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The “sheer contradiction” of the miracle of the loaves and fishes

On the Readings for Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish, stained glass window in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Zagreb, Croatia (Image: zatletic | us.fotolia.com)

Readings:
2 Kgs 4:42-44
Psa 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18
Eph 4:1-6
Jn 6:1-15

John 6 is probably the passage of Scripture I have studied the most, perhaps only matched by St. John’s Apocalypse. Both the Fourth Gospel and the final book of the Bible are filled with statements and images that challenge and edify in unexpected ways; each reading and study results in a step further into the mystery of Christ and his saving work.

Take the multiplication of the loaves, described in today’s Gospel. We use the word “multiplication,” but it actually never appears in the text. Is it, in fact, the correct word? The brilliant Frank Sheed in To Know Christ Jesus (Angelico Press, $11.95), suggests it is not. Not to worry, Sheed doesn’t deny that a stunning miracle took place at the hands of Christ; rather, he insists that we might easily miss exactly how stunning it was.

This miracle, wrote Sheed, was rather different from the earlier miracles of healing and casting out demons, which were “in a sense quite straightforward.” Yes, they involved divine power, but they were somewhat understandable: a man who was lame could now walk, or a person possessed by a demon was now liberated from that presence. The Gospel, Sheed notes, “makes clear that the loaves themselves were not really multiplied at all: there were five of them at the end as at the beginning, the same gift, but now in 5,000 stomachs and 12 baskets.

“It was,” proffers Sheed, “their presence that was multiplied, the number of parts of space they occupied at the same time. Multilocation of loaves would be more precise than multiplication.” What took place was not straightforward at all; it was “a sheer contradiction” and a profound lesson in the difference between the appearance of things and the substance of things. The disciples, Sheed suggests, had been given a chance to see “that matter itself is more mysterious than matter’s surface.”

But the disciples were slow to understand and dulled to the dazzling wonder they had witnessed firsthand. We need not surmise this, for Peter — the direct authority behind the Gospel of Mark — has the Evangelist state in his account: “They were astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened” (Mk 6:51-52).

As we know, the miraculous feeding on the mountain was just the beginning; it was an overture that set the stage for words that would shock and even divide. The miracle made the people sit up and pay attention. And once they were paying attention, Jesus began to unveil and present the amazing teachings we will hear for the next four Sundays.

This pattern is found throughout the Gospel of John: Jesus begins with a physical object or event, such as birth (Nicodemus in Chapter 3), water (the Samaritan woman in chapter 4) or bread and fish, and uses it as a gateway into deep spiritual truths. As we will see in future Gospel readings, the physical sign of multiplying bread — itself a symbol pointing to the Eucharist — led to the declaration of a spiritual truth, “I am the bread of life” (Jn 6:35).

The great shock, however, is found where Jesus states, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6:53). How could that be possible? Did Jesus really think he could offer himself to countless followers and still remain one and whole? Wouldn’t that be a sheer contradiction? That is, as Sheed indicates, food for deep thought.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the July 15, 2015 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)


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About Carl E. Olson 1117 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

16 Comments

  1. Drat! I think I missed it. Was Sheed inferring that the original five loaves were ultra dense or that the five loaves were “flittering” between stomaches and baskets!?

    • Yeeeaah. Not quite. I think part of Sheed’s point is that miracle of the loaves and fishes was even more closely aligned with the miracle of the Eucharist than we sometimes think, in that Christ’s Body and Blood are not “multiplied,” but always remain One–and yet are received by countless faithful every day. Far from implying that the miracle was not somehow real, Sheed argues that is real in a way that we can hardly begin to comprehend, for we have such limited understandings of both the material and the divine.

      • Mr. Olson,
        Thank you for the insight. If I’m tracking correctly, I have the following statements.

        God is immaterial, perfect, and infinite and can certainly be in more than one place at the same time. But ordinary matter does not have this property to our knowledge. But glorified matter [for which we only have glimpses from the gospel accounts] quite possibly could have this property. Therefore, It could be inferred that the “multiplication” of the loaves was a prefigurement of glorified matter.

  2. This Sunday’s Gospel, on the miracle of the loaves and fishes, gives an occasion often repeated throughout the year, where we can protest the disbelief of Cardinal Kasper (the favorite theologian of the current pontiff), declared on pp 90-91 of his book Jesus the Christ, that the miracle accounts of the Gospels are “legends” (1974 edition, later reissued in different pagination, but the very same denials, in 2011). This includes all the miracle accounts, such as the loaves and fishes, commanding the wind and sea, and raising the widow’s son, the daughter of Jairus and Lazarus.

    And we see the fruits of his disbelief in the collapse of the Catholic Church in Germany.

    He is a priest, Bishop and Cardinal…why?

  3. Thank you Carl for being attentive to the readings. I find that attachment to God’s word is the best way to prepare for meeting Him in the Eucharist. I live in a different time zone than yourself. Glad to say though, that your article is there before I leave for Mass. Good you mentioned a fellow Aussie and hero of mine. Keep up the fantastic work all of you.
    Stephen in Australia.

  4. Someone chided me on another website for saying that the Real Presence in my hands at consecration is a miracle of love. Actually I was privileged to a lengthy dogmatic correction that the Real Presence is a mystery, since a mystery cannot be perceived by the senses while miracles can. For example a physical healing at Lourdes. Felt disappointed and rather careless until a day or so later I read in my breviary St Thomas Aquinas commenting on the Eucharist calling it a miracle of love. Felt better. Something can be a mystery requiring faith and also a miracle of God’s love. That he should go to such lengths appearing when I say the words over the bread and wine and when Fr Stan does in Hornell, Fr Tom in San Diego and so forth simply because he wants to be with us, within us, in our heart. It reminds me of The Apostle appealing to the Colossians Make room for me in your hearts.

    • “Make room for us in your hearts” 2 Corinthinas 7,2 is the actual reference, which began this mornings breviary readings including a commentary by St John Chrysostom. John Chrysostom says in his commentaries that The Apostle emulated Christ more completely than any other. Our Lord speaks to St Catherine of Siena of “My glorious Paul”. Paul reveals that glory in his sufferings, and great love for Christ’s sheep evident in his letters and Acts of the Apostles. In The Apostle’s own words Make room for us in your hearts is as it were Christ speaking to us in the Holy Eucharist.

  5. In regards to the essence of Perfect Love, Love does not divide, it multiples, through The Unity of The Holy Ghost. (Filioque)

    There is only One Way, One Truth, One Life (Light) of Perfect Love, thus “ it is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”.

  6. Hello Mr Olsen,
    I read your book “Will Catholics be Left Behind?” and was pleasantly surprised by the due diligence on your part with the wealth of knowledge that provides. Here you espouse some of that type of knowledge and am curious about a particular point:
    “But the disciples were slow to understand and dulled to the dazzling wonder they had witnessed firsthand. We need not surmise this, for Peter — the direct authority behind the Gospel of Mark — has the Evangelist state in his account: “They were astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened” (Mk 6:51-52).”

    Where can I find out about Peter’s directives to Mark and that type of background understanding of the New Testament?

    Thank you

    • I assume they are long taken home and eaten. 😉

      Again, to be clear, the column does not any way deny the miraculous feeding. Quite the contrary.

  7. Pope Francis thinks there was no miracle. Just a sharing of food between people who
    under Jesus’ influence had become less greedy.

  8. You have no idea what you are saying. I feel sorry for you for you are neither enlightened, Catholic or Christian if you do not understand Jesus’ message with the miracle of the fishes and loaves. You would have been a Pharisee who called for the Crucifixion of our Lord. You Judas. May God bless you with conversion of heart for you need to confess and pray for His mercy.

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