2 Kgs 4:42-44
Psa 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18
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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