The Feeding of the Five Thousand
Eighteenth Sunday of the Year. Is 55:1-3; Ps 144:8-9.15-18; Rom 8:35.37-39; Mt 14:13-21
The seventy-three books of the Bible have a unique property that distinguishes Scripture from all other forms of literature. As well as the words signifying things - objects, events, places and so on - the things described in the Bible also signify other things, both in this world and in eternity. So when Jesus feeds the five thousand in today's Gospel, this is not merely a spectacular miracle that took place two thousand years ago. Jesus is also giving us a symbol of the Holy Mass that we celebrate every Sunday. In other words, we are ourselves involved in the actions described in today's Gospel. In this short homily I want to explore a few of these rich connections between the feeding of the five thousand and the Sacrifice of the Mass.
First of all, the place of the action is significant. The disciples say that they are in a ‘lonely place’ where time is slipping by. This place foreshadows the conditions of our lives today. We too, amid the bustle of our modern towns and cities, dwell in a society that is, in many respects, a lonely place. Many people today are cut off both from their Heavenly Father and the Church, their spiritual mother. Without these unifying principles, people are increasingly isolated from one another and even divided internally. Furthermore, as it says in the Gospel, time has slipped by and evening is approaching - the Biblical sign of death. For all of us, life is short; indeed, it is even possible that the evening of our civilization is approaching, a civilization that has largely turned its back on God and the Catholic Church.
Amid this gathering gloom, however, Jesus commands his disciples to give his people something to eat, something to sustain them in the wilderness. Here we begin to see in the text the symbols of the Holy Mass, the most powerful means by which God sustains us in our earthly pilgrimage. The fish is, of course, an ancient symbol of Christ himself - the first letters of the Greek word for ‘fish’ (icthus) are a primitive Creed, ‘Jesus Christ - God's Son - Savior’. So the fact that the people eat the fish prefigures the way in which we take Christ into ourselves. Why, then, are there two fish? One theory is that the two fish represent Christ in the Old and the New Testament, but they could also represent the two ways in which Christ comes to us in the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. As for the bread, this is, of course, a foreshadowing of the Body of Christ which we receive in the Mass. Why, then, are there five loaves? For the Jewish people, the number five represented the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament that are a nucleus or foundation for the whole of the Old Testament. In other words, the fact that there are five loaves also identifies these as a symbol of sacred Scripture. So the loaves and the fish both represent, in different ways, the two main parts of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Once Jesus has raised his eyes to heaven, said the blessing and broken the bread the miracle of the multiplication takes place. The way that Jesus multiplies the food to feed a vast crowd prefigures the way that he has fed - and continues to feed - many millions of members of the Church with his own Body and Blood in the Mass. Furthermore, the fact that Jesus asks his disciples to distribute the food prefigures the role of the priesthood in this saving action, since it is priests who offer the Sacrifice of the Mass and principally distribute Communion. Finally, the twelve baskets of scraps collected by the the apostles signify the things that people cannot take in all at once, those things entrusted to the teaching office of the Church, the implications of which gradual unfold with the passing of the centuries.
So in reading this Gospel, we are not only recalling a spectacular miracle of the past, but hearing a miracle that symbolizes what is happening right now in this very Mass. In the Gospel, the people who, like ourselves, live under the shadow of death, who sit on grass which is the very symbol of their mortality, receive the word of life and a foreshadowing of the bread of immortality. May God give us a renewed appreciation of the great gift he has given us in the Mass and may he prepare us for the great and final feast to which he calls us, the Wedding Feast of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Fr. Andrew Pinsent, Our Lady of Consolation, West Grinstead, and Corpus Christi, Henfield, 2nd August 2008
© Fr Andrew Pinsent. Academic Web Site.