In lectionary cycle B, the Church turns from Mark’s Gospel for five weeks to contemplate the Bread of Life discourse in the Gospel of John. John 6 is important to Catholics, who see in Jesus’ words a foretaste of the Eucharistic banquet we celebrate at Mass.
Yet, we should not be too quick to turn to the last part of John 6, where Jesus claims, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6:53). We first must attend to the stunning claim that salvation is understood as God feeding His people.
The Scriptures are full of God serving as a supernatural chef for Israel. Israel wanders in the desert, not yet in the land of milk and honey. God intervenes, raining down “bread from heaven” (Ex 16:4). Likewise, with but 20 barley loaves, the prophet Elisha feeds more than 100 people, with leftovers nonetheless (2 Kgs 4:42-44).
God transforms Israel’s hardness of heart in the desert into a superabundant banquet. God transfigures the smallest gift of 20 loaves of bread into a feast. “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs” (cf. Ps 145:16).
In John’s Gospel, we encounter the person of Jesus, who reveals that he is the Lord who feeds the new Israel. He crosses the Sea of Galilee, moving away from the primary place of activity in the Gospel of John. He enters the wilderness, ready to feed Israel, who longs to eat.
With five barley loaves and two fish, Jesus feeds the entire crowd of 5,000 men, and more, counting women and children. Philip estimates that they would have needed over half a year’s wage to feed the crowd. But, not only was there enough food, there were 12 wicker baskets left over. The number 12 here should not quickly be passed over. There are 12 tribes in Israel’s history. And now Jesus has come to re-establish Israel, miraculously feeding the People of God in the desert.
The crowd partially recognizes what has taken place. They proclaim that Jesus is the great Prophet, and they seek him out to make him king. They want him to rule over them, to establish God’s reign on earth.
Nonetheless, the crowd does not yet understand what this reign will entail. For in the Gospel of John, few recognize what Jesus is doing through the “signs” he performs. They focus on the miracle, the wonderful event of divine food.
But they forget to look more closely at the reality made manifest by the sign. They do not yet see the identity of the Word made flesh, the Word who feeds us.
Those of us who live today do not experience such miraculous feeding. But we are still fed by the hand of God.
The God who feeds us through delighting and chastising us in the wisdom of the Scriptures.
The God who gives us his Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
The God who hungers and thirsts for justice in the poor men and women whom we are called to serve.
The God who has established a permanent presence on earth through the sign of the Church, the gathering of men and women who are the first fruits of the resurrection.
These are the great banquet halls where our smallest offering, the only offering we have — our whole self — is transformed through God’s power.
So, let us follow Jesus into the wilderness of the Church where we can dine with the living God.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.