The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, which we heard in the gospel last Sunday, fundamentally concerns the Most Holy Eucharist. The abundance of food given to those gathered with the Lord and his apostles near Bethsaida is a sign of the super-abundant and super-substantial gift of the Lord himself, his very own body and blood, given to us in Holy Communion. By this miracle—as by those which preceded it under the old testament—the Lord softens the heart of man to receive the true food, the bread of angels, the Most Holy Eucharist, which sustains us on our pilgrimage to heaven. By providing for the natural nourishment of those who have sought him out he shows how, by the fruits of his sacrificial love on the cross, he will provide also for the supernatural nourishment; that feeds the soul, and which gives his people the grace to become more and more like him.
This could not be more explicit than in the gospel today. Those who have been fed with their fill of natural food still yearn for the Lord, following him across the lake to Capernaum. By their participation in the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes they have been prepared to participate in a greater miracle, and to receive a greater food; one which will not simply sustain them in this life but which is life itself. They follow the Lord across the waters because, essentially, it is his very person and his life for which (albeit unknowingly) they hunger and thirst. The Lord confirms this when he says, “my Father gives you the true bread from heaven . . . I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” (Jn 6: 32; 35).
This returns us to the gift of the Most Holy Eucharist. In this great sacrament the Lord gives his us body and blood, soul and divinity, hidden under the forms of bread and wine. By our participation in the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice, through Eucharistic adoration, and most especially by our reception of Holy Communion, we become recipients of that which those before longed to taste: the gift of Christ’s own life. The Israelites fed with manna in the desert, and the multitude fed with the miraculous loaves and fishes: all have been promised what we, in the act of Holy Communion, actually receive.
This in turn emphasizes the important ecclesial character of the Most Holy Eucharist. By our incorporation into the life of Christ in baptism, and thus our membership of his mystical body, the Church, we have become one with him, and so fit to receive our nourishment from him. When the Lord instructs the crowds, “I am the bread of life”, he does not simply move their hearts toward the gift of himself in the supernatural food of the Most Holy Eucharist, but to a relationship with him. Only after they beg, “Lord, gives us this bread always” does he reveal to them, “I am the bread of life.” (Jn 6: 34-35). That is, only after they have expressed their desire for him does he explain that it is by a relationship with him, by knowing him—the very personal “I am”, not “this is”—that they may receive the true bread “which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (Jn 6: 33).
How, then, might we participate in that relationship and so become recipients of the food that prepares us for and conforms us to the very life of Christ? Principally (as we have said) by our grafting to his life in baptism. By putting to death the life of sin which is ours through the fall, we are reborn into the eternal life found uniquely in the person of Christ. By this regeneration our soul is joined to his mystical body; literally incorporated into his very person. So it is within that mystical body, the Church, that we find the authentic means of our relationship with the Lord, and thus the bread of life after which our souls hunger and thirst. In order to receive him, then, we must first be one with him by that essential gift of baptism; oriented toward his person and his life.
More than that, though, when we damage that relationship by our sin—marring the white robe of baptismal grace—it is the grace of receiving him that we forfeit. As Saint Paul reminds us: “Whoever . . . eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 11: 27). Thus when we are in a state of serious sin, and have put to death the relationship begun in us at baptism, we cannot come to receive its fruits. Only by reviving that living friendship with the Lord through sacramental confession can we hope to again be participants in his strengthening life in this world, and receive the gift of eternal life in the world to come.
And this is the ultimate goal of our endeavours. In this relationship with Christ we are nourished and fed. The Lord God who fed the Israelites in the wilderness and led them to the promised land, by a new covenant feeds us also and leads us to our rightful home. Thus the psalmist proclaims: “he brought them to his holy land, to the mountains his right hand had won.” (Ps. 77: 54). It is this holy land, this mountain which the Lord himself has gained, that we come here and now, in the supreme expression of our relationship with him and his mystical body: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Here we participate most perfectly in the personal-passionate relationship we share with Christ through our union with his Church. Here we come as individuals, each brought into that bond of union with him by baptism, and become one with him in the offering of himself to the eternal Father. Here we are fed with Christ, by Christ, and in Christ; with his body, by his body, and in his body, and thus made ready to share eternal life with him in the presence of his everlasting Father.
As we come once more to this awesome action of our Lord and God in the Eucharistic oblation, let us unite ourselves anew to his mystical body by our fidelity to his will for our lives. May we forever be one with him in the communion of his Church and, receiving his very self as our food for the journey, may we be more perfectly conformed to his likeness, that by our communion with him in this life we may be made fit to enjoy forever the vision of his glory.
This homily is part of a series on the Bread of Life discourse, delivered in August 2015. You can read the complete set of homilies by clicking here.