I imagine that many of us have had the occasion to go to a concert, conference or large gathering of some sort. Hearing the Gospel today, it isn’t hard to picture the gathering of these five thousand as Jesus preached. In addition to the longstanding tradition of Catholic back-pew preference, the reality is that not everyone would have gotten a front row seat anyway – most of the folks who came probably were some distance away from Jesus.
It makes sense then to think that there were a lot of folks – maybe even the majority – who didn’t entirely grasp the wondrous thing that happened that day. They came, they heard, they got a free meal when people started passing out bread and fish, and then they went home. Just another day at the Sea of Galilee!
In fact, there is a theory in modern Scriptural studies that what happened in this story wasn’t miraculous at all. The holders of this theory say that the real ‘miracle’ was that Jesus inspired all these people to share what they had.
Let me take this moment to say bluntly: what a giant stinking pile of …. baloney.
The apostles themselves no doubt realized that no small number of people might not get the amazing thing that happened that day. So important is this miracle that among all the miracles – the healings, forgiveness offered and raising of the dead – the only miracle to be presented in all four Gospels is this one. Make no mistake, this was a miraculous event, and one that we should sit up and notice!
There is a statistic that often gets quoted within the Church about the Eucharist. It claims that something between 60 and 80 percent of Catholics have little or no faith in the Real Presence of Christ, that they doubt or disbelieve that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.
I don’t want to spend this time evaluating that statement or the faith of us present, but there is something understandable to this issue. Like those who came to the hillside in today’s Gospel, we all come to Mass, hear the Word, receive something to eat and go home. And what we receive sure looks just as normal as that bread and fish! How easily we might go away not realizing that something wondrous has come to us.
This Sunday marks the first of several that highlight Jesus’ ‘Bread of Life’ discourse. We will have plenty of opportunities to reflect on the meaning of the Eucharist. I could spend this time talking about things like transubstantiation (Google it, its worth your time), consecration or the necessity of priesthood. There are thousands of pages of books that we could pore over, delving into the meaning of ‘Real Presence’ as we contemplate this mystery.
Or we could talk more practically about what it meant to the Apostles or how the early Christians were willing to risk persecution in order to receive this great sacrament. We might recall all those who have celebrated the Eucharist despite the threat of death – the Irish gathering furtively in the woods celebrating Mass on a stone in the the rain, the hundreds who have died in South America simply to proclaim Christ in the monstrance they followed, the Chinese who must still conduct Mass in secret lest they be thrown in jail for the remainder of their lives.
But all these things serve to answer the question of what the Eucharist means to others. Moments after the homily is given, you will have the opportunity to come forward to receive this great gift. The priest or an extraordinary minister will elevate the host or the chalice and proclaim ‘The Body of Christ’, ‘The Blood of Christ’, to which you will respond ‘Amen’ (‘I believe’).
In the light of this great mystery, this wonderful miracle, it is worth asking: what does this mean to you?
How terrible a tragedy if we were to come forward at Mass, receive this gift and for it to make no difference in our day, this week or the rest of our lives! Because if this truly is the Body and Blood of Christ, then surely it must make some sort of difference, surely we must be somehow better, somehow holier in receiving.
What do you believe about the Body and Blood of Christ that is offered at Mass? How does it change you – or how would you like it to change you? In short, what does the Eucharist mean to you?
May we not take for granted the miracle in our midst, nor fail to consider how blessed we are to receive it – that we might benefit as God intends us as we receive this gift of the Body and Blood of His Son.