Jul 28, 2012

17th Sunday: So little, so much

"Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them . . ."

2 Kings 4: 43-44
Eph 4: 1-6
Jn 6: 1-15

Early in our school years we learn the discipline of our multiplication tables.  As a child, my first impression of them was as a kind of game: 3 X 3 = 9; 5 x 5 = 25; 9 x 3 = 27, etc. Do you know your 3’s or your 7’s? Such simple numbers we can do in our head.  But throw a more challenging set of numbers at you such as 973 x 237 =? Now, where’s that calculator? 

The point of these equations is that they increase “exponentially” we might say.  From something that is small we quickly calculate a greater increase: 3 quickly become nine when another 3 is multiplied with it.  And on it goes. More and more without limit until we get into a number so enormous that it is hard to comprehend.  

It seems Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel took great advantage of this same principle.  The crowds before him, as we heard last Sunday, were vast.  They were hungry for leadership and they found in Jesus a potentially great leader whose mysterious power impressed them.  They saw his healing of the very sick. They felt the effect of his words upon their hearts.  And now, a more basic need is presented. They’re tired and hungry so Jesus decides to feed them in an extraordinary way. He multiplies the scant food that is present – 30, 60, a hundred, and a thousand fold. 

We could just stop there and say this was likely one of the most amazing and impressive miracles – or “signs” as John refers to the miracles of Jesus. It indeed left an impression on those who shared in the multiplied loaves and fish.  After all, why wouldn’t it?  As we will hear in next week’s Gospel (Jn 6: 24-35) , a continuation of this one, they wanted more of the same. But John wants us to see far more than just an amazing miracle of Jesus here.

Yes, Our Lord came to feed us. To reconcile humankind with God and to gather back into the fold those who have gone astray.  But this encounter with Jesus on the mountaintop was and is far more than feeding people.  It is more about conversion of heart and life.  Those who heard Jesus teach, those who were touched by his healing power and forgiven of their sins, were forever changed or at least invited to begin that process in their lives.

From the small amount of food, five barley loaves and two dried fish, Jesus not only feeds the hungry crowd of thousands but is calling them to recognize him as the ultimate sign of God’s presence among them. In the heat of such an astounding event it would be easy to understand how the general crowd might miss the real point of it all. When you’re hungry, you’re hungry and nature sort of takes over.

But now that they were fed, Jesus invites them, as John always does in his Gospel, to see this “sign” as something more than what appears on the surface.  The bread and fish become food, which sustains life, which has its origin from Jesus, whose power and person is able to bring lasting change of heart and life.  This all lies behind an event along the Sea of Galilee that reverberates to our own day today.

For the early Christians, and beyond, the Church has pointed to this event as a foreshadow of the Eucharist. 

The vast crowd is gathered.  So too are we assembled with one another as the Mass is to begin.  The priest, in the person of Christ, leads the celebration. He reads the Word of God in the Gospel. Jesus has been teaching the crowds his word.

As the gifts, the food of bread and wine, are brought to the altar we can see the bread and fish offered to Christ.  Symbolically, the bread is minimal in relation to the people assembled.  So too was the pittance of food presented to Jesus in relation to the thousands gathered along the hillside.

Jesus took what he was given, gave thanks as the Priest does in the Eucharistic Prayer, and then distributed the now multiplied food to the crowds.  So too is Communion distributed to the gathered Church.  The crowds before Jesus ate to a level of satisfaction – “as much of the fish as they wanted.”

Into their hands was given bread and fish.  Into our hands is given Christ himself truly present under signs of bread and wine – his Body and Blood.  Christ himself becomes the food we eat.

After all was completed, some continued to pursue Jesus for more.  Others likely went off to tell about what had happened and about who had made it happen. In that sense, they bore witness to Christ himself.

In the same way, once we have received this Bread from Heaven we are called to become a sign ourselves of the living Christ as we live the faith we profess.
For the hungry and tired crowd, lost like sheep without a shepherd as Jesus' commented last Sunday, the food satisfies only temporarily.  It is the encounter with the living Christ that brings change.  So to for us - expoenetially over time as we allow God's grace to grow within us.  

Like the Apostles sent on mission to the surrounding towns, we may or may not be received well.  But, we have born witness to what we have heard and to who we have consumed.  In that way, the faith continues to be multiplied over again.