17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B); July 29, 2018
2 Kings 4:42-44; Ps 145; Eph 4:1-6; Jn 6:1-15
Deacon Jim McFadden; St. John the Baptist C.C.
The sixth chapter of John’s gospel, from which we’ll be reading for the next several weeks, is an on-going meditation on the meaning of the Mass and the Eucharist. We re-read John’s sixth chapter every third summer in the liturgical year Why this chapter? Why does the Church focus so carefully on it? John’s gospel does not have a narrative of Jesus consecrating the Bread or sharing the cup, which we find in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But what this chapter does have is a very defined Eucharistic theology albeit in symbolic form. I’d like to invite us during these hot summer days, to spend time reflecting on this chapter of John. Maybe read it with your family; maybe read it in private prayer; maybe do a lectio divina in which you read it for understanding and applying it to your lives.
Chapter Six begins in the context of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes: First, we hear this: “After this, Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee (of Tiberius). (And) a large crowd followed him. …”
(Jn 6:1). This is a motif one sees throughout the gospels: people are attracted to Jesus! The crowds were simply captivated by him; they wanted to be close to him. We saw it last week in Jesus as the Good Shepherd calling Israel back. We hear it in Mark’s gospel in which people came at him from all sides. There’s something magnetic about Jesus. The line from the liturgy reflects this attraction: “Age to age you gather a people to yourself so that from East to West a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name.” This liturgical passage captures the magnetic attractiveness of Jesus because we are here today! Why else would we be here if not to be with Jesus and give glory to the triune God
Then we hear, “Jesus went up on the mountain….” (v. 3a). This is an important symbol because ‘mountain’ is the place of encounter with God: Abraham binds Isaac on the top of Mount Mariah, Moses receives the Law on Mount Sinai, Elijah faces down the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel, Jesus gives his New Law on a mountain and is transfigured on Mount Tabor. Why? The ‘mountain’ symbolizes the aspiration of the human spirit upward and the condensation of the divine Spirit downward. It signifies a meeting of divinity and humanity; a meeting of divine and human freedom in the great God-drama.
Every Mass is a mountain encounter because every Mass is a sacred meeting place of divinity and humanity. When we gather for Mass, we’re gathering at the top of Mount Tabor, of Mount Sinai, the top of the Mount where Jesus gave us the Beatitudes. We become a place of a loving encounter with God.
Then we hear that “he sat down with his disciples” (v. 3b). In the ancient world, sitting down was the posture of the teacher when he teaches with his students literally at his feet. This is the Liturgy of the Word; it is Christ speaking to us through the Lector. It is the Word that has that has invited you to intimacy, that has attracted you, and now you sit down at his feet while he teaches you, especially the words of the Gospel. Then the Word is extended through the homily.
Then we hear, “The Jewish feast of Passover was near” (v. 4). During Passover, the Hebrews remembered the Exodus from Egypt, which was a movement from oppression to liberation. They signaled their solidarity as a people with the sharing of the sacred meal, and they ate the lamb that had been sacrificed to Yahweh.
What’s the Mass but the re-presentation of the Cross by which Christ sets us free from sin? The Mass is a recapitulation of Exodus—it is a liberation from the slavery of sin and death.
What is the Mass but the sacred meal which defines Christ’s people? That’s why Catholics are essentially a Eucharistic people.
Then we hear that “Jesus raised His eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him” (v. 5a) and that they were hungry. They symbolize Israel, which we reflected upon last week; but, even more broadly, they symbolize the entire human race across space and time. The whole human race which is hungry not just for physical food but, above all, hungry for life–hungry for purpose, for meaning, for joy. Brothers and sisters, put yourself into that crowd; that’s the idea: we’re all in that crowd coming to Jesus and hungering for purpose, life, meaning, and joy.
Then Jesus puts the disciples to a test. How can they feed all of these people? Philip, one of the Twelve, calculates that if they pooled their resources they might be able to feed 200 people, which would not be enough to feed 5,000. But, the disciples are in the market-place calculus, but Jesus substitutes the buying with another logic: that of giving. Andrew comes forward with the idea of a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish, but not enough to feed the multitude. Jesus, expecting this, order the disciples to make the crowd sit down, then he takes those loaves and fishes, gives thanks to the Father and distributes them, which prefigures the Last Supper and gives the bread its significance.
The bread is Jesus Himself. By receiving Him in Communion, we receive the divine Life within us and we enter into the dynamic of Trinitarian love. By eating Jesus’ Body and drinking His Blood, we become one with our heavenly Father and in fellowship among ourselves. By receiving Communion, we meet Jesus fully Risen. Taking part in the Eucharist means we are entering into the logic of Jesus, which is the giving and receiving of Life. And, as poor as we are, we all have something to give: we can give ourselves! So, to “receive Communion” means to draw from Christ the grace that enables us to share with others all that are and all that we have, which is exactly what God is doing for us.
And, then we have the final tidbit, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted” (v. 12b). Isn’t this exactly what we do at the Eucharist? Once we distribute the Body of Christ, we don’t let the fragments go to waste, but we gather them up, which was the practice of the early Church. We gather them up to take to the sick, the homebound, we gather them for the Tabernacle.
Last detail: “So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets…” (v. 13b). What is that but the twelve tribes of Israel? Jesus came to gather them and through them to gather the world. The Eucharist is the food and drink of the New Kingdom.
The crowd on the hillside were now magnetically attracted to Jesus; they were taught by Jesus, they were fed by Jesus; and they become the new nation. Well, that’s what happens at every Mass. We become the new gathered, fed, and satisfied People of God.
Once again I encourage you to walk through this Sixth Chapter of John over the next several weeks and dip deeply into this meaningful passage and this beautiful Gospel.