Meditation on John 6:1-15 (From “That Your Joy May Be Full: Encountering the Love of God in the Gospel of John”)
After his first prolonged debate with the Jewish authorities Jesus moves to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Here he goes up into the hills and sits down, his disciples coming to him. Saint John says that it is the Passover—the second Passover recounted in the Gospel, the first being the occasion of the cleansing of the temple. The Lord manifested himself through a prophetic action in the temple during that first Passover. Now he manifests himself in the hills by the Sea of Galilee through another.
“Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a multitude was coming to him…” (Jn 6:5). We learn that there were five thousand men, not including women and children. Jesus is indeed like a magnet! Wherever he goes he attracts people to himself…hungering and thirsting hearts, broken and suffering bodies, lonely souls crying out for love.
Saints Matthew and Mark expound the reaction of Jesus more thoroughly at this point than John does. Mark notes that “he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk 6:34). While Matthew simply says that Jesus “had compassion on them” (Mt 14:14), in another place, immediately before Christ’s choosing of his twelve apostles, Matthew explains Jesus’ compassion as that of a shepherd: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). The word which is translated as “had compassion” is really much richer than it appears in translation. It is really untranslatable by a single word. “His heart was moved with compassion” is much more accurate. The words literally means that “his insides turned over within him.” In the past this has led to the term “bowels of compassion” in referring to the depths of God’s love for us, and especially the sorrow he experiences at encountering our suffering and our straying far from him. Saint Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians, mentions Christians as being sharers in this same compassion, when he writes: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation of love, any communion in the Spirit, any heartfelt compassion, complete my joy by thinking the same thing, having the same love, as ones joined in soul” (Phil 2:1-2).
What does Jesus do when he encounters this multitude coming to him? The first thing he does is share his compassion with his disciples. He says to Philip, “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” Of course, Jesus knows well that it is an impossibility. He is asking in order to test Philip and the others, or, better, to awaken in them the same compassion and concern that burn within his own Sacred Heart. What are we to do? They sense the overwhelming nature of the need of those who have come to Jesus. There is a great hunger in this multitude, a hunger for bread, certainly, but much more a hunger for love and the fullness of life. Do they realize that Jesus can offer this? Is that why they are coming to him?
The disciples fumble around trying to respond to the question that Jesus asked, and come up with “five barley loaves and two fish,” yet Andrew says, “but what are they among so many?” Jesus simply replies, “Make the people sit down” (Jn 6:9-10). All that Jesus has asked is that they share in his concern for the people, that they open their hearts to experience his own compassion. Then, let them simply offer the little that they have to him; he will make it enough.
Here is a beautiful image of a mystery that is played out in the life of each one of us. Touched by the love of Jesus, we have come close to him and have begun walk near him. He has become the light of our life, the abiding source of our joy. Then, from the very midst of this joy, we begin to realize that Jesus is opening up to us his own sorrow and pain, the depths of his own compassion. This does not exclude his joy; rather, it is born right from the midst of this joy and from this joy’s desire to communicate itself to those who still sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. You have come near to me, my beloved. I myself have drawn you here and have given you my love, allowing you to experience a joy that you could not even have imagined. But do you not recognize, also, that there are still so many, a multitude, who do not know me? What can we do? How can we satisfy their hunger and thirst?
What a question! And what a gift, that Jesus opens up his Heart to us in this way! What are we going to do in response? Lord…this is all that we have, and it is so little. This is all that we can do: gather up the little we have, the little we are, and surrender it into the hands of Jesus. It is enough, he says. Then he takes it, thanks the Father for it, breaks it, and gives it to the hungry people who fill the earth.
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We begin to discern, in the action of Jesus, the profound inner nature of a Christian vocation. He takes the loaves and the fish and distributes them among the people through the hands of his disciples. He takes something so little, so small, so inadequate, and, passing through his hands and the power of his love, it becomes enough, more than enough! At the end he says, “Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost” (Jn 6:12).
Jesus has already been drawing people together from their isolation and estrangement. In the magnetism of his love he draws us together. In him we all meet and are united. Does he not say, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (12:32)? He is already beginning to do it now—and indeed he will continue to do it until the end of time, through his Church and the mystery of his grace at work in the human heart and in the world.
We are drawn into this magnetism of grace. We are touched by his love. And precisely through this touch, this intimacy, we come to share in the fire of his own compassionate love. What then becomes of us? We are conformed to the image of Jesus, the beloved Son of the Father. And what, in his love for humanity, does Jesus become? He becomes Eucharist.
The inner nature of his life is an existence of Eucharist—a life of trusting acceptance and loving self-giving. Is this not what Jesus does at the last supper, taking bread and wine into his hands, raising his eyes to heaven, and giving thanks to his Father? He welcomes himself as a gift from his Father; he receives the whole of his existence in gratitude; he receives his disciples; he receives the blessed moment of this meal together; and, indeed, he receives the opportunity to love us to the very end by giving himself in his Passion and Death. Yes, and his childlike acceptance of the Father’s love blossoms freely in his own self-giving. He could not give unless he first received, indeed, unless he unceasingly receives at every moment. This is the gesture of Eucharist, the mystery of Jesus’ inner life laid bare before our eyes. Indeed, it is a glimpse of the inner life of the Trinity, in which the Father and the Son are forever united in their mutual acceptance and self-giving, bound together in the gift of the Spirit.
Our own lives, too, share in this reality. Our own existence, also, is a “Eucharistic existence.” Are we not, for our part, beloved children of the Father? Are we not drawn by Jesus into the reality of his own filial acceptance of the Father’s love? Yes, here we discover who we truly are; we discover the meaning of our life; we discover the true beauty and value of the whole creation. And this gift, penetrating and healing the depths of our heart, then awakens in us the desire and the ability to give—to become a gift for God, a gift for our brothers and sisters. We become a eucharist in the Eucharist of Jesus Christ.
We are taken, broken, given, and poured out—a mysterious way of being healed, but the way of love! For when we are broken we are not harmed. When we are given we are not lost. This is because we pass through the hands of Jesus, and, indeed, in his hands we always remain. We are not “fragmented,” but rather gathered together “so that nothing may be lost.” From within the arms of Jesus we find ourselves able to be given to others, to reach out to them, to touch them, to embrace them. With him we can pronounce the words of institution, or, rather, he can pronounce them in and through us: “This is my body, given for you… This is my blood, poured out for you.”
What does God, in the final analysis, in the last surge of the torrent of his love, do with such a Eucharistic mystery? This mystery, flowing like a stream throughout the history of the Church, penetrating into the life of person after person, seeks one thing alone: “that nothing may be lost.” The gift of Christ spreads out so far and wide—without ever leaving the bosom of the Father—precisely so that in the end all the fragments may be gathered back together. “Jesus died to gather into one all the children of God who were scattered abroad” (Cf. Jn 11:51-52). This is the mystery of the Eucharist of Jesus, in which we find ourselves immersed.