The Lectionary for Mass is a mystery to most folks, even to those who are very involved in parish life. One simple thing to know about the Sunday readings is that they run on a three-year cycle. In Year A, for example, we hear mostly from the Gospel of Matthew. In Year B, we mostly read from Mark. And, in Year C, the Gospels come from Luke.
Right now, we’re in Year B—the year of Mark. Yet, the Gospel for this Sunday is taken not from Mark, but from John. This week, and actually for the next four Sundays, the Church reads from the same chapter: John, chapter 6. Why? What’s going on? What is this foray into John in the middle of the Year of Mark all about?
Well, John chapter 6 is a special chapter. The Gospel of John doesn’t have any account of the Last Supper, when Jesus instituted the Eucharist. That’s not to say, of course, that John includes no Eucharistic theology. He just goes about it differently than Matthew, Mark, & Luke (what are called the “Synoptic Gospels”). The main way John goes about teaching us about the Eucharist is through chapter 6 (what is called the “Bread of Life Discourse”). So, over the course of these five weeks every three years, we make a mini-retreat on the topic of the Eucharist, which is certainly a worthwhile subject.
So, what happens this week in John 6:1-15? This is the story of the “feeding of the five thousand” (which, interestingly, is one of the only stories about Jesus recorded in all four of the Gospels). This story is drenched in Eucharistic overtones, if we look at it closely.
The very first verses tell us that “Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee” and that “a large crowd followed Him.” So there’s something magnetic about Jesus. The people want to follow Him and to be with Him. It reminds me of the words of the Third Eucharistic Prayer: “You never cease to gather a people to Yourself, so that, from the rising of the sun to its setting, a pure sacrifice may be offered to Your name.” Jesus is always gathering us to Himself.
Then what? Jesus wants to feed the people, but they only have “five barley loaves and two fish.” That is all they have, and they don’t know what to do with it. So they give it to Jesus. In much the same way, the faithful gather for Mass with nothing but a bunch of hosts made from unleavened bread and some basic wine. They usually sit on a little table towards the back of the church, waiting to be brought forward in procession. What do we do with them? We give them to the priest, who stands in the place of Christ and, at the offertory, offers the meager bread and wine to become something more.
Then what? John tells us that “Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them.” We do the very same thing in every Mass. The priest “takes” the bread, he “gives thanks” over it, he “breaks” it during the Lamb of God, and then he “distributes” the Eucharist to those who are present. Take, bless, break, give: that’s the rhythm of the Eucharist! The people receive and have their fill.
Next, the Lord tells His disciples to “gather the fragments left over.” We do that, too, at every Mass. The remaining consecrated hosts are gathered together and placed into the tabernacle. The Eucharist is reserved there to be taken to the sick and for our prayer and adoration as we make visits throughout the day or week.
This Gospel passage is, indeed, drenched with Eucharistic overtones. What Jesus did that day was a tremendous miracle, and it was a clear foreshadowing of the Sacrament He would later establish the night before He died. We’re going to read the rest of this chapter over the next four weeks as we make our mini-retreat on the Eucharist. Maybe it would be a good idea, with the extra time we have in the summer lull, to sit down and read the chapter straight through. It would take 10 minutes, and it would put John’s theology of the Eucharist in perspective for us. Consider it your summer homework for this week: bust out your Bible, dust it off, and read John chapter 6.
When we read the Word of God, just like when we receive Him in the Eucharist, we have something to chew on. The Lord allows us to have our fill.