We can often get bogged down thinking through the mechanics of Jesus’ miraculous meals, but what if we step back and see the miracle in John 6 anticipating the miraculous fact that the Eucharist has sustained millions on their journey through life?
Thomas Nagel (The View from Nowhere [NY/Oxford: OUP, 1986]), Iain McGilchrist (The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009]) are not alone in reminding us that an objective “view from nowhere” is an illusion: who we are and what we are looking for tend to shape what we find.
At the risk of provoking the ire of my colleagues in Johannine studies, I have been thinking over John 6:1-21, not least because it appeared recently in our Sunday readings. It is a passage which places the Feeding of the 5000 right at the beginning of John’s reflection on Jesus as the Bread of Life – a theme which will extend throughout the rest of the chapter, provoking reflections on the meaning of Bread of Life in the Old Testament traditions, and on sacraments in the merging Christianity. It is a heady mix.
It all starts with the miracle. Now, Western intellectuals have had to wrestle with the problems of miracle in particular since the Scottish Enlightenment, and David Hume’s broadside on the subject. This caused any number of rationalist interpreters to opt for the “everyone had their sandwiches hidden away, but then got embarrassed after the wee boy offered to share his…” approach, which simply, does violence to John’s story, which goes to great lengths to show that whatever happens happens because of Jesus. Biblical scholars, like Richard Horsley (Jesus and Magic: Freeing the Gospels form Modern Misconceptions [Cambridge: James Clarke, 2014]), dodge the Hume-an bullet by suggesting that his are not the right lenses for reading an ancient text, but the charge of anachronism is not a complete defence. And it will never satisfy the systematicians snapping at the heels of the gospel.
Let’s put that aside and take a look from another angle. The Feeding story in the first movement in a symphony which will explain Jesus as Bread, and author of a new rite, in which he becomes the sustenance for his people. It is never about cannibalism, the ancients, Jews Greeks, Romans and even barbarians, were, almost without exception, far too sophisticated for that. But it is about a ritual. And what seems so puzzling in the Feeding story, is a self-evident truth in light of Christian experience. One seemingly insignificant meal on a Palestinian hillside, for this after all is John’s account of the origins of the Eucharist [give or take a few unhappy New Testament scholars], feeds not just 5000, but all who come to Jesus for eternal life. It contains the fundamental truth that Jesus has nurtured billions, scattered across time and flung to the far corners of the earth, by his one offering of himself. Who knew that so little could feed so many? Who knew that one life could save and transform a cosmos?