Mahatma Gandhi is reputed to have said that the only way God dared to appear among the poor was in the form of bread. In today’s gospel, Jesus first question to Philip, on seeing so many people approaching, is where some bread can be bought to feed them. His multiplication of the boy’s barley loaves says a lot to the people who received it and much about the God who revealed himself most fully to us in the person of Christ.
The people may have remembered the extract we read in the first reading, of how Elisha the prophet had multiplied the twenty barley loaves so as to feed the people. They may have remembered an old prophecy which said that when the Messiah came, one of the signs of his presence would be that the hills would be covered with barley loaves. The crowd followed him, we are told, because of the signs he gave by curing the sick. They seek what we all still seek, health and plenty, but they misinterpret the role of Jesus and he flees from their attempt to make him into a powerful political leader. He withdraws.
Bread has been said to be the staff of life, the basic support which allows us to simply live. Jesus’ compassion for and presence among his people in the humble disguise of the loaves and fishes shows God’s concern, made visible in the Son, that we all have enough. He wishes us to draw life from him, to enjoy the fullness of life here and now and to draw eternal life in the fullness of time.
The coming forward of the little boy with his gift of loaves and fishes is a parable in itself. It is a revelation of the greed of the many and of the generosity of the little ones. Perhaps his generosity sparked off a sharing, an opening up of hearts and of lunch-pockets. This may have been the real, inward, miracle of the story.
The story, we are told, happened shortly before the Jewish festival meal of Passover, the feast at which Jesus was to inaugurate the Eucharist. The message and the sign is that of a compassionate and generous God, who cares for his people, who wishes to draw his scattered people together, into communion, in the sharing of bread. We too are to take, bless and break bread together, to celebrate the Passover of the angel of death, and to recognise the Messiah, the Christ who appears in the humble disguise of a simple piece of bread, with the foretaste and promise of eternal life.
Patrick Kavanagh, in his poem, The Great Hunger, wrote: O Christ that is what you have done for us/ In a crumb of bread the whole mystery is.