From the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John: “Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.”
The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle recorded by all four of the Gospels. This sign, this miracle, is considered as central within the kerygma, for it has always been understood as prefiguring the Holy Eucharist: the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish as pointing to the miraculous reality of the true bread of heaven who is Jesus Christ given to the Church as his Real Presence among us until the end of time. And in this way this gospel has always been associated with the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Laetare Sunday with its introit: “Rejoice O Jerusalem”, pointing to the Easter Sacrament by which the people are fed with the true Bread of Life.
But we must also remember that this miracle begins the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, the great discourse on the Eucharist, whose climax is Jesus’ words: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh”. It is those words that cause a number of Jesus’ followers to leave him. It is those words that anger the scribes and the Pharisees. It is those words that help set off those events that lead to the Cross. It is those words that lie at the heart of the Church’s understanding of and faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
When the people who were fed by the miracle of the loaves and fishes were looking for Jesus later, he had no illusions about what they were looking for. He said to them: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” I love the clarity of this. The people were seeking him to see what he could give them next. The miracle as a sign is a two edged sword; it proves nothing in the end. Taken at face value it may be part of a mysterious magic show instead of the sign that points to a deeper reality And we can imagine the people reacting like the townspeople in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Carousel singing:
This was a real nice clambake, We're mighty glad we came.
The vittles we et were good, you bet! The company was the same!
Our hearts are warm, our bellies are full, And we are feelin' prime.
This was a real nice clambake, And we all he'd a real good time!
One must never underestimate the self-centeredness of man. How our Lord understood this! When the people asked for more signs, he said to them: “An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, and no sign shall be given it but the sign of Jonah the prophet”. And at the end of the parable of Dives and Lazarus: “‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.’”
It was not that long ago that I did not know what a selfie was. I used to hear my students using this term, and so one day I asked them what this word meant. They looked at me in astonishment and explained what a selfie is. Then I discovered that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had banned selfie sticks, these devices that enable you to take a picture of yourself in front of a painting or some work of art. My selfie education was complete when I read that this generation is the selfie generation, marked by a narcissism that borders on psychopathy. Our hearts are warm, our bellies are full. Take a selfie to capture our purring self-contentment.
And this reminded me of a story that someone once told me. Whether it is true or not, I do not know. But it actually happened before selfies were possible, but my education in selfies somehow jogged my memory, and I realized that the selfie attitude was nothing really new. There was a parish church that decided to do some renovations. The place looked tired and boring: nondescript altar, molded plastic crucifix hanging over it, industrial carpeting in the sanctuary. The parish had a lot of money so they could do whatever they wanted. So they hired a famous architect-designer to do the renovations. This architect asked them what they wanted. The renovation committee responded that they wanted something that would express who they were as people. No talk of Baroque or Gothic revival or Romanesque or Bauhaus. No interest in style. We trust you, they said. Just give us something spectacular that will define who we are as a parish community. So the renovation proceeded. It was all very secret. They had to have Mass in the downstairs church for a while.
Then the day came for the unveiling. There was great excitement as the people gathered in the main church for the unveiling before the Mass. There was this very large red curtain extending along the whole section behind the altar. The architect spoke briefly and then proceeded to slowly pull back the curtain from the center. And as he did so, there was a gasp from the congregation. At first they saw that there was no crucifix. It was gone. More and more came into view, and when all could be seen the people burst into wild applause. For what the architect had put behind the altar was a giant mirror in which the people could see themselves from every possible angle. They could stare at themselves throughout the Mass and focus on themselves in a way that up to now would not have been possible. O frabjous day, calloo, callay! But the only unhappy person was the priest. He said to the architect: but my back will be to the mirror since I say Mass looking at the people! Could I ask you for a little addition to the renovation? Of course, said the architect. Could you make a little mirror for me to set on the altar so that I can look at myself while I say Mass? And could you put it in a little gold baroque frame