Jesus Feeds the Multitude

34 As he went ashore he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 35 And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, "This is a lonely place, and the hour is now late; 36 send them away, to go into the country and villages round about and buy themselves something to eat." 37 But he answered them, "You give them something to eat." And they said to him, "Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?" 38 And he said to them, "How many loaves have you? Go and see." And when they had found out, they said, "Five, and two fish." 39 Then he commanded them all to sit down by companies upon the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 41 And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And they all ate and were satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men. (Mk 6:34-43)

42 A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing the man of God [Elisha] bread of the first fruits, twenty loaves of barley, and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And Elisha said, "Give to the men, that they may eat." 43 But his servant said, "How am I to set this before a hundred men?" So he repeated, "Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the LORD, 'They shall eat and have some left.'" 44 So he set it before them. And they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD. (2 Kg 4:42-44)

The miracle of Jesus feeding the 5,000 is His only miracle mentioned in all four gospels. It was clearly pre-figured in the above story of the prophet Elisha. We understand both of these stories to be very Eucharistic.

In the OT narrative, Elisha told his servant to feed 100 men with 20 barley loaves. A loaf being quite small, like a modern pita, the task seemed foolish. But Elisha the prophet prophesied: not only will they eat their fill, but there even be some left over. Here he prophesied the future Eucharist, which fills us with the grace of God – His infinite grace filling our souls and then so much more. Of interest is that the man who brought the bread brought “of the first fruits.” Such first fruits were actually part of the harvest festival offering - Shavuot or Pentecost fifty days after Passover. The offerings were given on the day after Sabbath, on the first day of the week. That was also the day of the resurrection, the culmination of the Paschal Mystery, tying this bread-miracle to Christ’s salvific work.

Now we move ahead to Jesus’ bread-miracle. Like Elisha, Jesus fed many people with little bread. While Elisha fed 100 men with 20 barley loaves, Jesus fed 5,000 men with 5 barley loaves (note the same story in Jn 6 specifies they were barley). Our first conclusion is that Jesus is greater than the great prophet Elisha. Next, we note what Jesus did with bread; note v.41 - taking… blessed… broke… gave… Compare with the Last Supper:

22 And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." (Mk 14:22)

The language of our narrative reflects the language of the Last Supper. We note that the people “ate and were satisfied” and there was much left over, as in Elisha’s day. This is our image of the Eucharist, where the left-overs represent the infinite grace of God compared with our own finite need. Grace is super-abundant.

So what of the two fish? Christianity has a long history of fish as a symbol of us. Considering ancient Hebrew cosmology, the waters of the deep represent the primordial chaos and are the abode of the dead. On the fifth day of creation, God created fish – living creatures capable of living in that deathly environment. Christians are like these fish: we are spiritually alive in a world dominated by spiritual death. Further, we note the fish were created on the fifth day – Friday – the day the Living God suffered death; but through His death, we enjoy life and so this fifth day is special to us. It was once a common tradition to eat fish on this fifth day of the week (or to abstain from animal flesh). That Jesus included fish in this Eucharistic narrative reminds us that the Eucharist is intimately part of His redemption and is food for us (fish).

I’m not sure why there were two fish instead of one or three. I can speculate a few things. First, that our nature is two-fold: spirit and body. Second that Jesus’ nature is two-fold: God and man. Third, that there were two groups of people that were to compose the Church: the Jewish people and the Gentiles. I am fairly sure, however, that the five barley loaves references the fifth day of creation, as explained in the previous paragraph.

Last, we note that there were twelve baskets of left overs collected. This refers, of course, to the twelve Apostles, the clerical backbone of the Church. It is through the Apostolic Office, that is, the bishops, that we receive the Eucharist. We can even note in our narrative that Jesus Himself did not distribute the bread; he gave it to His Apostles and told them to distribute. So we do to this day.