When we read the Gospels, we should pay close attention to what the disciples are doing. Are they on the periphery, watching and listening? Are they questioning the Christ? Are they sharing in the action? Most importantly, are they learning? They are learners, and what they had to learn was crucial for the continuation of the mission of Christ after the Ascension. Today's Gospel reading tells us something about this.
The passage is full of movement. The interaction and behaviour of the various people in the narrative are significant. Christ and his disciples move to a lonely place occasioned by the news of the death of John the Baptist; Christ wanted solitude, but this was not to be. There was another movement, towards Christ.
The people whom he had been teaching followed him. They were attracted to him; he had something to say, something which they knew important, which affected them, and they wanted to hear more. They made the journey on foot, which is very tiring. Christ was touched by this; he had pity, concern for them, and ministered to them, healing their illnesses. He identified himself with the people.
When the day drew to a close, there was another movement, again towards Christ, this time by the disciples. They wanted to send the people away, and make them responsible for their own food. They wanted Christ for themselves. People, at this stage in their discipleship, were not part of their understanding of the mission of Christ. They seemed unable to move outside their own, self-contained little world, centred on Christ. Christ's answer to this was significant and astonishing: Feed them yourselves.
They said this was impossible and quite beyond their powers and their means; all they had was five loaves and two fish. The pity -- the concern -- which Christ has shown by healing the sick was taken further, and extended to their bodily needs. They had heard the word, but the journey home was long and tiring; fatigue could make then forget what they had heard from the Christ. He recognised that the body as well as the soul needed nourishment.
He took the little food they had, made a ritual blessing, and told the disciples to distribute it among the people. The disciples did so, moving among the people and feeding them. All were fed, with much left over. The disciples thus became instrumental in the saving work of Christ; the disciples, the learners, had received a valuable and significant lesson in discipleship, the following of Christ; that the mission of Christ was to all who hear and follow him, not to a select few.
Christ established a clear association between word and food; both are life-giving, both are necessary. In this passage we can glimpse, for a brief moment, a church, an assembly gathered around Christ, hearing the word of life, and receiving the food of life. All heard the same word, all received the same food. There was a communion. This was one of the things the apostles and disciples had to learn. After the Ascension, they were commissioned by Christ to go forth among the nations and preach the good news, all that they had learned. We, the Church, have inherited their teaching, all that Christ gave them to give to the Church.
When he performed the miracle, this sign, recorded in the Gospel passage, Christ pointed to the future. This account took place at a moment in time, but it is timeless. There is a deeper meaning here; the sign prefigures the Eucharist. At the Last Supper Christ, on the day before he died, met with his disciples and shared a meal, a communion. He gave his Body and Blood to the Church, and commanded that it be perpetuated. Whenever the Church gathers round the altar at Mass, it hears the word of God, the word of life, and shares in the sacramental body of Christ, All are fed from the same source, there is a communion, all become one in Christ.