This weekend we listen to St. John’s Gospel and although we are in Ordinary Time to hear from St. John is a little extra-ordinary. During the Sundays of Ordinary Time we usually hear from Matthew, Mark and Luke; John is proclaimed during the Christmas and Easter seasons and on special feast days.
Nonetheless, every three years the Church, in Her wisdom, gives us the entire sixth chapter of St. John-what is called the Bread of Life Discourse-to meditate on and delve more deeply into. Today, and for the next four weeks which follow, we will read through and listen to this remarkable chapter in which Christ announces that He is the Bread of Life; how His body and blood are God’s gift to nourish and strengthen us on our way home to Heaven. It is a beautiful reflection on the mystery of the Eucharist, something so central to our lives as Catholics.
Our discourse begins with the miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000. This miracle is found in all four Gospels but there are details provided by St. John that move us purposefully in two directions. Firstly, St. John wants his audience to recognize the connection with the past: the history of Israel and the significance of this miracle with all that God has already done in the lives of His chosen people. At the same time John draws their attention—and ours—to the significance of the miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000 and to what Christ will do as He founds His Church gives us the Eucharistic celebration which we experience even now, some 2,000 years later.
We begin with the past. St. John tells us there were 5,000 people there and that Christ had them all sit down on the grass; there was plenty of it in that place. As they reclined on that grassy meadow, Jesus fed them physically and nourished them. It is not difficult to see the connection with Psalm 23, so familiar to us and even more so to them:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul…
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of my enemies…my cup overflows…
And so there they are, seated like lambs in a green pasture, being fed by the Good Shepherd who cares for their every need. St. John wants his audience to realize that the God who cared so well for Israel in the Old Testament is still with them to nourish their bodies and restore their souls.
But more importantly, John also tells us that this miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000 took place around the time of the Passover (only John mentions this; Matthew, Mark and Luke do not). Why is this important?
The celebration of the Passover was the most important meal—indeed a Feast of utmost significance—for the Jewish people. It was a feast which recollected all that God had done and which celebrated their very identity as the people God had chosen and saved from slavery in the land of Egypt. Remember that first Passover where God commanded Moses to have each family slaughter a lamb and sprinkle its blood on the doorpost. The Angel of Death would then go through the land but would pass over each of the houses where the blood of the lamb was sprinkled.
Thus God spared Israel and saved that nation from slavery and oppression. He commanded them to celebrate that Passover Meal each year as an everlasting remembrance of how they were saved by God. That celebration was still taking place in the time of Christ, and St. John is making sure that the people understand that this is the context for the miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000.
At the very time Israel is remembering that moment of their salvation and the meal that commemorated their freedom and new life with God, Christ is providing for them another meal. He whom St. John has already told us is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), is present among them to nourish them in a miraculous way.
But at the same time John also wants to move us in the other direction, not only to recognize the connection with the past but also to see how this miracle leads us ever more deeply into the mystery of Christ which we will come to know as the Eucharist. He does that by describing for us the actions of Christ in detail.
As the people reclined, Christ took the bread, gave thanks and then distributed it among them. Does that sound familiar? It is the very same thing He will do at the Last Supper, something we recall at every Mass: that He took the bread, blessed and thanked God, broke it and then gave it to the disciples.
It is the miracle of the Eucharist that has feed not 5,000 people but countless millions since the foundation of the Church. Christ is preparing the people for that Eucharistic miracle even as they recline on the green grass and watch in wonder this Good Shepherd who gives His very life for the sheep. Imagine, this is only the beginning of this five-week discourse on the Holy Eucharist!
But what I would call your attention to this weekend is the amazing fact that Christ does not perform this miracle by Himself. He could have. He has no need to rely on help from anyone in performing mighty deeds among the people. Nonetheless chooses to rely upon the apostles in accomplishing the Feeding of the 5,000.
Remember, Christ begins by asking Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” (John 6:5), a question to which He already knows the answer. It is the apostles who bring to Him that offering of 5 loaves and a few fish from that small boy. The apostles are the ones who assist Christ in distributing the food to the people, and they are the ones who collect the fragments left over: 12 baskets full, one for each of them.
Why is that important? Because these are the same twelve men who will be present at the Last Supper when Christ will once again take the bread, bless it and thank God, then give it to them, saying: “Take this all of you and eat it. This is my body.” At that Last Supper He will command them, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
They will be the ones who will take the bread and wine, consecrate it and offer that sacrificial gift of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. They will provide the Eucharist for the nascent Church in fulfillment of the promises of Christ. These are the first priests of Jesus Christ, and in this Year for Priests which Pope Benedict XVI has initiated we thank God for the gift of the priesthood, because without the priesthood there is no Eucharist. Without the priesthood there is no sacrifice of the Mass.
In closing I would like to ask you to pray for two things that are essential as we celebrate this Year for Priests. In his homily on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, when he began this Year for Priests, our Holy Father Pope Benedict spoke about the importance of the holiness of the priest. If the priest is not holy, how can he help the people he serves to grow closer to our Lord? If the priest is not holy, how can he lead others in the path of holiness?
Yet there are some challenges when it comes to recognizing this need for the prayers of the church that Her priests will be holy. The first one is that many people simply assume that the priest is holy already. Surely there is nothing our prayers can add; anyone who says yes to God in that vocation must already be holy. Unfortunately that is not the case! Priests struggle with the same difficulties as everyone else, and in this secular world priests have the same temptations that all the faithful have; they strive just as much as anyone else to be faithful to God in thought, word and deed. So please, pray for your priests! Pray that God will make your priests holy and that they will stay holy!
On the other side of the spectrum is a much smaller group, thankfully, and we all know people who make up this group. They are the ones who will say that we should not bother to pray for priests because none of them are any good to begin with! They are quick to point out how "Fr. So ’n So" did this ten years ago, or that other priest said that fifteen years ago. Therefore none of the priests are holy. This is a very negative and cynical position to say the least (not to mention illogical, for that matter) and one that God would have all of us avoid. So please pray for priests, that they will indeed be holy.
Secondly please pray that God will continue to call more priests and that the men He is presently calling will have the courage to say, “Yes.” We are very blessed to have three priests living at St. Mary’s. There are many parishes in our diocese that do not even have one full-time priest. In some places, when the pastor takes a vacation it is a major task to locate priests who will be able to celebrate the Eucharist there that week. We need to ask the Lord to continue the work that is already taking place in abundance in many parts of our diocese, and ask Him to bless those who are being called to this fruitful and life-giving vocation.
May our prayers to God be answered for more priests and holy priests as we continue to draw closer to Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life.