17th Sunday in ordinary Time
The miracle of the loaves and the fishes introduces the great treatise on the Eucharist in the 6th Chapter of the Gospel of St. John. While this Gospel does not present the actual institution of the Eucharist by Jesus on Holy Thursday, it is by far the longest and most profound teaching on the Eucharist in whole New Testament. John being the last of the Evangelists to produce his gospel, chooses not to repeat the institution narrative found in the other three Gospels, but rather he chooses to give us what none of those Gospels presented, the extended confrontation – between Jesus and those who were following him toward the end of his mission – generated by his startling teaching as to what the Eucharist is, how it relates to the needs of man in this world and how it is related to the resurrection and Eternal Life of those who believe in Him.
That this teaching and the divisive confrontation it produced came toward the end of his mission, close to his passion and death, seems most likely, since Jesus definitely carried out his mission according to a compassionate economy that only gradually demanded belief in the hard teachings such as His teaching on divorce, on his divinity and on the Eucharist, which is clearly at the center of his mission and the mission he gives to His Church. The Eucharist is presented as the food which supports eternal life and the resurrection, just as ordinary bread and fish are the staples of earthly life among the people to whom he addressed this hard teaching.
That is the first parallel between the miracle of the loaves and fish and the reality of the Eucharist. Man requires earthly food to be healthy and survive in this world, and Jesus shows compassion on the crowd who had followed him with such enthusiasm that they neglected to bring food along to this deserted place. But Jesus knows that man, understood in the fullness of his humanity, does not live on earthly food alone, but requires much greater food. Surely man, as a spiritual being, and not just a bodily creature, requires things like truth, justice, peace, beauty and other spiritual goods, and above all union with God, to be healthy and survive as a spiritual being made in the image of the Creator. Moreover, in order to preserve the supernatural life and union with God which Jesus will give to his followers, and in order to be raised from the dead in a new and glorified humanity, they must nourish their souls with the heavenly manna of His Eucharistic flesh and blood. They must become one with Jesus in the totality of his humanity and divinity, for it is only in Him and through Him that they – we – can share in his Eternal Life and share in His resurrection. To believe in all of this requires the total surrender of mind and heart to the Lord and his Gospel.
However, the great gift of the Eucharist will also be the ultimate dividing point between His true believers and those who choose not to follow Jesus at all or not to follow him any longer, as in the Gospel. To reduce the Eucharist to a simple memorial of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples is to refuse to follow Jesus all the way, is to reduce Jesus to just another religious figure, perhaps even the greatest, who cannot make the absolute claim on our submission to His way of salvation.
The parallel between man’s need for earthly food and his much greater need for the heavenly food of the flesh and blood of the Incarnate Son of God is logically based upon human nature which being a union of body and soul has both material and spiritual needs. But man’s need for the Eucharist is not derivable from human logic based upon human nature alone. We have been called to a destiny that goes far, far, far beyond what we could ever define by the spiritual side of man’s nature. We have been created and called to share in the very Life of God forever, and to do so in bodies that are utterly transformed by the glory of the same grace that unites us with God. This can happen only in Christ, who has redeemed us from our rejection of this wholly supernatural destiny to make us, in Him, and in Him alone, true children of God our Father. That is what the Eucharist is all about, to make that possible, by uniting us to Christ in his humanity sacrificed for our sins, and raised to glory for our glorification in the flesh.