the Israelites to leave. They gave them their jewelry, clothing, food, and more as a way of pleading for them to get out of their country and give them some peace. And so the Israelites depart Egypt, pass through the Red Sea, wander 40 years in the desert, and ultimately find their way to the Promised Land that is symbolic of heavenly life.
The Passover was the beginning of that entire process of salvation and joy and, as such, was among the most important feast of the Jewish people. They were called to celebrate it each year, each family slaying a lamb and eating it in the same manner as their ancestors: ready for a journey because they had survived the Angel of Death.
Not only was it important to them, but it is especially important to us because it is the background for the words that Jesus will speak in these next four weeks. In the coming Sundays we will hear about a special food that we must eat, a food that is tied to a journey, a food that requires the shedding of blood, and one which has life and death consequences, literally. The Eucharist is not to be taken lightly but must be solemn reflected upon and honored. Join with me in this serious reflection upon the source and summit of the Christian life. For a bit of reflection for the week, I invite you to reflect simply on two questions:
The first is tied to the first reading. Did you notice that the barley loaves give to Elisha were from the firstfruits? These were the first part, the best part in a sense. So the question for us: Do I give God the first fruits of my day/week/life or am I content to give Him the leftovers or what I feel comfortable with?
Secondly, Do I trust the power of Jesus? It’s easy to say ‘yes, of course, Father, that’s why we’re here’ but I invite you to keep reflecting. Imagine you’re Andrew looking at a crowd of 5000 hungry people and we have 5 fives, do you trust Jesus?
Through the intercession of St. Ann, may these coming weeks see our heart draw even nearer to the Lord Jesus who humbles Himself to draw near to us.