We often hear people say, sometimes from bitter experience, that ‘looks’ can be deceptive; with Jesus however, ‘looks’ always promote truth: giving teaching and comfort, offering guidance and help.
When Jesus, in our Gospel passage, told His disciples to have the people sit down and prepare for a meal, He undoubtedly remembered Elisha’s words, recorded in the Scriptures (2 Kings 4:43), when he was preparing to miraculously feed one hundred people:
Thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and there shall be some left over.’
And, indeed, there was some left over; but how much, or what later became of it, we are not told. With Jesus, however, after His feeding of the five thousand, He had the remaining fragments gathered into baskets which eventually totalled twelve in all, foreshadowing the complete tally (cf. the 12 tribes in Israel of old) of God’s future Chosen People whom the Apostles and their successors would feed as shepherds offering -- in the name of Jesus -- eternal life and the glory and fulfilment of a place at the feast of the Lamb in the Kingdom of God.
Noting the ‘looks’ again, we see that whereas Elisha multiplied twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain, Jesus multiplied loaves and fish… what does that difference help us to understand, in what way does it instruct us?
Jesus’ bread was not just for bodily sustenance, as His words against the devil seeking to tempt Him in the desert at the beginning of his public ministry remind us:
Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. (Matthew 4:4)
Elisha, being a prophet of God, provided bread for the bodily needs of his companions, the sons of the prophets gathered in Gilgal in his honour. Jesus however was more than a prophet, and so the bread He multiplied was food for the people’s bodily needs at that moment in time of course, but also and most significantly, it was a symbol of the food of God’s Word of salvation and re-creation:
Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:32–33)
Likewise, the fish He multiplied and gave to eat evoked the end days for which the prophet Ezekiel (unknown to Elisha) predicted that a stream would flow from the Temple in Jerusalem and purify the sterile waters of the Dead Sea:
The angel brought me to the entrance of the temple of the Lord, and I saw water flowing out from beneath the threshold of the temple toward the east. (The angel said), this water empties into the sea, which it makes fresh; wherever the river flows there shall be abundant fish. (Ezekiel 47, 1, 8-9)
That flow of purifying and life-giving water from the threshold of the old Temple foreshadowed the water that Jesus, Himself the new Temple, would give (John 7:37-39):
On the last day of the feast, Jesus stood up and exclaimed, ‘Let anyone who thirsts come to Me and drink.’ He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in Him were to receive.
The fish in Ezekiel’s prophecy thus foreshadowed Jesus’ future disciples, ‘fruit’ of His most Holy Spirit bestowed upon and working in His Church.
The Greek word for ‘fish’ in the New Testament became an acronym among early Christians for the ancient creed: ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’; and the symbol of fish -- big and small representing Jesus and His disciples -- was every bit as common among Christians in the early Church as is the crucifix in modern times. At Holy Mass, therefore, we Catholics receive the true bread of God, Jesus Christ our Saviour, Who ‘gives us life’ by bestowing His Spirit upon His Church … the Spirit given to form us ‘little fish’ ever more and more in the likeness of the Big Fish Himself, for the glory of the eternal Father. We are indeed called to worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth!
The hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and truth.” (John 4:23s.)
This nourishment for God’s Christian People looks like bread and wine because it is to be food for His disciples; but it is not like ordinary food which we eat and, by digesting, change into our own bodily substance, since the food that Jesus gives is intended to gradually change the recipient into a member of the Body of Christ living by the Spirit of Christ. And that presence of Jesus as heavenly food for His People on earth we call His Eucharistic, Sacramental Presence. The glorious Jesus, however, the One Who is to come at the end of time -- resplendent in all His heavenly majesty as Judge and Lord of All -- is not, as yet, directly present to us. Therefore we should appreciate that the Jesus we receive at Holy Communion comes primarily as Food for the way, as we see foreshadowed in another episode from the life of the great prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:7-8):
The angel of the LORD came back the second time, and touched (Elijah) and said, "Arise and eat, because the journey is too great for you." So he arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God.
Elijah ate the food the Lord provided for him in order that he might have strength and power to continue on his way to finally reach the mountain of God; and today, at Holy Communion the priest says:
May the Body (the Blood) of Christ keep me (you) safe for eternal life.
The Eucharistic Gifts do not directly confer divine life, they strengthen and empower divine life already bestowed on the recipient, that we – like Elijah -- may fulfil God’s plan and our vocation to reach the mountain of God and share in the heavenly feast of the Lamb.
In a similar vein, Saint Paul told us in the second reading that, for the disciples of Jesus, on the way to their heavenly home:
There is one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, Who is over all, and through all, and in all.
Notice those words: “there is one body and one Spirit”. “One body” refers primarily to the Church as the Body of Christ, but it is also to be related to the one Body, the one Food, for all those who are living members of the Church which is the Mystical Body of Christ. “There is one Body and one Spirit” because the Body, the Eucharistic Presence of Christ, is given so that we might be filled – each and every one according to his or her measure -- with the one Holy Spirit of Jesus, by Whose power alone each of us will be enabled to follow Jesus and ultimately attain, in Him, our heavenly destiny.
That is why it is so important for good Catholics to appreciate the real nature of the Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist: He is there as food for the way – to sustain those who are actively on the way. And to those on the way to what is beyond their imagining and largely hidden in the future, He says, You have My promises and My presence, so:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.’ (Matthew 7:7-9)
That is what Jesus expects from His Catholic people: that, unashamedly, we ask and ask again with sure hope and patient trust; and that, with humble confidence, we persist in our knocking; because the only good Catholic is one who is spiritually alive, that is, one constantly searching for Jesus, and in Him -- by His Spirit – looking towards the Father. Likewise, the only ‘good’ communion we can make is one that opens us up to want to know and love Him ever more, and to serve Him, His Church, and His people, ever better; a communion with Jesus that makes us, in and with Him, yearn to know and long to do the Father’s will. No matter how old or weak we may become, we can still long and aspire to such knowledge and love, to such prayerful service and praise of God, in Jesus and by His Spirit.
Finally, let us also learn from the ‘looks’ of our Eucharistic food, People of God. Jesus’ presence there is humble – a thin white wafer and a sip of wine -- apparently insignificant, veiling as well as transmitting the Flesh and Blood of the Lord. Such appearances should help us appreciate that we can best show our love and appreciation of Jesus in the Eucharist by walking humbly and with deep gratitude along that journey whither He is calling us. It is in and through this daily Eucharistic food-for-the-way that Jesus communicates to us His Spirit, so that, abiding in us and working with us, the Spirit might enable us to progress along the way of Jesus and grow in His likeness to the extent that, on arriving ultimately at the Father’s house, we will recognize it as our true home:
In My Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. (John 14:2)
And so, as we rightly rejoice in the Lord, let us remember that this food is always a new beginning whereby, as St. Paul puts it:
Forgetting what lies behind (and) straining forward to what lies ahead I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13)
We have before us much walking to do: along ground both rough and hard, with, perhaps, some ascents to exhilarating joys, but certainly not without descents into suffering and sorrow; and, much of the time, indeed, we will be walking along ways that can seem both wearisome and boring if we allow our love for the Lord to become lukewarm. However if, by the Spirit, we humbly persevere on that journey and take care to protect ourselves against snares hidden along the way, we will ultimately behold and worship the Lord Jesus coming in all His glory to meet us and take us, as His faithful disciples, into His Father’s presence.
May our whole-hearted participation in this our Sunday Mass, and our grateful reception of Jesus in His Eucharist Presence, help us on our way to join those blessed ones whose hunger and thirst for what is to come continually urges them to cry out with ever greater longing and expectation: Come, Lord Jesus, come!