Jesus’ famous feeding of 5000+ people is mentioned in all 4 Gospels. That certainly says something about the impact of that event in the collective memory of the early Church. Ancient tradition associates this event with a specific site on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee, known as Tabgha, where a picturesque outdoor shrine commemorates the miracle. (You may remember hearing about Tabgha in the news recently because of some vandalism that occurred at the church there in June.)
When I visited Tabgha over 20 years ago, it was summer. So it was hot and dry. But today’s Gospel story [John 6:1-15] puts the event in the spring, at Passover time, when green grass grows abundantly in the area. And so the evangelist John portrays the people sitting picnic-style in groups on the grass, just as those fed by Elisha in today’s 1st reading [2 Kings 4:42-44] had probably also done.
When I was a boy in the Bronx in the 1950s and early 1960s, our family – that is, the entire extended family full of aunts, uncles, and cousins – used to go on picnics practically every Sunday in summer. And, before my father bought his first car, that meant a long trek by bus and subway from home to the picnic ground. That was actually quite the production, because it involved transporting enormous quantities of food. In those days, Sunday dinner was a fixed part of any reputable Italian-American family’s Sunday. So going on a picnic on a Sunday meant lugging large pots full of pasta and sausage and all sorts of other wonderful food. Looking back on it now, carrying all that with us on the bus and the train seems like an awful lot of work, which I am sure it was, but at the time we thought nothing of it. That’s just the way it was if you were going to have a picnic.
The point is, of course, that to have a picnic the food has to come from somewhere! And usually that means bringing it ourselves. So it must have been in today’s Gospel story. Some, probably, had planned ahead and brought their food along as they followed Jesus and maybe even still had some left; but the rest had either not brought any food or (more likely) had used it all up already and were getting hungry again. In any case, Jesus recognized he needed to do something.
But it was the way Jesus did what he did that was as striking and as memorable as what he actually did. “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” Jesus asked Philip. It’s as if he were saying: Philip, these folks are our guests, and we have to feed them! Obviously, the disciples would have been distressed by being given this responsibility! Poor Philip, not quite yet out of seminary, and he’s already acquired the feeling-sorry-for-himself, whiny tone of a tired, over-stressed pastor: “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.”
Just down the path from the site of this miracle, on the same shore, is another shrine, which marks where, later on, the Risen Lord cooked breakfast for seven disciples and then commanded Peter to feed his sheep. In this instance, Jesus was giving them a foretaste of that future responsibility.
Luckily for them, of course, Jesus was there to help, and to demonstrate just what it means to be his Church in a hungry world. Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining. Note that Jesus didn’t just magically make food out of nothing. He worked with what they had already, with the limited resources the people already had, with whatever remained of the food supplies some people had brought with them, and he made them into something more – something God’s People have had to learn how to do ever since.
Our weekly celebration of the Eucharist reenacts - in a ritualized way - that most famous of all picnic lunches. At this meal, we here are nourished and commanded in turn to feed and to nourish one another – both physically and spiritually, - and not just one another in the narrow sense, but the whole world, because, in God’s kingdom, there can be no providing just for oneself, no eating while others go hungry, no security at someone else’s expense. Good news kept to oneself or shared with just some select few is not the good news of Jesus.
As Pope Francis has recently reminded us: “It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation... The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter. He comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world of ours. In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living centre of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love… Thus, the Eucharist is also a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation… And so the day of rest, centered on the Eucharist, sheds it light on the whole week, and motivates us to greater concern for nature and the poor” [Laudato Si’, 236-237].
Back in the Gospel story, it appears that the people remembered the story of Elisha and so figured that Jesus is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world. But unfortunately it seems that they got only part of the message, interpreting it in a narrow, self-absorbed way, thus turning good news into bad news – as has happened too often in human history.
Our world is hungry for the good news that God is sharing with us in his Son and which we are meant to share with the world. And, as he did with his disciples, Jesus is here to show us how – how to be the Church he is challenging us to be.
Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 26, 2015.