A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for Sunday, July 31, 2011 | Carl E. Olson
• Is 55:1-3
• Ps 145:8-9, 15-16, 17-18
• Rom 8:35, 37-39
• Mt 14:13-21
Embarking upon parenthood several years ago, my wife got a nasty flu bug. Concerned that our daughter, who was just a few weeks old, might contract the same illness, I took care of her around the clock while my wife recovered. It was a memorable, sleep-deprived learning experience. I was especially struck by how utterly dependent my daughter was on me for food, and how when I fed her she exuded a sense of trust and contentment. That simple but life-giving action gave me a sense of joy and a deeper awareness of my fatherhood.
We usually take food for granted; in fact, our concerns about food often focus on eating less of it. That would rarely, if ever, be the case for people in the ancient world. In addition to food often being scarce, it was also usually simple: water, grains, milk, honey, dates, wine. When the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”, he was not simply being poetic. He was expressing the desire that common people had for the day when they wouldn’t have to worry about having enough food and where it would come from.
Yet Isaiah’s words, in addition to being rooted in the pangs of real hunger, are also poetic and prophetic. They speak of a promised age when the people of God would experience the fullness of life that was represented by an abundance of food but went beyond physical sustenance: “Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life. I will renew with you the everlasting covenant…” In the words of the Psalmist, the Lord “answers all our needs.”
Our physical needs can alert us to spiritual hunger. Likewise, physical signs can point to spiritual realities. Such is the case with the account of the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, also known as the feeding of the five thousand. It is the only miracle described in all four Gospels, which suggests it had great significance for the Evangelists. “The meaning of the miracle is clear,” wrote Monsignor Romano Guardini in his classic work, The Lord, “It does not consist of the feeding of the crowd. … No, the feeding of the thousands is a revelation of divine abundance.”
What is this divine abundance? It is, the Catechism explains, the mystery of the Incarnate Son of God, given to man under the appearance of bread and wine: “The miracles of the multiplication of the loaves, when the Lord says the blessing, breaks and distributes the loaves through his disciples to feed the multitude, prefigure the superabundance of this unique bread of his Eucharist” (par 1335).
The compassion that Jesus had for the people and the way he went out to meet them in the midst of his grieving is in direct contrast to Herod’s birthday party (Matt 14:1-11), which climaxed with the murder of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Whereas Herod took life to satisfy his desires, Jesus gives life and satisfies man’s deepest needs.
In feeding the people, Jesus’ actions deliberately foreshadow the institution of the Eucharist. He took the loaves, blessed them, broke them, and gave them to his disciples—the same actions that later took place at the Last Supper: “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, ‘Take and eat; this is my body’” (Matt 26:26; cf., Mk 14:22).
The word “multiplication” never occurs in Matthew’s account, nor is it clear when the food did multiply. Was it when Jesus gave the food to the disciples to distribute? If so, it fits with how that supernatural action anticipates the Mass and how the Father in heaven allows mere men, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to participate in the saving work of the Son. Priests, being spiritual fathers, give spiritual food and drink to the children of God, bringing abundant joy and supernatural life.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the August 3, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
Related Articles and Essays on Ignatius Insight:
• The Eucharist: Source and Summit of Christian Spirituality | Mark Brumley
• The Liturgy Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, OP
• Benedict and the Eucharist: On the Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis | Carl E. Olson
• The Eucharist and the Rule of Christ | Fr. James T O'Connor
• Abbot Vonier and the Christian Sacrifice | Aidan Nichols, O.P.
• The Meaning and Purpose of the Year of the Eucharist | Carl E. Olson
• The Doctrine (and the Defense) of the Eucharist | Carl E. Olson
• Walking To Heaven Backward | Interview with Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory
• Rite and Liturgy | Denis Crouan, STD
• The Mass of Vatican II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.