And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would. (John 6: 11)
In his account of the life and ministry of our Lord, St. John omits to tell his readers about the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. He no doubt had his reasons, but whatever they were it may be that he considered the subject to have been covered by recounting the story of the feeding of the multitude (in chapter 6) and by Jesus’ subsequent teaching on Eucharistic theology which takes up the rest of that chapter.
It would be valuable for us to tease out some of the eucharistic threads which can be found in the story. By the time John came to write his account, traditionally the last of the canonical gospels to be written, the practices of the early church with regard to celebrating the eucharist would have been well established. We know that the apostles obeyed Jesus’ command to ‘do this in remembrance of me’ from the very beginning of their ministry – as soon as they had found their feet after Pentecost. St. Luke writes of the ‘breaking of bread (Acts 2: 46) and perhaps more importantly St. Paul writes at length about how the rite should be celebrated (and how it shouldn’t be!) in 1 Corinthians (11: 17-end). The Apostle recounts the words of Jesus and then writes of the importance of preparation and worthy reception. A simple re-reading of the passage from 1 Corinthians will make it clear that what we do now is the same as the early church did….
So looking at the eucharistic threads in our story we should first notice that Jesus is the host at what appears to be an al fresco feast. And he is a generous host too. All of those in the company eat their fill and despite the large numbers present there is a great deal left over. When we are called to the sacred feast it is Jesus himself who is inviting us and he never disappoints.
The meal is rooted in thanksgiving as all meals, both sacred and secular should be. The first thought is for the God who has provided such bounty and the opportunity to meet together to share it. Here we have an example of the people of God being the people of God. They are not simply sharing in an impromptu picnic – some sort of accidental gathering – but being the people God has called them to be. When we gather together at the altar we are being the people of God in our time. The meal defines us.
The subsequent discourses remind us that we are feeding on the bread of life. Jesus says to his disciples:
I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. (John 6: 35)
This shows that the Eucharist is not simply a window onto another, future world in which we might be invited to share in the great banquet of the Messiah.
And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the Lord hath spoken it. (Isaiah 25: 6-8)
Instead, here on the mountain (remember that the feeding takes place on a mountain across the Sea of Galilee and that Moses met God on a mountain and received the Law) the purpose of the New Covenant is explained and its benefits are acted out. The people of God gathered together are fed by the hand of God in his presence. Once we recognise this then the story of the feeding makes sense. It is not just another miracle or just a pointer to how things will be in the future. This meal is a declaration of the presence of God and of the redemption he comes to bring. In the sacred meal we are offered life in all its fullness.
It is easy to take part in the Eucharist without recognising its full significance. The events and words recorded by St. John should remind us that we are not simply here for a test drive to see if we like what is on offer. We are here to receive heavenly food and to accept the life which Jesus offers – and has won for us at such a cost – and to allow ourselves to be made anew in his image. In the Eucharist Jesus is in the driving seat and we are on the journey with him. Our Lord himself encourages his disciples not to be satisfied with second best.
Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed. (John 6: 27)
And so we gather to fulfil his command.
Father Andrew Burton SSC
14th March 2021
Image by Wesual Click on Unsplash