“Such was the greatness of his miracle that he willed the slender supply of food not only to be enough but even to prove superabundant. Here he followed ancient precedent.” The early Christian writer and theologian, Tertullian, writing about the multiplication of the loaves and fishes by Jesus, referred back to the miracle performed by the prophet Elijah for the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:17-24). He could have also (as did other early writers and Fathers) referred to the miracle performed by Elisha, the successor of Elijah, who multiplied “20 barley loaves from the first fruits,” as we hear in today’s first reading.
Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fishes was indeed meant to bring to mind the great deeds of the past prophets. We should keep in mind that the Old Testament prophets did not only speak with words, but with actions. The miracle of food increasing and abounding foreshadowed the work of a coming prophet who would offer supernatural food.
Today’s Gospel is the first of five successive readings from the sixth chapter of the fourth Gospel, a chapter that is long (71 verses in all), brilliantly constructed and filled with endless theological and spiritual riches. The teachings in it are so mind-boggling that the miracle of the loaves and fishes — dare I say it? — seems almost ordinary. But, of course, there was nothing ordinary about it. It further revealed Jesus’ identity to the people: “When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, ‘This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world’” (Jn 6:14). The Jewish people anticipated a return of Elijah, based in part on the prophet of Malachi, “Lo, I will send you Elijah, the prophet before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day” (Mal 3:23). The obvious similarities between the miracles of Elijah and Elisha and the signs performed by Jesus spurred speculation that the miracle worker from Nazareth was Elijah himself (Mt 16:13-14).
But the miracle on the mountain was just the beginning. Once they were paying attention, Jesus began to present the amazing teachings we will hear in the next four Sundays. This pattern is one found throughout the Gospel of John: Jesus begins with a physical object or event, such as birth or water or bread and fishes, and uses it as a springboard into deep spiritual truths. Think, for example of Nicodemus (Jn 3) or the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4). Not surprisingly, these truths often have to do with the sacraments; in the case of John 6 it is the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
A hint of things to come is found in the timing of the feeding of the multitudes: “The Jewish feast of the Passover was near.” The Passover was the ceremony in remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, a defining moment in Jewish history. During the first Passover described in the fourth Gospel, Jesus cleared the temple and prophesied of his death and resurrection (Jn 2:19-22). The third Passover, of course, was when Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified (Jn 19:14).
During the second Passover, as we will see in two weeks, Jesus spoke again about his death and resurrection (Jn 6:51). But he first spoke through the act of multiplying food. “Thanks be to him,” St. Augustine wrote of that moment. “He fulfilled through himself what was promised in the Old Testament.” And further fulfillments were still to come!
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.