Bringing Holy Communion to the sick is an important part of Catholic health care ministry. In this reflection, we will consider the gospel accounts of Jesus feeding the multitude in order to deepen our understanding of what this ministry is all about.
The Gospel of John makes a profound connection between Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the multitude and Jesus’ feeding his people his people with his body and blood in the Eucharist. In the beginning of chapter six, Saint John gives his account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. This provides the background for Jesus’ famous discourse on the bread of life. After the miraculous feeding, when the crowds follow Jesus across the sea, he observes, “I tell you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled” (John 6:26). He then exhorts them, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:27). He goes on to say, “I am the living bread that come down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51). In John’s gospel, the miraculous feeding with “food that perishes” introduces his disciples to the Eucharistic food, his own body and blood, “that endures for eternal life.”
The other three gospels make the same connection in a different way. Unlike John’s, Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels all include accounts of Jesus instituting the Eucharist at the Last Supper. In each of those accounts, Jesus is described is doing four things before telling his disciples, “This is my body.” He took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it. In their accounts of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the crowds, the evangelists use the very same words. In Luke, for example, we read, “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to his disciples to set before the crowd” (Luke 9:16). The evangelists’ parallel use of these four verbs in recounting Jesus’ feeding the multitude and his institution of the Eucharist is striking. Once again, Jesus’ miraculous feeding points to the miracle of the Eucharist.
The connection between Jesus’ feeding of the multitude and his gift of the Eucharist allows us to draw on the accounts of the former to better understand the latter. What we read about Jesus feeding the multitude can deepen our appreciation of how Jesus feeds us with his body and blood. This can be especially fruitful for those of us who serve as ministers of Holy Communion, whether at Mass or to the sick and disabled in their homes or health care facilities. Let us consider a few examples.
“When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34).
Saint Mark’s words describe the tenderness and love that motivate Jesus’ miraculous feeding. It is with the same pity and the same purpose that Jesus feeds his people with his body and blood in the Eucharist. Communion is a gift of merciful love. Every time someone worthily receives the Lord in this Blessed Sacrament, Jesus acts as the Good Shepherd, gathering that person more securely into the sheepfold of his Church.
“There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves” (Matt 14:16).
With these words, Jesus enlists his disciples in the work of feeding the multitude. Jesus could have done this without their help. Nevertheless, Jesus’ wanted to involve them in his miraculous feeding. In the same way, Jesus wants to involve his disciples in feeding his people in Holy Communion. Those whom the Church ordains and commissions as ministers of Holy Communion are chose by Jesus to be his instruments in feeding the hungry crowd with his body and blood.
“When they had had their fill, he said to the disciples, ‘Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted” (John 6:12).
Jesus instructs his disciples to collect the remaining fragments. In the accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke, we read that those fragments filled twelve wicker baskets. Jesus had his disciples take care that everything was preserved and nothing wasted. How much more care should we show for every fragment of the bread of life that is Jesus himself?
“He said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds” (Matt 14:19).
Before the disciples give the loaves to the crowd, they first receive them from Jesus. In order to give, they must first receive. Here is another echo of what Jesus did at the Last Supper. He gave the bread, which had become his Body, to his disciples and said, “Do this in memory of me.” As ministers of Holy Communion, we give to others what we have first received. To be excellent ministers of Holy Communion, we must be faithful and frequent recipients of Holy Communion. We who are called to give the Bread of Life to the multitudes must first know in our own lives the profound impact of receiving it from Jesus.
“They all ate and were satisfied” (Mark 6:42).
All four gospels contain a version of this remark. Those who are miraculously fed by Jesus go away satisfied. In the Gospel of John, Jesus distinguishes between the bread that satisfies only for a time and the Bread that satisfies forever: “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:27). The Eucharist is the food that really satisfies. The Body and Blood of Christ that we consume in Holy Communion endure in our souls long after the physical elements are assimilated into our bodies. As ministers of Holy Communion we have the privilege of feeding others with “the food that endures for eternal life.”
“When the leftover fragments were picked up, they filled twelve wicker baskets” (Luke 9:17).
This observation concludes the accounts of the feeding of the five thousand in all four gospels. In Matthew and Mark, the accounts of the feeding of the four thousand conclude with the statement, “They picked up the fragments left over – seven baskets full” (Matthew 15:37; Mark 8:7). These numbers are significant because, in Jewish tradition, both twelve and seven represent fullness or completion. Twelve is the number of the tribes of Israel, the full assembly of God’s people. Seven is the number of the days of creation that culminated with the Sabbath day, when God rested after completing his work. When the gospels tell us that twelve or seven baskets of fragments were left over after Jesus’ miraculous feeding, it suggests the fullness and superabundance of the food that Jesus gives. In the Eucharist, Jesus feeds us with the fullness of who he is. Our hearts cannot even begin to contain the abundance of what Jesus gives us. As in Psalm 23, our cups “overflow” with the fullness of God when we receive our Lord in Holy Communion.
“When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, ‘This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world’” (John 6:14).
According to the Gospel of John, the reaction of the people to Jesus’ miraculous feeding was to believe in him. In like manner, when Jesus wondrously feeds his people with his body and blood, he increases the faith of those who receive him faithfully. The Eucharist is a sacrament that both presupposes faith and strengthens faith. To receive Communion worthily we must possess faith already, the faith we received through baptism and by which we “discern the body” of the Lord (1 Cor 11:29). Then, when we faithfully receive Jesus in Holy Communion, that heavenly food nourishes in us the faith we already had. Our faith is strengthened and increased in our reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood. Having been feed with the Bread of Life, we too see the sign that Jesus has done and, with increased faith, confess that he is truly the Prophet, the Messiah, the Son of God and Savior of the world.