INVITED TO THE BANQUET OF WORD AND BREAD
Jesus did not leave us a statue, a photograph, or a relic of himself. He wanted to continue to be present among his disciples as food. Food is not placed on the table to be contemplated but to be consumed. Christians who go to Mass but do not receive communion must be aware that they are not participating fully in the Eucharistic celebration.
Food becomes part of ourselves. By eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ, we accept his invitation to identify with him. We say to God and to the community that we intend to form a single body with Christ, we wish to assimilate his gesture of love, and we want to give our lives to our brothers and sisters, as he did. We do not make this demanding choice alone, but together with the whole community. The Eucharist is not a food to be consumed in solitude: it is bread broken and shared among brothers and sisters.
On the one hand, it is inconceivable that a gesture indicating unity, sharing, equality, and reciprocal giving should be made and, on the other, the perpetuation of conflicts, hatred, jealousy, hoarding of goods, and oppression should be tolerated. A community that celebrates the rite of ‘breaking of bread’ in these unworthy conditions eats and drinks—as Paul recalls—its own condemnation (1 Cor 11:28-29). It is a community that transforms the sacrament into a lie. It is like a girl who, smiling, accepts a ring from her fiancé, the symbol of an indissoluble bond of love, and at the same time betrays him with other lovers.
To internalize the message, we repeat: "The Eucharist makes me attentive to all forms of hunger of my brothers and sisters: hunger for bread, hunger for love, hunger for understanding, hunger for forgiveness, and above all hunger for God."
First Reading: Genesis 14:18-20
In those days, Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of God Most High, he blessed Abram with those words: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. —The Word of the Lord.
The fourteenth chapter of the book of Genesis from which our reading is taken is unique: it presents Abraham in the unusual role of a brave warrior. The patriarch is at the Oaks of Mamre, near Hebron, and learns that some kings from the East have captured his nephew Lot. He immediately organizes his armed men, chases the kidnappers to Dan in the extreme north of Palestine, swoops down on them, defeats them, recovers all the booty, and Lot, his goods, his women, and his people.
On his way back, he passes near the city of Salem (Jerusalem), where Melchizedek reigns. Melchizedek—who is king and priest of the Most High God—when he learns that Abraham is approaching, goes out of the city and offers him bread and wine, then blesses him, invoking the name of his God. To understand the message of the passage, it must be kept in mind that, at the time of Abraham, Jerusalem was a city inhabited by a pagan people and remained so for many hundreds of years, until, around the year 1000 B.C., David conquered it and made it the capital of his kingdom.
In the account of the heroic feat accomplished by Abraham, the scene of the meeting with Melchizedek, king of Salem, is included for various reasons. When this account was written (more than a thousand years after the events), the Israelites looked upon neither Jerusalem, its king, nor its court with sympathy, and they grudgingly paid taxes. With skill (and flattery), the author of the passage then tries, citing the example of Abraham (v. 20), to persuade them to submit to the king of Jerusalem and pay him their tithes (without too much muttering!). I have pointed out this ingenious stratagem of the scribe to show how, sometimes, God uses even the less noble motivations of people to introduce into the Bible a story that is precious because it is full of religious symbolism.
It was not only to convince the Israelites to pay their taxes that the sacred author recalled Abraham's humble and devout behavior towards the king of Salem. Above all, he wanted to teach that foreigners should no longer be looked upon negatively. God showed that he did not reveal himself only to the Israelites but also to other people. Melchizedek was a Canaanite, a pagan, yet he already worshipped the Most High God, creator of heaven and earth. Before him, the patriarch Abraham himself made a surprising gesture: he bowed and received his blessing. On no other page of the Old Testament is a pagan minister of worship looked upon with such respect and sympathy.
This passage from the book of Genesis was chosen as the first reading because it has obvious references to today's feast. First, Christians have always considered Melchizedek as a figure of Christ and of the priests of the New Covenant who offer bread and wine on the altar. Other elements relate the gesture made by this priest-king to the Eucharist. He shared his bread and wine with those who were hungry, and his generous behavior was a call to share goods with his brothers and sisters.
Finally, it is significant that the bread and wine of Melchizedek are consumed together by two peoples: the pagan people of Salem and the chosen people of the children of Abraham, the Jews. It is as if these two peoples—though so distant from a political, cultural, and religious point of view—had gathered around a single table. It is the image of what happens in the Christian community that gathers to break the Eucharistic bread: we have the meeting, the welcoming, the sharing, and the mutual exchange of blessings.
Second Reading: 1 Cor 11:23-26
Brothers and sisters: I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. — The Word of the Lord.
To understand this important passage, it is necessary to clarify why Paul introduces the theme of the institution of the Eucharist in his letter. Then we will try to interpret the meaning of Jesus' gesture. In Corinth, there are severe problems: sexual debauchery, unrest, envy, drunkenness, and—what is worse—discord among the brothers and sisters. Parties arose, people disagreed on moral choices, and the division into classes was accepted as normal: that of the rich and that of the poor, that of the nobles and that of the simple people.
Divisions are always harmful, but when they manifest themselves during the celebration of the Eucharist, they become scandalous. At Corinth, Christians are accustomed to taking a meal in common, like true brothers and sisters, before Holy Communion. They know well that it is necessary to share the material bread to break the Eucharistic bread worthily. Holy Communion was celebrated not in churches, as is the case with us, but in private homes made available by some wealthy members of the community.
Now it happens that the group of rich people, of masters, of nobles—who do not work but make their servants work—meet early in the afternoon. They meet in the villa of one of them, stroll in the garden, talk happily, lie down on sofas, and begin to gorge themselves. Then, in the evening, when their brothers and sisters arrive, exhausted by fatigue—they are those who belong to the humblest classes (peasants, laborers, longshoremen)—the rich welcome them with jeers and rude jokes. Then, without realizing the painful situation that has been created, they begin to celebrate the Eucharist.
To show the absurdity of such behavior, Paul reminds the Corinthians how Jesus instituted the Eucharist. The most profound experiences, the most significant messages are difficult to put into words. To communicate them, we resort to gestures: with a sweet look, we express tenderness; with a prolonged handshake, we emphasize our entire agreement with a friend; with an embrace, we reconcile with our brother or sister, with an ugly gesture, we vent our irrepressible anger.
Is it possible to summarize the entire life, the whole work, the entire person of Jesus in a single gesture? Yes, it is possible, and the gesture was chosen and made by him on the eve of his passion. During the Last Supper, he took the bread, broke it, and said: ‘This is my broken body’; then he took the wine and said: ‘This is my shed blood.’ To his disciples, Jesus wanted to say: ‘My whole life has been a gift to people; for me, I have not held back an instant of my life, nor a cell of my body, nor a drop of my blood. I have offered myself completely; I have given myself completely.’
Every time that, at the Lord's invitation, the Christian community breaks the Eucharistic bread, Jesus, who gives his life out of love, is represented. How can the Corinthians—Paul asks—repeat this gesture that indicates sacrifice and the gift of life, union with Christ and their brothers and sisters, and then, in reality, foment divisions, cultivate discord, perpetuate inequality?
Considering the not always consistent life of our Christian communities, perhaps we have wondered how we can continue to celebrate the Eucharist in certain situations. This is a legitimate doubt. However, it should not be forgotten that the Eucharistic bread is a gift, not a deserved prize reserved for the good. It is food offered to sinners, not to the righteous (because no one is righteous). Even if we realize that we are unworthy, we continue to approach the Eucharistic banquet. It reminds us of our condition of sinners and encourages us to become what we are not yet: bread broken and wine poured out for the brothers and sisters.
Gospel: Luke 9:11b-17
Jesus spoke to the crowds about the kingdom of God, and he healed those who needed to be cured. As the day was drawing to a close, the Twelve approached him and said, “Dismiss the crowd so that they can go to the surrounding villages and farms and find lodging and provisions; for we are in a deserted place here.” He said to them, “Give them some food yourselves.” They replied, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have, unless we ourselves go and buy food for all these people.” Now the men there numbered about five thousand. Then he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty.” They did so and made them all sit down. Then taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. They all ate and were satisfied. And when the leftover fragments were picked up, they filled twelve wicker baskets. —The Gospel of the Lord.
There are many ways to explain what the Eucharist is. Paul chooses one: he recounts—as we have seen—its institution during the Last Supper. Luke chooses another: he takes an episode from Jesus' life—the sharing of the loaves—and rereads it from a Eucharistic perspective. He uses it, that is, to make the Christians of his communities understand what is meant by the act of breaking bread that they repeat regularly, every week, on the Lord's Day.
Suppose today's Gospel passage is read as a faithful chronicle of an event. In that case, one encounters a series of difficulties: one does not understand what five thousand men went to do in a deserted place (v. 12), and one does not even know where so many people could have come from (v. 14). It is strange that even the fish are broken (v. 16), and it would be difficult to explain where the twelve baskets for the remains came from (v. 17); had the people brought them with them empty? Then it is late in the evening (v. 12) when the meal begins; how did the twelve, in the dark, manage to put so many people in order and to distribute the loaves and fishes? We are not in front of a chronicle, and it makes no sense to ask how exactly the events took place because it is difficult to determine. The evangelist has built a theological reflection on an event in the life of Jesus, and we are interested in understanding the message he wants to convey rather than in reconstructing what happened.
The first reading key that we use is the one of the Old Testament. Luke's Christian communities were accustomed to the language of the Bible and immediately grasped the allusions to facts, texts, expressions, and characters of the Old Testament, which we may overlook. The account of the distribution of the loaves reminded them:
The account of the manna, the food given prodigiously by God to his people in the desert (Ex 16; Nm 11). The bread given by Jesus also comes from heaven.
The prophecy made by Moses: "The Lord your God will raise up a prophet for you from among your brethren, equal to me" (Deut 18:15). Jesus, who repeats one of the signs given by Moses, is therefore the awaited prophet.
The words of Isaiah: "Why do you spend money on what is not bread, and your wealth on what does not satisfy? Listen to me, and you will eat good things and enjoy succulent food. The Lord of hosts will prepare a banquet on this mountain for all peoples" (Is 55:1-2,6).
Finally, it recalls the multiplication of the loaves by Elisha (2 Kings 4:42-44). The miracle performed by Jesus seems to be an enlarged photocopy.
These references to the Old Testament should be remembered because Luke intends to allude to them. Still, he also refers to the celebration of the Eucharist as it takes place in his communities.
Let us begin with the first verse (v. 11), which, unfortunately, is not quoted in its entirety in our lectionary. Let us also take up the part that is missing: "Jesus welcomed the crowds and began to speak to them…." Only Luke says that when the crowds arrived at Bethsaida, Jesus welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God. He had withdrawn into the background with the disciples, perhaps seeking a moment of quiet, but the people, in need of his word and his help, reached him, and he welcomed them, announced the good news of the kingdom of God, and healed the sick. To welcome means to pay attention, allow oneself to be involved in the needs of others, to show interest in their spiritual and material needs.
In this first verse, the reference to the celebration of the Eucharist is evident: the liturgy of the Lord's Day always begins with the gesture of the celebrant welcoming the community, wishing peace, and announcing the kingdom of God. Like Jesus, he welcomes everyone. Welcome are the good, and welcome are the sinners, welcome are the poor, the sick, the weak, the excluded, those who seek a word of hope and forgiveness; no one is turned away.
Paul, too, concluding the chapter on the Eucharist from which today's passage from the second reading is taken, recommends this welcome to the Christians of Corinth: "My brothers, when you gather for supper, welcome one another" (1 Cor 11:33).
In verse 12, the time at which Jesus distributes his bread is emphasized: "The day was beginning to decline." I noted above the difficulty of understanding this as information (completely redundant, by the way). ‘The day began to decline’ is instead a precious and even moving indication. We also find it in the account of the disciples of Emmaus. "Stay with us," the two say to their companion on the journey, "for evening is coming and the day is waning" (Lk 24:29). This detail informs us about the time when, on Saturday evening, Holy Communion was celebrated in Luke's communities.
The desert place (v. 12) also has a theological significance: it recalls the journey of the people of Israel who, having left the land of slavery, set out on their way to freedom and were fed with manna. The community that celebrates the Eucharist is composed of wanderers who are making an exodus. They dared to leave their homes, their villages, their friends, the kind of life they led, and they set out to listen to the Master and be cared for by him. Like Israel, they entered the desert and set out towards freedom. Others—who also heard the voice of the Lord—preferred to remain where they were, not wanting to take risks. Unfortunately for them, by doing so, they deprived themselves of the nourishment that Jesus gives to those who follow him.
Jesus orders the twelve to feed the crowds (vv. 12-14). The first reaction of the twelve is astonishment, surprise, the feeling of being called to a vast, absurd, impossible task. They make a proposal that contradicts the welcome given by the Master: they suggest sending the people back home, to send them away, to disperse them. Everyone should think about solving his own problems as best he can.
The disciples do not realize the gift that Jesus is about to deliver into their hands: the bread of the Word and the Eucharistic bread. They do not understand that his blessing will endlessly multiply this food that satisfies every hunger: the hunger for happiness, love, justice, peace, the need to give meaning to life, the longing for a new world. These needs are so pressing and unstoppable that they sometimes push us to eat what does not satisfy, which can even exacerbate hunger or cause nausea. Therefore, the Master insists: it is from you that the world expects food; give yourselves food.
His Word is a bread that multiplies miraculously: those who accept the Gospel and feed their lives with it, those who assimilate the person of Christ by eating the Eucharistic bread, in turn, feel the need to share their discovery and their joy with others and begin to distribute to them too the bread that has satisfied their hunger. This triggers an unstoppable process of sharing, and the twelve baskets of remains are always packed and ready to begin the distribution again. The more those who eat the bread of the Word of Christ and the Eucharist increase, the more the bread distributed to the hungry multiplies.
Verse 14 points out a curious detail: Jesus does not want his food to be consumed in solitude, each on his own, as one does at self-service. However, not even large groups are good because they do not know each other, do not want dialogue, and cannot establish relationships of friendship, mutual help, and brotherhood. At the time of Luke, fifty was perhaps the ideal number of members of a community. Remember that, in the early centuries, the Eucharist was not celebrated in churches but in large halls (Acts 2:46), so the number of participants was necessarily limited. It may be that one of the reasons for the laziness, coldness, lack of initiative of some of today's communities depends precisely on a large number of participants.
In the entire New Testament, only Luke uses five times, the Greek verb ‘kataklinein,’ "to lay at the table" (v. 15). It indicates the position that free people assumed when attending a solemn banquet. The Israelites thus reclined during the Passover supper. It is improper to employ this verb in a situation like the one described in today's Gospel passage, to refer it to people in the desert, in the open air, and who are in the habit of sitting on the ground with their legs crossed.
If Luke uses this expression, he does so for a theological reason: to allude to another meal, that of the Christian community seated around the Eucharistic table, the supper of the new Easter, consumed by free people.
The formula used to describe the multiplication of the loaves is well known to us: "He took the loaves (and the fish) and, raising his eyes to heaven, he blessed them, broke them and gave them..." (v. 16). These are the celebrant's gestures in the Eucharist celebration (cf. Lk 22:19). It almost seems that Luke is somewhat profaning the words of the sacramental act, confusing the things of earth with those of heaven, material needs with those of the spirit.
This ‘commingling’ of matter and spirit is not dangerous for the faith. The opposite is dangerous: to untie the Eucharist from people’s life, to take it into the clouds, Eucharists that do not also celebrate the concrete commitment of the whole community to multiply the material bread, so that there may be bread for everyone and more. The communion of goods is represented, in the Eucharistic celebration, by the offertory. This is the moment when each community member presents their generous gift so that it may be distributed to those in need.
We often wonder what happened to the fish; all attention seems to be focused on the loaves. In fact, even the fish are, strangely enough, ‘broken’ and distributed along with the bread (v. 16). In the communities of Luke's time, the fish had become the symbol of Christ. The letters that make up the Greek word ‘ichthys’ (fish) had already become the acrostic for Jesus, Christ, Son, of God, Savior. The fish is, therefore, Jesus himself, who became food in the Eucharist.