Commentary on the Readings
Feast of Corpus Christi – Year C
The Word and the Bread
Jesus did not leave us a statue, a photograph, a relic. He wanted to continue to be present among his disciples as nourishment. The food is not placed on the table to be contemplated, but to be consumed. Christians who go to Mass, but not receive Holy Communion, should be aware that they are not participating fully in the Eucharistic celebration.
The food becomes part of ourselves. By eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ we accept his invitation to identify ourselves with him. We say to God and to the community that we intend to form a single body with Christ; we wish to assimilate his gesture of love and we want to give our lives to the brothers and sisters, as he did. We don’t do this challenging choice alone but together with a whole community. The Eucharist is not a food to be consumed in solitude: it is bread broken and shared between brothers and sisters. It is not conceivable that, on the one hand, a gesture is placed that indicates unity, sharing, equality, reciprocal giving and οn the other the perpetuation of conflicts, hatreds, jealousies, hoarding of goods, overpowering is tolerated. A community that celebrates the rite of the “breaking of bread” in these unworthy conditions eats and drinks—as Paul recalls—his own condemnation (1 Cor 11:28-29). It is a community that turns the sacrament into a lie. It is like a girl who, smiling, accepted from her boyfriend the ring, symbol of an indissoluble bond of love and, at the same time, betrays him with other lovers.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“The Eucharist makes me attentive to all forms of hunger of the brothers and sisters: hunger for bread, hunger for love, hunger for understanding, hunger for forgiveness and above all hunger for God.”
The fourteenth chapter of the book of Genesis from which comes our reading is rather unique. It presents Abraham in the unusual role of brave warrior. The patriarch is at the oaks of Mamre, near Hebron, and learns that some kings coming from the east captured his nephew Lot. Immediately he organizes his trained men, chases the kidnappers to Dan, far north of Palestine, falls upon them, defeats them, recovers all the spoil, and also Lot, his possessions, his women and his people.
On the way back he passes near the town of Salem (Jerusalem) where Melchizedek reigns. He—who is king and priest of the Most High God—when he comes to know that Abraham is approaching, leaves the city and offers him bread and wine, and blesses him by invoking the name of his God.
To grasp the message of the passage it should be noted that, in the time of Abraham, Jerusalem was a city inhabited by a pagan people and remained so for many hundreds of years, until around the year 1000 B.C., when David conquered and made it the capital of his kingdom.
In the story of the heroic exploit done by Abraham, the scene of the encounter with Melchizedek, king of Salem, is inserted for various reasons.
At the time this story was written (more than a thousand years after the fact), the Israelites did not look favorably neither at Jerusalem nor his king or his court and begrudgingly pay taxes. With skill (and flattery) the author of the passage tries then, citing the example of Abraham (v. 20), to persuade them to submit to the king of Jerusalem, and to pay him tithes (without much mumbling). I found this clever ploy of the scribe to show how, at times, God also uses less noble motivations of people to bring in the Bible a story that is valuable, because it is full of religious symbolism.
It was not only to convince the Israelites to pay taxes that the sacred author recalled the humble and devout behavior of Abraham against the king of Salem. He especially wanted to teach that one should not look at foreigners with hostility. God has shown not only to reveal himself to the Israelites, but also to other people.
Melchizedek was a Canaanite, a pagan, yet he already rendered worship to the Most High God, maker of heaven and earth, and before him the patriarch Abraham has done something amazing: he bowed and received the blessing. In no other page of the Old Testament, a pagan minister of worship is regarded with much respect and sympathy.
This passage from the book of Genesis is chosen as the first reading because it has obvious references to today’s celebration. First, Melchizedek has always been considered by Christians as a figure of Christ and of the priests of the New Covenant who offer on the altar bread and wine.
There are also other elements that put the gesture made by this priest-king in relationship with the Eucharist. He shared his food and his wine with the hungry, and his generous behavior is a reminder of the sharing of goods with the brothers and sisters.
Finally, the fact that the bread and wine of Melchizedek are consumed together by the two peoples is significant: the pagans of Salem and the chosen children of Abraham, the Jews. It is as if these two peoples—though so far apart in terms of politics, culture and religion—had gathered around a single table. It is the image of what happens in the Christian community that gathers to break the Eucharistic bread: we have the meeting, welcoming, sharing and the mutual exchange of blessings.
To understand this important passage it is necessary to clarify the reason why Paul introduces in his letter the theme of the institution of the Eucharist. Then we will interpret the meaning of the gesture of Jesus.
In Corinth there are very serious problems: sexual debauchery, unrest, envy, drunkenness, and—what is worse—discord among brethren. Parties arise, they disagree on moral choices, accept class division as normal: that of the rich and that of the poor, that of the nobles and that of simple people.
The divisions are always destructive but, when they do occur exactly when they celebrate the Eucharist, they become scandalous.
In Corinth Christians usually eat meals together, as true brothers and sisters, before the Lord’s Supper. They know well that to worthily break the bread of the Eucharist, it is necessary to share first the material bread.
The Lord’s Supper is not celebrated in churches, as it happens in our case, but in private homes, provided by some wealthy members of the community.
Now it happens that the group of the rich, the bosses, the nobles—who do not work, but make their servants work—want an early gathering, in the early afternoon. They find themselves in the villa of one of them. They walk in the garden, talk blissfully and lie down on sofas and begin to carouse. And when the evening comes their fellow believers arrive, exhausted by fatigue—they are those belonging to the lower classes (peasants, laborers, longshoremen)—the rich receive them with jeers and disrespectful jokes. Then, without realizing the painful situation that has been created, they begin to celebrate the Eucharist.
To show the absurdity of such behavior, Paul reminds the Corinthians how Jesus instituted the Eucharist. The most profound experiences, the most significant messages are hard to put into words. To communicate them we resort to gestures: with a sweet look we express tenderness, with a prolonged handshake we emphasize the full agreement with a friend, with a hug we reconcile with the brother or sister, with an ugly gesture we vent our uncontainable anger.
It is possible to summarize in a unique gesture the whole life, all the work, all the person of Jesus. Yes, it is possible and the gesture is chosen and done by him, on the eve of his passion. During the last supper, Jesus took bread, broke it and said: This is my body which is broken for you; then he took the cup of wine and said, this cup is the New Covenant in my blood. Jesus wanted to say to his disciples: all my life has been a gift to people; for me I have withheld neither a moment of my life, nor a cell of my body, nor a drop of my blood. I offered everything, everything I have given. Each time that, at the invitation of the Lord, the Christian community breaks the Eucharistic bread, Jesus who gives his life for love is present. How can the Corinthians—Paul asks himself—repeat this gesture that indicates sacrifice and gift of life, union with Christ and the brothers and then, actually, foment divisions, cultivate discords, perpetuate inequality?
Considering life is not always consistent in our Christian communities, perhaps we wonder how in certain situations we can continue to celebrate the Eucharist. It is a legitimate question. However we should not forget that the eucharistic bread is a gift, not a well deserved award and reserved for the good ones. It is a food offered to sinners, not the righteous (because no one is right). Although we realize that we are unworthy, we continue to approach the Eucharistic banquet. It reminds us of our sinfulness and urges us to become what we are not yet: bread broken and wine poured for the brothers and sisters.
There are many ways to explain what the Eucharist is. Paul chooses one: he says—as we have seen—its establishment, during the Last Supper. Luke chooses another one: he takes an episode in the life of Jesus—the multiplication of the loaves—and rereads it in view of the Eucharist. He uses it, that is, to make it clear to the Christians of his community the meaning of the gesture of breaking the bread that they regularly do, every week, on the day of the Lord.
If today’s Gospel passage is read as a faithful chronicle of a fact, we come across a number of difficulties: we do not understand what the five thousand men went for in a lonely place (v. 12), and no one knows even where so many people came from (v. 14). It is strange that even the fish are broken (v. 16) and we would have to explain from where the twelve baskets emerge (v. 17); had the people brought with them empty? Then the day was drawing to a close (v. 12) when the meal begins; how did the disciples arrange so many people and distribute the bread and fish in the dark?
Obviously we are not faced with a report and it makes no sense to ask how exactly the events took place. On an event in the life of Jesus, the evangelist has built a theological reflection. Rather than piece together what happened, it is important for us to understand what is the message he wants to convey.
The first key of the reading that we insert is that of the Old Testament. The Christian communities of Luke were accustomed to the biblical language and immediately grasped allusions—that may escape us—to fact, texts, expressions, figures of the Old Testament. The account of the distribution of the loaves recalled to them:
– The story of the manna, the food given miraculously by God to his people in the desert (Ex 16; Nm 11). Also the bread that Jesus gives comes from heaven;
– The prophecy of Moses: “He will raise up for you a prophet like myself” (Dt 18:15). Jesus who repeats one of the signs made by Moses is therefore the expected prophet;
– The words of Isaiah: “Why spend money on what is not food, and labor for what does not satisfy? Listen to me, and you will eat well, you will enjoy the richest of fare. The Lord of armies will prepare for all peoples a feast in this mountain” (Is 55:1-2,6);
– Finally, remember the miracle of the loaves made by Elisha (2 K 4:42-44). The miracle done by Jesus seems to be an enlarged photocopy.
These references to the Old Testament are mentioned because Luke intends to allude to them but he refers also to the celebration of the Eucharist, as it takes place in his community.
Let’s start from the first verse (v. 11) that in our lectionary, unfortunately, is not quoted in full. We get back also to the part that is missing: “Jesus welcomed the crowds and began speaking about the kingdom of God….” Only Luke says that, when the crowds arrive at Bethsaida, Jesus welcomes them and speaks to them about the kingdom of God. He withdraws apart with his disciples, looking perhaps for a quiet moment; but people, in need of his word and his help, joins him and he welcomes them, announces the good news of the kingdom of God and heals the sick. Welcoming means paying attention, getting involved with the needs of others, showing concern for their spiritual and material needs.
In this first verse, the reference to the celebration of the Eucharist is clear: the liturgy of the Lord’s day always begins with the gesture of the celebrant who receives the community, welcomes, wishes peace and announces the kingdom of God. Like Jesus, he too, welcomes all. The good, the sinners, the poor, the sick, the weak, the marginalized, those looking for a word of hope and forgiveness are welcomed; no one is turned away.
Even Paul, concluding the chapter on the Eucharist from which today’s second reading is taken recommends this reception to the Corinthians: “My brothers, when you come together for a meal, welcome one another” (1 Cor 11:33).
In v. 12 the hour when Jesus distributes his bread is emphasized: “the day was drawing to a close.” I noted above the difficulty of understanding this figure as an information (entirely superfluous, among others). The day was drawing to a close is instead a valuable indication and also touching. We also find in the story of the disciples of Emmaus: “Stay with us—say the two to the travel companion—for night comes quickly. The day is now almost over” (Lk 24:29). This detail tells us the time where, on Saturday night, in the communities of Luke the Lord’s Supper is celebrated.
The deserted place (v. 12) also has a theological significance: remember the journey of the people of Israel who, having left the land of slavery, started the journey to freedom and was fed with manna.
The community that celebrates the Eucharist consists of travelers who are making an exodus. They had the courage to abandon their homes, their villages, friends, the kind of life they led and they set out to listen to the Master and be cared for by him. Like Israel they entered the wilderness, and they walked to freedom. Others—who have also heard the voice of the Lord—chose to stay where they were; they did not want to take any chances. Unfortunately for them, by doing so, they are deprived of the food that Jesus gives to those who follow him.
Jesus orders the twelve to feed the crowds (vv. 12-14). The first reaction of the twelve is amazement, surprise, the feeling of being called to a tremendous, absurd, impossible undertaking. Thus they advance a proposal that contradicts the reception implemented by the Master. They suggest to send the people home, to push them away, to disperse. Everyone thinks of solving his own problems as best he can.
The disciples do not realize the gift that Jesus is going to deliver in their hands: the bread of the Word and the eucharistic bread. They do not understand that his blessing will multiply endlessly this food that satisfies every hunger: the hunger for happiness, love, justice, peace, the need to give meaning to life, the anxiety for a new world.
It is about the so urgent uncontrollable needs that at times push people to feed on what does not satisfy, what can actually exacerbate hunger or cause nausea. For this the Master insists: it is from you that the world is waiting for food, you yourselves give them something to eat.
His Word is a bread that miraculously multiplies: who accepts the Gospel and nourishes one’s life with it, who assimilates the person of Christ feeding on the eucharistic bread in turn feels the need to make the others sharers in his own discovery and joy. He starts to distribute also to them the bread that satisfied his own hunger. An unstoppable process of sharing is triggered and the twelve baskets of leftover remains always filled and ready for redistribution. The more people feed themselves of the bread of the Word of Christ and of the Eucharist the more the bread distributed to the hungry multiplies.
Verse 14 shows a curious detail: Jesus does not want his food consumed in solitude, each on his own, as is done at the self-service. However not even too large groups go well because they do not know each other, no dialogue. They cannot establish relations of friendship, mutual aid, brotherhood.
At the time of Luke fifty was perhaps the ideal number of members of a community. We recall that, in the early centuries, the Eucharist was not celebrated in churches, but in large halls (Acts 2:46), so the number of participants was necessarily limited. Perhaps one of the reasons of laziness, coldness, the lack of initiative of some of the communities today depends precisely from the high number of participants.
Throughout the New Testament, only Luke uses, for five times, the Greek word (κατακλινειν) kataklinein, “lay on the table” (v. 15). It indicates the position that free people took when participating in a solemn feast. The Israelites would lie so during the Passover. It is improper to use this word in a situation like the one described in the Gospel of today, that is, to tell this to people who are in the desert, outdoors and who used to sit on the floor with legs crossed.
If Luke uses this expression, he does it for a theological reason: to allude to another meal, to that of the Christian community sitting around the Eucharistic table, the new Passover dinner, consumed by free people.
The formula that describes the multiplication of bread is known to us: “He took the five loaves and two fish, and raising his eyes to heaven, pronounced a blessing over them; he broke them and gave them” (v. 16). These are the gestures made by the celebrant in the celebration of the Eucharist (cf. Lk 22:19).
It almost seems that Luke is profaning a bit the words of the sacramental act, confounding things of the earth with those of heaven, the material needs with those of the spirit. This “mingling” of matter and spirit is not dangerous for the faith. The opposite is dangerous: unbinding the Eucharist from the lives of people, taking it among the clouds. The Eucharistic celebrations are lies when they do not celebrate the concrete commitment of all the community so that the material bread multiplies, in a way that there is enough for all and there are leftovers.
We often wonder what happened to the fish; all the attention seems focused on breads. In fact even the fish are, strangely, “broken” and distributed together with the bread (v. 16). In the communities of Luke’s time the fish had become a symbol of Christ. The letters in the Greek word ichthys (ικθυς) (fish) had already become the acrostic for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. The fish is then Jesus himself made food in the Eucharist.