The story of the loaves and fishes -- this is one of those Gospel stories that most Catholics are fairly familiar with. Even the average "pew potato" knows the basic outline. Jesus is there with His disciples and a large crowd gathers, some five thousand people. There is not enough food to feed them all, but one little boy has five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus takes that meager meal, gives thanks, and has His disciples distribute it among all the people. Everyone ate their fill, and there were even leftovers. Miraculously, those leftovers were enough to fill twelve baskets -- more than the original food they started with! This story is looked upon not only as one of the great miracles Jesus performed, illustrating His divinity, but also a sign to us that it is Christ who feeds us in our lives, through the sacraments, and through our relationship with Him.
So we feel like we know the story, and there is a danger to that. The danger, when we are a little too familiar with something, is that we tend to no longer see it. How many of us at Mass today will hear the opening lines of the Gospel reading and think to ourselves, "Oh, that's the story of the loaves and fishes. I know that one," and then tune Father out and not listen to the reading?
Do we really know the story as well as we think we do? How many of us are familiar with that other miraculous multiplication of food spoken of in today's first reading?
"A man came from Baal-shalishah bringing to Elisha, the man of God, twenty barley loaves made from the firstfruits, and fresh grain in the ear. Elisha said, 'Give it to the people to eat.' But his servant objected. 'How can I set this before a hundred people?' Elisha insisted, 'Give it to the people to eat. For thus says the Lord, 'They shall eat and there shall be some left over.' And when they had eaten, there was some left over, as the Lord had said" (2 Kings 4:42-44).
There are obvious parallels between this and today's Gospel. A man of God is given a few loaves of bread. From that small bounty he feeds a large multitude of people. And not only does he feed them all, but there is even some left over. It is said that the Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament, and the New Testament reveals the Kingdom of God. The people of Israel had as a part of their faith this story of Elisha, a holy man of God, feeding the multitude with a few loaves of bread. So when Jesus did the same, the first thing that many in that crowd would think of was the miracle of Elisha. "This man Jesus," they would think, "is truly a holy prophet." Indeed, while Elisha fed a hundred men with only twenty loaves, Jesus feeds five thousand men with five loaves. The miracle Elisha performed was just a small sign pointing to the greater miracle of Jesus.
So we must ask, is this miracle of Jesus itself pointing to something greater? Let me recall for you some images from today's Gospel reading: a crowd gathers... bread is brought forth... He takes the bread and gives thanks... the bread is distributed to the assembled people. Sound familiar? Does it perhaps sound like something we experience every Sunday?
Yes indeed, this miracle was itself pointing to an even greater miracle, that gift of Christ in the Eucharist. From the one loaf of Christ's body, many millions and billions are fed each day -- and there is always more left over. Christ is an inexhaustible source of grace and nourishment for His people.
We will be hearing more from John's Gospel in the coming weeks, and expounding upon this Eucharistic theme. For now, I want to point out one more aspect of today's reading, and that is the very last line. After this miracle of feeding the five thousand, Jesus "withdrew to the mountain alone." Quite often we see Jesus going off alone to pray and fast, usually before or after some great work such as we hear of today. I'm convinced that Jesus was an introvert. He loved His work among the people, but it must have drained Him. Where did He find His strength to carry on His great mission? By taking the time to retreat away from the crowds and connect intimately with His Father in prayer. I mention this because I know sometimes we all need a reminder that it is perfectly okay for us to take a break. If Jesus needed quiet time, what makes us think we don't? We all have great spiritual tasks to perform. Maybe it is not feeding five thousand people with only five loaves of bread. But our task, as baptized Christians, is to go and make disciples of all nations. That's no small feat. We are called to combat the forces of evil in this world and be evangelists for Christ. We cannot effectively do this if we are burned out and exhausted.
So give yourself permission to take a day off. God recommends it -- He commands us to keep the Sabbath holy. Especially today, on the Lord's Day, devote yourself to prayer, not to work. Spend time in silence and stillness, not in noise and commotion. And above all else, remember to tell your Heavenly Father "thank you" for all that He has done to feed you during your life.
"The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs." -- Psalm 145.