For the next five weeks we will be on a journey through a single chapter of St John’s Gospel – Chapter Six, divided into five parts – and the destination of our journey will be a deeper faith in the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion.
Chapter Six is commonly called the Bread of Life Discourse because it is all about bread – bread for the body and bread for the soul. The chapter begins with a great miracle of multiplied bread so that as many as five thousand men are able to make a meal from five loaves and two fish. When they were done they collected twelve baskets of scraps.
Later on in the evening the apostles are terrified as they see Jesus coming towards them, walking on the water of the lake. This episode is not included in the readings because, I imagine, it is not directly relevant to the subject of bread. There is, however, one point I would like to make about it. Every time I read that Jesus crosses the lake and is then followed by a crowd of people I automatically think of Moses who crossed the Red Sea with the Hebrews. Moses had parted the waters but Jesus, greater even than Moses, walks on the water.
The following day in the synagogue of Capernaum comes the momentous teaching of Jesus to the same people who had eaten the bread. They had followed him to Capernaum and found him in the synagogue. They had filled their stomachs and wanted more and, as we shall see during the next four Sundays, they got much more than they could handle.
The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes is well known. Jesus had crossed the lake followed by a crowd who had been impressed by his miracles of curing the sick. Probably joined by many of the locals they eventually formed a huge crowd of at least five thousand.
John describes what happened but we need to read carefully or we might miss the special words and phrases and allusions he inserts into the narrative which operate like little ‘portals’ into the past and the future and thereby greatly enrich the significance of the present events.
For example, when John says that Jesus ‘climbed the hillside’, a ‘portal’ opens on to Moses who climbed Mt Sinai and brought the Law, the word of God, to the people. As Jesus climbs the hillside John wants us to turn our minds to Moses because he intends to show us that Jesus is the fulfilment of all that Moses did for the people.
It was shortly before the Jewish feast of Passover. Now why would John take the trouble to mention that the miracle of the loaves and fishes took place around Passover time? It is because he wants us to understand that what Jesus is about to do is an authentic development of what began with Moses and the people at the first Passover: the saving acts by which God set his people free from slavery in Egypt and brought them into a land of their own with a Law of their own. On their journey he fed them with manna (bread from heaven) and gave them water to drink from the rock, and flocks of quails to eat.
John wants us to understand that what Jesus is about to do has its roots in the Passover but has a fulfilment which is yet to come.
Looking up, Jesus saw the crowds approaching ... . What was he to do? There were only five barley loaves and two fish. He told his apostles: Make the people sit down.’ There was plenty of grass there, and as many as five thousand men sat down. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and gave them out to all who were sitting ready...
If I may continue with my somewhat banal image of the portal or the ‘wormhole’ we can identify a few more in what John has just said, only this time they look into the future rather than the past.
Firstly Jesus requires the people to ‘sit down’ – as is commonly done for a meal. It seems he intends to feed them. But more than this. When Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and gave them out to all, we find ourselves suddenly transported into the future where Jesus is at table with his disciples at the Last Supper, and even more than this, where we find ourselves sitting at this Mass two thousand years later, waiting to be fed.
The inspired text of John’s gospel shines both the spotlight of the Passover and the spotlight of the Eucharist on the present miracle of Jesus. It illuminates its place in the saving acts of Jesus and prepares us for the teaching which is to follow. It is a mighty teaching, a sublime teaching, a hard teaching but a wondrous teaching. It comes to us directly from God.
Indeed, as the verse before the gospel proclaims:
A great prophet has appeared among us;
God has visited his people. Alleluia!