“Apart from the fact of our Lord’s death and resurrection,” wrote Msgr. Ronald A. Knox about the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, “no incident in his career is more generously documented than this miracle.” It is a story direct and simple in its details, yet a narrative that nourishes us with its rich content and deep well of meaning. Among those riches are three relationships for us to consider.
First, the feeding took place in the immediate aftermath of the heinous murder of John the Baptist by Herod the tetrarch (Mt 14:1-12).
The earthly ruler, Herod, was violent and prideful, focused on his passions and pleasures. Jesus, the true king from heaven, was peaceful and motivated by mercy and love. Herod stood — or lounged, as it were — in direct contrast with Jesus, who was moved by pity and love. Upon hearing of his cousin’s execution, Jesus sought solace in “a deserted place,” most likely to spend time in prayer (cf. Mk 1:35). But his preaching and his confrontations with the religious leaders had created a large following, a vast crowd who came from the surrounding towns to see and hear him.
Today’s first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, describes the people — thirsty, poor, eager to listen — as well as the gifts offered by the God-man: physical and spiritual food and nourishment. “Heed me, and you shall eat well; you shall delight in rich fare,” the Lord said through the prophet. “Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.”
Second, there is the relationship between Jesus and the people, which is kingly and covenantal in nature. As Isaiah wrote: “I will renew with you the everlasting covenant, the benefits assured to David.” But it is also priestly, for Jesus brought healing, curing the sick among the crowds. And the subsequent miracle involving five loaves of bread and two fish was certainly priestly in character, foreshadowing the essential acts that took place at the Last Supper: taking food, blessing it, breaking it and giving it to the disciples.
Jesus was not able to pray in solitude, but he still prayed to his Father — and he did so for the sake of the crowds and the disciples. Interpreted spiritually, Jesus prayed on behalf of the world and the Church, for he would soon give his life for the world and establish his Church in the world. “God,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church remarks, “created the world for the sake of communion with his divine life, a communion brought about by the ‘convocation’ of men in Christ, and this ‘convocation’ is the Church” (No. 760).
The feeding of the 5,000 was, again, a foretaste of this saving truth, for all those present communed with the Savior, the Lord of life, and “they all ate and were satisfied.”
Finally, there is Jesus’ relationship with us today. It is personal, intimate, transformative — and it comes through and in the Church. We were baptized into Christ; We receive his body and blood in holy Communion.
Therefore, the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 is a reminder and a promise. It reminds us that we are in the desert — the world — but we are not abandoned or alone, for Christ established the Church, the sacraments and the priesthood for our sake, out of his sacrificial love (cf. CCC, No. 1355). And it is a promise of future, everlasting life; for nothing, as St. Paul wrote to the Romans, can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.