I received a very funny birthday card from some friends. On the front of the card was a depiction of Jesus holding up a loaf of bread and a fish. He was offering to feed the large crowd in the wilderness, but the crowd was reluctant to eat. One person complained, “I’m a vegan; I can’t eat that.” Another asked, “Has that fish been tested for mercury?” Another asked, “Is that bread whole-grain?”
The card was very entertaining, but it was also an accurate depiction of the effects that Jesus’ miracles had on those who witnessed them. The vast majority of people, including Jesus’ disciples, failed to understand the meaning of the miracles. We have heard these miracle stories repeatedly, but our repeated hearing of them shouldn’t lull us into thinking that we understand Jesus’ miracles any better than those who were the original witnesses.
Today, the miracles of Jesus are, for the most part, viewed as suspensions of the laws of nature. This is true both for those who believe in miracles and those who do not. Those in our society who consider themselves to be enlightened take what they consider to be a scientific and secular view of miracles. For these people, miracles imply that the physical laws of the universe don’t apply all the time or to everyone. On that basis, Christianity is often misidentified as superstition, or a hold-over from a pre-scientific society.
Those who consider themselves to be believers tend to take a fantasy-based, non-rational view of Jesus’ miracles. For them, Jesus was a wonder-worker who could use divine power to overcome the physical limitations of the universe. This sort of opinion is one of the things that leads others to view Christianity as a superstition, or a hold-over from a pre-scientific society.
In the ministry of Jesus, the miracles belonged to a class of Scriptural events called “prophetic signs.” The prophet Elijah took refuge in Zarephath during a drought. Many people suffered privation because of the drought, but God promised the widow who housed Elijah that “The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the Lord sends rain upon the earth.” (1 Kings 17:14) She was unaffected by the drought while the faithless King of Israel suffered. The widow’s good fortune was a prophetic sign about God’s providence for those who welcome his word.
Prophetic signs were dramatic representations of a preached message; they had cognitive content, and always proclaimed a call to conversion. This stands in contrast to the contemporary understanding of miracles. A suspension or violation of the laws of nature can possess no intelligible content. An interesting spectacle can entertain, but it can’t call one to conversion.
The event in today’s Gospel reading is a perfect example of how easily miracles can be misunderstood. When Jesus suggested that his disciples provide food for the crowd, they complained, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” (Matthew 14:17) Later, after a second miraculous feeding of a crowd, Jesus scolded the Twelve for their failure to understand the message of the miracles. There is evidence in the Gospels that even the crowds who were fed by Jesus had failed to understand what he was saying to them.
It is possible, however, to have an adequate understanding of Jesus’ miracles. The miracle in today’s Gospel occurs after Jesus had been rejected by his former neighbors in Nazareth, and immediately following the execution of John the Baptist. After this miracle, Jesus healed a large number of people, including a pagan woman who demonstrated a profound faith. The events that surrounded this miracle depict the contrast between the faithlessness of the town of Nazareth and King Herod and the faith of simple, poor people and a pagan woman.
The cognitive content of the miracle is a statement about the difference between a life that is focused on self and a life that is focused on God. The people of Nazareth, King Herod, and later, the Jerusalem Pharisees were certain, each in their own way, that they knew the truth. The people who were fed and healed by Jesus had a personal experience of Jesus as the Truth of God. The miraculous feeding of the crowd is an invitation for us to have a change of heart about where we find truth.
Today, in the light of the Resurrection, this miracle by Jesus is understood as being a reference to Eucharist. I would caution against a simplistic identification of the miraculous feedings in the Gospel with Eucharist. Among the reasons for this caution is the fact that Eucharist did not exist at the time that Jesus fed this crowd; the Eucharist was instituted at the end of his ministry, less than a day before he was crucified. Despite this caution, there is great value in seeing a reference to Eucharist in this miracle.
Eucharist is often understood in the same ways that miracles are understood. Eucharist is often portrayed as a magical intervention that alters, or ignores, the physical laws of the universe. Rather than faith, Eucharist seems to inspire a fetishistic fascination. Rather than a call to conversion, Eucharist is often regarded as a magical talisman.
To those who would object that their beliefs about the Eucharist aren’t fantasy-based or fetishistic, I would pose the following questions. What cognitive content do you experience in your reception of the Eucharist? What would happen if you understood Eucharist as a prophetic sign? If you can’t express Eucharist’s cognitive content verbally, it might be that you have put your trust in sentiment or magical thinking. If you don’t perceive Eucharist as a call to conversion, you might not understand the message of Jesus’ preaching.
In his preaching Jesus portrayed God as near to His People, especially to those who were marginalized by the powerful. He talked about God’s solicitous care for the poor and the suffering. He described faith in God as something that was offered to everyone, but that required a radical conversion to a life of humble obedience to God.
When Jesus fed this crowd in the desert he was visibly enacting the content of his preaching. He offered the crowd tangible evidence of God’s providence and a perceptible experience of the kind of faith that God demands from His People. The purpose of the miraculous feeding of the crowd was not to astound or entertain; the purpose of the miracle was to call its witnesses to a change of heart. Eucharist has the same purpose.
Magical thinking about Eucharist isn’t faith; magical thinking requires the acceptance, or rejection, of a logical contradiction about the suspension of the laws of nature. The Eucharist is neither a sentimental token from God nor a consumer commodity. The Eucharist is a proclamation of God’s unchanging faithfulness to God’s People and a call to us to imitate that Divine fidelity.
St. Augustine offered his parish congregation brilliant instruction about the reception of Eucharist. He said, “My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit. If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table. It is your own mystery that you are receiving. You are saying “Amen” to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. Live as a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your “Amen” may ring true. Be what you see; receive what you are. All who fail to keep the bond of peace after entering this mystery receive not a sacrament that benefits them, but an indictment that condemns them. So let us give God our sincere and deepest gratitude, and, as far as human weakness will permit, let us turn to the Lord with pure hearts. With all our strength, let us seek God’s singular mercy, for then the Divine Goodness will surely hear our prayers. God’s power will drive the Evil One from our acts and thoughts; it will deepen our faith, govern our minds, grant us holy thoughts, and lead us, finally, to share the divine joy through God’s own son Jesus Christ. Amen.” (Sermo 272)
When you approach the Altar to receive the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood during this Mass, keep in mind what God is offering and what you are receiving. Eucharist is God’s promise of forgiveness and your promise of a life of holiness. As Augustine said, the “Amen” you say when receiving Eucharist is your signature affixed to that promise.