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Gospel Commentary: The Bread of Life

The beginning of the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel is the source for this week's Gospel passage. The sixth chapter of John is usually known as the "Bread of Life Discourse" because Jesus speaks of Himself as the Bread of Life, given to us as real food and real drink. This week's Gospel provides the occasion for our Lord's "Bread of Life Discourse" by recording His miraculous feeding of the 5,000. As we meditate upon this miracle, several points call for our attention. First, we should notice that the initiative for this miracle comes from Jesus Himself. It is He who shows sympathy for the needs of the crowd, He who brings up the problem to Philip, He who orders the five loaves and two fish to be distributed among the people. So often in our lives, it is Christ who showers His graces and blessings upon us, even when we do not ask. Second, we should notice that, as a result of the Lord's initiative, the theological direction of the Gospel narrative begins to emerge. Jesus asks Philip about the possibility of providing food for the people — even though, as St. John reports, "He himself knew what he was going to do." Jesus wants to reveal that He Himself is the nourishment for our lives even at a natural or physical level. Christ will feed the crowds almost without anything, thereby showing that it is His creative power that sustains our life. The deeper meaning of the miracle, however, is that it is not simply our bodily life that Christ sustains. Rather, the structure of Our Lord's actions points the way to the institution of the Eucharist, the sacrament of nourishment for our spiritual life. St. John notes that the feeding of the crowds took place when "the Jewish feast of Passover was near." The Synoptic Gospels start the narrative of Christ's passion with the institution of the Eucharist, which takes place at the Passover meal. On the mountain slope, Jesus said, "Have the people recline," which was the normal way of eating a meal in those days, and which foreshadows the Last Supper at which Jesus "reclined (at table) with the Twelve" (Mk. 14:18). Jesus "took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining." All these actions reflect the institution of the Eucharist and the celebration of the Eucharist by the Church. The whole narrative of the feeding of the 5,000 is given a eucharistic coloring. Thus, the miraculous event reveals Jesus to be the true "bread from heaven." Unfortunately, the crowds who witnessed the miracle saw its practical side — they had been fed and were no longer hungry — but they failed to see the meaning of the miraculous deed. They concluded that Jesus was the expected Messiah-king and were ready to bring Him triumphantly into Jerusalem. The crowds were eager to support Jesus when He gave them what they wanted. However, this was not the way Our Lord would exercise His Messiahship or bring about His kingdom. Christ's way is the way of the Cross; His power is revealed through self-emptying love. Again, St. John sees in the Lord's words and actions a clear connection between the Eucharist and the Cross. Jesus, who fed the multitudes by breaking bread for them, will feed us also by breaking the Bread that is His Body and pouring out His Blood in the cup of the New Covenant. The whole of Chapter Six of St. John's Gospel is a commentary on the meaning of the Eucharist. The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, which we were not witnesses to, is but a foreshadowing of that daily miracle of the Blessed Sacrament, to which we are witnesses. Jesus, who once fed the crowds with bread, continues today to feed us, His followers, with the Bread of Life so that we might, in Him, live and never die. Fr. deLadurantaye is director of the Office of Sacred Liturgy, secretary for diocesan religious education and in residence at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2000