It’s a shame many who listen to today’s well-known gospel pericope won’t get the message Matthew originally intended us to get. To hear what the evangelist expected us to hear, we must point out two frequently overlooked elements in this passage.
First, this miracle, like all gospel bread miracles, is about the Eucharist. (In John 6 Jesus even institutes the Eucharist during the miracle, not at the Last Supper.) It’s the only miracle narrated in all four gospels – a total of six times. The early Christian community was convinced that what happened that day had something to do with their celebrations of the breaking of bread.
Second, Jesus doesn’t feed the people; his disciples do. He only insists, “Give them some food yourselves,” then blesses their small collection of bread and fish, and finally returns the paltry fare “to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.” Because of his followers’ generous sharing of their food, “all ate and were satisfied.”
When Scripture scholars talk about a biblical Eucharist, they certainly don’t have today’s celebration of “Mass” in mind: an event in which a liturgically attired and officially ordained man enters a specially constructed “sacred space,” and recites specific words over elements of bread and wine, transforming them into Jesus’ body and blood.
We know from I Corinthians 11 that when Jesus’ first followers gathered to celebrate the Lord’s Supper they simply shared a potluck meal during which their recognition of themselves and one another as the body of Christ also caused them to recognize the risen Jesus in the bread and wine they consumed. This recognition only happened because they died enough to become one with everyone around them. They literally gave themselves on various levels to one another.
The heart of a biblical Eucharist doesn’t lie in special words or special people reciting them, it revolves around a special giving of themselves by all who participate in this exceptional meal. That’s why today’s gospel Jesus is forced to overcome his disciples’ logical complaint that they don’t have enough to share.
That leads us to the next question: what do any of us have that we can share with others during the Lord’s Supper? The vast majority of us aren’t professional theologians, musicians or counselors, and since we no longer participate in a potluck meal, we can’t even share our favorite recipes.
It would be helpful if our parishes at least had dialogue homilies and open Prayers of the Faithful. But no liturgical regulation can stop us from being totally open to all around us. Those who receive such a personal, generous gift know what Deutero-Isaiah is talking about when he quotes Yahweh encouraging those “who are thirsty to come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat!” There’s no charge. We have no idea what basic needs we fulfill when we simply give ourselves enough to make all feel welcome.
No wonder Paul is so convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. He knew nothing can separate us from the love of the Body of Christ, present and giving during the Eucharist.