Chapter 15: The Miracle of the First Multiplication of Bread and Fish
The Miracle of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fish happened twice: The first (Mt 14: 13-21) multiplication fed nearly five thousand people, and the second (Mt 15: 32-39) fed nearly four thousand. The gestures, expressions and actions of Jesus in both miracles are similar to those at the Last Supper and the breaking of the bread at Emmaus with his disciples after the resurrection of Jesus: “He took the bread and said the blessing; then he broke it and handed it to them” (Luke 24:30). The similarity of the actions converges towards the Eucharistic meaning of the Last Supper.
Have you ever experienced the miraculous action of God filling a gap in your life? Have you ever acted charitably, bringing something to eat for the poor, without asking them for a reward? What impressions do you have when you go to Mass? Do you feel in harmony with the prayers and reap benefit from the homily, or do you remain isolated in your own world, full of your own interior feelings, without being able to concentrate and enter the depth of the mystery? That’s what we are going to try to explain in our meeting today: the significance of the miracle, and the importance of Sacrament of the Eucharist in Christian life.
2- Reading and understanding the Gospel: The Miracle of the First Multiplication of the Bread and Fish (Mt 14:13-21)
13When Jesus received this news (the beheading of John the Baptist), he withdrew by boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves. But the people heard of this and, leaving the towns, went after him on foot. 14So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them and healed their sick.
15When evening came, the disciples went to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the time has slipped by; so send the people away, and they can go to the villages to buy themselves some food.” 16Jesus replied, “There is no need for them to go: give them something to eat yourselves.” 17But they answered, “All we have with us is five loaves and two fish.” 18“Bring them here to me,” he said. 19He gave orders that the people were to sit down on the grass; then he took the five loaves and the two fish, raised his eyes to heaven and said the blessing. And breaking the loaves he handed them to his disciples who gave them to the crowds. 20They all ate as much as they wanted, and they collected the scraps remaining, twelve baskets full. 21Those who ate numbered about five thousand men, to say nothing of women and children.
2. 1- Explanation
The evangelist mentions two miracles of multiplication of bread and fish. The first (Mt 14:13-21) occurs in a Jewish context that appears through the figures used: five loaves, five thousand men who have eaten, and twelve baskets of leftovers; the number five indicates the five books of the Law, and the number twelve is that of the tribes of Israel and of the Apostles. The second miracle (Mt 15:32-39) occurs in a pagan context that appears to be also through the figures: seven loaves of bread and seven baskets, the number seven symbolizing perfection; and those who ate were four thousand, this number indicating the four cardinal points of the earth: north, south, east and west.
This miracle shows the abundance of God’s gifts to humanity. Indeed, it is the God of fullness who fills everything that is lacking in our lives. The importance of this event is also indicated through its symbolic meanings and messianic, ecclesial and sacramental consequences.
At the messianic level, Jesus appears as the shepherd who leads his flock to fresh pastures (notice the word ‘grass’ at v.19). It was he who proclaimed: “Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28), and here we see him now, feeding those who are hungry, watering them with his blessings. The background of this miracle is the feeding of the starving people by God with manna and quail, in the desert in the time of Moses. The aim of the miracle is not so much to show God’s power as the manifestation of His mercy for all those who experience trouble, hunger or lack of any kind. Indeed, Jesus “took pity” on the crowds and healed their infirmities (v. 14). It was irrefutable proof that he is the expected Messiah.
On the ecclesial level, the disciples are involved by Jesus in the distribution of bread; first, he hands it to them, and they then distribute it to the crowds (v. 19). Indeed, the role of the Church lies the continuity of the multiplication of God’s blessings, the explanation of the Gospel and the distribution of the sacraments to the people of God. It is a stimulus to move them from their situation of “little” faith, to a deeper and more confident faith in Emmanuel – God-with-us – present amongst them. The passage speaks of women and children as well as the men, hinting at the family and secular dimension of the Church alongside its clerical dimension, the clergy represented by the disciples.
The ecclesiastical dimension is linked to the Eucharistic dimension through the liturgical acts of Jesus: “he took the five loaves and the two fish, raised his eyes to heaven and said the blessing. And breaking the loaves he handed them to his disciples who gave them to the crowds” (verse 19). The prayer of blessing is typical of that proclaimed by Jews before a meal, but the Eucharistic pattern is clear, “When evening came, the disciples went to him.” (verse 15), hinting at that last supper between Jesus and his disciples, which happened in the evening.
2. 2- Summary and Practice
Jesus asked his disciples for the few loaves and fish they had, multiplied them and fed thousands with them, with the leftovers filling several baskets. Presenting what we have to the Lord is a source of gifts and blessings on his part. Maybe we think that material and spiritual gifts are minimal compared to the needs of the world, but the experience of the disciples encourages us not to keep them for ourselves, but, on the contrary, to present them to the Lord; he’ll give them back to us, multiplied and over-flowing. The Byzantine prayer says it: “What is yours is from what you own; we offer it to you, as a token of everything and for the sake of everything.”
The baskets filled with leftovers were twelve in number, like the number of disciples, indicating to the disciples that their duty was to continue what Jesus had started. Indeed, every disciple has a duty to perpetuate the preaching of the Word of God, to visit those in need, to found churches, to administer the sacraments and celebrate the Eucharist. This is how Christian life will continue, and it will have no end.
3- Theological and Spiritual Teaching: The Sacrament of the Eucharist
The Church also calls the Eucharist “the sacrament of sacraments” because she considers it as the source and the summit of Christian life. Lord Jesus, in the night before his crucifixion and death, gathered his disciples for a meal, and, in a very significant gesture, he took the bread in his hands, gave thanks to God the Father, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples by saying: “Take and eat all of you, for this is my body.” So the broken bread is his Body, broken on the cross for the salvation of the world. Then he took the cup, gave thanks and gave it to his disciples, so that they might share in his blood, shed for them and for the world. Then he told them to do this in memory of him. The Church preserves this legacy in faith to this day. She gathers every day, and Jesus, crucified, risen from the dead, and ascended into Heaven, is always present in her midst, through the Holy Spirit; through the priest, acting in the Person of Christ, he breaks bread, and presents the cup of salvation to all the faithful, so that they may share in his Body and Blood, and that they may become one in him.
This celebration is the foundation of the Church; she builds on it. Each time we gather for Mass, the Lord Jesus unites us in his Body and we become his Church. During Mass, at the moment of epiclesis, the priest prays for the descent of the Holy Spirit on the offerings and on the community that is gathered there; we believe that, just as the Spirit of God transforms bread into the Body of Christ and wine into his Blood, he does the same for the community there present, transforming them into his heavenly Body. From that point, the elements of the Mass take on a very original and amazing significance. Indeed, the faithful exchange a sign of peace as a sign of their new brotherhood, for they are one united family, the people of God. All stand together, and pray to Our Father with Christ, the only Son of God, for they are children of the one Father who lives in heaven.
The Eucharist is the central foundation of our lives. Every Sunday we come to church, bringing with us everything we’ve been through during the week, all the good we’ve experienced and all that we have endured in the name of love; we present all of this as a gift to God, a gift akin to the offering of his Son, accomplished on the cross; thus, the offering of the faithful becomes, along with that of Christ, a pure offering accepted by God the Father. In turn, the Lord God offers us the most precious gift, the Body and Blood of Christ, as our spiritual nourishment. This Eucharistic Bread is an essential food for the believer. It accompanies him throughout his life of faith. In our journey through life, communion strengthens us, so that we can grow spiritually and overcome the various challenges of life.
The Church commands us to attend Mass every Sunday and every Solemnity; it is a salutary duty of every individual believer. In addition, many Christians participate daily in the Mass, which becomes for them the foundation of their spiritual life.
4- Reading and Meditation: Reading from St Irenaeus of Lyons (c.140-202)
The Eucharist – token of the Resurrection
By His own blood he redeemed us, as also his apostle declares, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins” (Col 1:14). And as we are his members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and he himself grants the creation to us, for he causes his sun to rise, and sends rain when he wills (Mt 5:45). He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as his own blood, from which he bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase to our bodies.
When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him? – even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that “we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones” (Eph 5:30). He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh (Luke 24:39) but [he refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones – that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is his blood, and receives increase from the bread which is his body. And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground yields fruit in its season, or as a grain of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the Body and Blood of Christ; so also our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time, the Word of God granting them resurrection to the glory of God, even the Father, who freely gives to this mortal immortality, and to this corruptible body incorruption (1 Cor 15:53), because the strength of God is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:3), in order that we may never become puffed up, as if we had life from ourselves, and exalted against God, our minds becoming ungrateful; but learning by experience that we possess eternal duration from the excelling power of this Being, not from our own nature, we may neither undervalue that glory which surrounds God as He is, nor be ignorant of our own nature, but that we may know what God can effect, and what benefits man receives, and thus never wander from the true comprehension of things as they are, that is, both with regard to God and with regard to man. And might it not be the case, perhaps, as I have already observed, that for this purpose God permitted our resolution into the common dust of mortality, that we, being instructed by every mode, may be accurate in all things for the future, being ignorant neither of God nor of ourselves?17