In last week’s ‘Origins and Influences’ posting we considered the New Testament accounts of Christians gatherings held in fulfilment of the Lord’s command to ‘do this in memory of me’– gatherings for… well, what do we call it? Breaking of the bread (generally their term), or call it Eucharist or Mass (our terms and, to a greater or lesser extent, anachronistic terms)
A key term, a key verb, associated with these communal meals – used in the accounts of the Last Supper in the Gospels and in Paul is eucharistein. It is a word that means ‘giving thanks’. It is also a word that has remained in currency over 2000 years. And is used in the New Testament most broadly than in the accounts of the Last Supper.
As noted in last week’s mini-essay, eucharistein is also used in association attitudes and a life of thanksgiving more generally – key aspects of living in communion with the Lord.
It is a word also used, in Matthew and Mark’s Gospels in their account of the multiplication of the loaves for the 4000; and in John’s account of the feeding of the 5000. Though eucharistein does not appear in the synoptic gospels account of the feeding of the 5000, there are other verbal parallels which themselves echo the synoptic accounts of the Last Supper. In other words, these miraculous feedings far great, far more substantial than the feasts of which Paul complains in Corinth – these meals too need to feed into our appreciation of what it means to eat and drink in memory of Jesus.
Let’s look at the accounts of the feeding of 5000 and 4000 in Mark’s Gospel.
Jesus Feeds the Five ThousandMark 6.30-44
The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
It is interesting to note that not only is Jesus’ action with the bread described in terms which evoke what he does at the Last Supper, it is describe much more elaborately than is what he does with the fish. The bread is blessed, broken and given – the fish just divided.
Jesus Feeds the Four ThousandMark 8.1-10
In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.
Again, the fish are just set before them, but the bread… the loaves Jesus give thanks (eucharistein) for, breaks and gives them.
This language of giving thanks, breaking and sharing anticipates the language that Mark uses to describes Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper.
This is surely not accidental. In these miraculous feedings Jesus draws on his divine power, on himself, for the benefit of others.
The disciples – by contrast – seem just want rid of the others – send them away. They want to keep what they have for themselves and for Jesus.
There is lovely little episode in Mark’s Gospel that follows on from the feeding of the 4000 that seems to me to make the point beautifully. The Pharisees miss the point, and the disciples miss the point. The Pharisees are blind to the signs that have already been given; and the disciples fail to understand the deeper truth of the sign. Jesus is the bread – the living bread as John would put it – and to be in communion with Jesus is to be fed. Every thing else is bonus…
The Pharisees Demand a SignMark 8. 11-21
The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.
The Leaven of the Pharisees and Herod
Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
Jesus tells us he has a reputation for one who has come ‘eating and drinking, and they say, “Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”’ . (Mt 11.19).
And yet believers see that in his eating and drinking with sinners he manifests the love and mercy of God in a way that is sometimes obscured by our disciplines of inclusion and exclusion, not least those surrounding eating and drinking, be that in our homes, and even – at least sometimes – in our religious rituals.
When we ourselves come to eat and drink with the Lord, or – in truth even more truly when we come to eat and to drink the very Lord himself in the Eucharistic food and drink – we do well to call these other transgressive meals to mind.
When we come to the Eucharist we say that we are not worthy to be there – we group ourselves with tax-collectors and sinners. Do we mean it? Do we? And do we truly ask the Lord to speak his healing word.
Lord, I am not worthy
that you should enter under my roof,
but only say the word
and my soul shall be healed.
Order of Mass 132
The priest at Mass is given additional words to use in his prayers before Communion and as he receives Communion. They underline our very real need for what Christ offers in communion
The Priest, with hands joined, says quietly:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,
who, by the will of the Father
and the work of the Holy Spirit,
through your Death gave life to the world,
free me by this, your most holy Body and Blood,
from all my sins and from every evil;
keep me always faithful to your commandments,
and never let me be parted from you.
May the receiving of your Body and Blood,
Lord Jesus Christ,
not bring me to judgement and condemnation,
but through your loving mercy
be for me protection in mind and body
and a healing remedy.
(As he receives Holy Communion) the Priest, facing the altar, says quietly:
May the Body of Christ
keep me safe for eternal life.
And he reverently consumes the Body of Christ.
Then he takes the chalice and says quietly:
May the Blood of Christ
keep me safe for eternal life.
And he reverently consumes the Blood of Christ.
The Order of Mass 131, 133.
The priest prays ‘keep me always faithful …and never let me be parted from you.’
In other words he prays that as he leaves the altar, as he leaves the assembly of the faithful and with them returns to ‘the world’ he might continue to live in communion with Christ. He prays that he will be at one with Christ’s life of thanksgiving to the Father.
He prays that he himself (with the rest of the Church) will live as an effective sign of communion with Christ that Christ himself extends to all peoples – with those others with whom we might easily eat and drink – but especially with those others that, left to ourselves, we might shrink from spending quality time with…
- How does Eucharist challenge the status quo?
- Does Mass in your Christian community challenge the status quo?
- What connects sharing in the Eucharistic food and drink with other meals in your daily life?
- How does Eucharist feed the hungry? Where does it fail to meet their needs?
- Translation of Scripture: English Standard Version (c) 2001-9, Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
- The Roman Missal (c) 2010, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation. All rights reserved.
- Photographs. (c) 2013, Allen Morris, Two images from paleo-Christian sarcophagii, Musee Departemental Arles Antique, Arles, France.
- Text (c) 2021, Allen Morris.