17th Sunday in ordinary Time
Elisha again said, …‘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 4:43-44]
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. Rather John chooses to give us Jesus’ own startling teaching as to what the Eucharist truly is, how the Eucharist relates to the deepest needs of man in this world, and how the Eucharist is related to the resurrection and Eternal Life for those who believe in Him.
The fact that this teaching and the divisive confrontation it produced came toward the end of his mission, close to his passion and death, seems certain since Jesus definitely carried out his mission according to a compassionate economy that only gradually demanded belief in His difficult teachings. These “hard teachings: would include His teaching on divorce, His claim to divinity, and His teaching on the Eucharist, which is clearly at the heart of his mission which continues in His Church.
Now, the Eucharist is presented in John 6 precisely as the food which supports Eternal Life and the resurrection of men to glory, 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 because they had followed him with such intensity that they forgot to bring food along to this deserted place.
But Jesus also teaches that man, understood in the fulness of his humanity does not live on earthly food alone; man ultimately requires a much greater food. For instance, since man is a spiritual being, and not just a bodily creature, man requires truth, justice, peace, beauty and other spiritual goods, and, above all else, intimate union with God ir order to be healthy and survive as a spiritual being made in the very image and likeness of God.
Moreover, in order to preserve the supernatural life and union with God, which Jesus alone will give to his followers, and in order to be raised from the dead in a new and glorified humanity, we must regularly nourish our souls with the heavenly manna of His Eucharistic flesh and blood. We must become evermore one with Jesus in the totality of his humanity and divinity, for it is only in Him and through Him that we mere mortals can share in his Eternal Life and share in His resurrection. To believe all this doctrine about man and the Eucharist requires our total surrender of mind and heart to the Lord and his Gospel.
Tragically, the Eucharist will also be the ultimate dividing point between His true believers and those who choose not to fully follow Jesus or not to follow him at all, as happens 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, and this ultimately reduces Jesus to just another great religious figure, perhaps even the greatest, but still one who cannot make the absolute claim on our total submission to His plan for our salvation.
The parallel between man’s need for earthly food and his greater need for the heavenly food of the flesh and blood of the Incarnate Son of God is theologically based upon our human nature which, being a union of body and soul, has both material and spiritual needs. Man cannot be defined by human reason alone, and thus man’s need for the Eucharist is not derivable from human logic based upon a purely rational notion of human nature. We have been called to a destiny that goes far, far, far beyond what we could ever detect simply from the spiritual side of man’s nature. We have been created and called to share in the very Life of God, forever, and to enjoy this participation in God not in our souls but in bodies that will be dramatically transformed by the glory of the same grace that already now unites us with God.
This transformation into glory can happen only in Christ, who has redeemed us from our sinful rejection of this radically supernatural destiny to make us, in Him, and in Him alone, true children of God who is our Father because we are living in Christ. That is what the Eucharist is all about, to make that incredible transformation and elevation or our frail humanity possible, which The Eucharist does by uniting us to Christ in his very humanity which has been sacrificed for our sins, and which was raised to glory to bring about our own glorification in the flesh.
Moreover, the parallel between earthly food and heavenly food seen in the Eucharistic miracle also has a deep significance on the level of our simply earthly flesh which has so many needs in this world. Those who truly believe in the Eucharist will, like Jesus, also be ever mindful of these earthly needs, and we will feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the lonely, take care of the sick, etc. For these are fundamental needs of the earthly man called to glory, yet still living in the midst of a fallen world.
Jesus shows His own concern for these earthly needs not only in this miracle itself, but in his care to see that nothing is wasted, for the poor always will have need of the remains from the abundance of the harvest that is God’s hallmark in his love for man. Eucharistic love is a love that embraces the total man and all his needs. The Eucharist is the final guarantee of God’s unending concern for the whole man and the whole human family in all our needs, both earthly and heavenly, for as the Psalmist teaches us Psalm 145, The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.