Fr. George Smiga
June 2, 2013
No one knows for sure when humans first began to eat bread. It was, however, a very long time ago. Archeologists have ascertained that 10,000 years ago the tribes around the Lake District in Switzerland were already grinding wheat, mixing it with water, and baking a kind of bread on hot stones. It was the Egyptians who first came up with the idea of making loaves of bread. They began doing this about 1,500 years before Christ. It was left to the Romans to make bread baking into a major business. We have documentation to prove that in the first century the city of Rome boasted 250 bakeries, producing bread on a daily basis. Today, bread remains a fundamental form of nourishment in most countries of the world.
But nourishment is only one side of bread. Bread has another side that becomes clear in today’s gospel. The other side of bread is unity. When Jesus offers bread to the crowds on the hillside, he not only offers them nourishment. Through his power, the bread that is shared unites the people in the crowd with one another. The gospel is clear on this. In most gospel stories, Jesus performs a miracle for an individual: curing a blind man, healing a woman with a hemorrhage, raising the son of a widow from the dead. But today’s gospel is different. The recipients of Jesus’ miracle are a vast crowd of people. The passage specifically points this out. It tells us that the crowd consisted of 5,000 men (and there were certainly women and children as well). So the very size of the crowd leads us to see the gathering as a symbol for all of humanity. This miracle tells us that Jesus’ power to nourish extends to every person and that Jesus unites all people as children of God. The crowd on the hillside is meant to represent the population of a new world in which all of humanity will be nourished and united. The multiplication of the loaves and the fishes is a foretaste of the great feast in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus uses bread in today’s gospel to nourish and to unite. The bread of the Eucharist—that we believe is the true Body and Blood of Christ—serves those same two purposes. Each week we come to receive the bread of the Eucharist because we need nourishment. We believe that this bread is Christ’s true presence to us, strengthening us so that we can believe, so that we can avoid sin, so that we can face disappointment and sickness, so that we can overcome sadness and despair. The bread of the Eucharist is Christ’s life for us. It nourishes us for living.
But it also unites us to one another. We do not come here each week as isolated individuals. We come as a part of a community gathered around this altar. So assembled, much like the crowds on the hillside, we represent the people of God. We are a people journeying towards God’s Kingdom. We do not journey alone. When we eat the Body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ, brothers and sisters united in one family.
Bread then has two sides, nourishment and unity. The bread of the Eucharist maintains those two realities. We are nourished with the real presence of Christ that gives us strength for living. We are united by the Eucharist to be Christ’s body in the world. This is the Bread of Life. This is the food of the Kingdom. That is why Paul tells us that we eat this bread and drink this cup, proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes again.