It is very convenient to drive up to a metal box, place an order, turn the corner of the building and pick up a meal in a colorfully decorated bag. But indulging our penchant for speed and convenience is often paid for by the loss of human sharing. There is something very intimate about eating with another person. It is more than merely assuaging the hunger for food; it satisfies the hunger for human contact. It bespeaks friendship and respect. Families celebrate birthdays and holidays around the table; friends enjoy each other’s company over a meal; people are honored at banquets. There is more than eating that goes on at the table.
Today both Isaiah and Matthew employ the metaphor of a meal to point to something much deeper. In the first reading, God offers the people of Israel the rich fare of a renewed covenant. Originally this oracle envisioned a future that would arrive later in Israel’s history. This future came to embrace the final fulfillment, often characterized as a sumptuous meal. Thus the eschatological age was depicted as a festive banquet.
The Gospel reports another kind of meal. This account has links to a similar episode in the life of the prophet Elisha (see 2 Kgs 4:42-44). But it also contains both eucharistic and eschatological features, suggesting that it is more than a story about the miraculous multiplication of bread. The details of the story sketch a dramatic event. But the words “he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples,” words that were commonly used at Jewish meals, are remarkably similar to Matthew’s eucharistic formula (Mt 26:26-27).
Ancient Jewish apocalyptic lore maintained that the primordial beasts of chaos will be served at the eschatological banquet. These beasts were the sea monsters Behemoth (Job 40:15) and Leviathan (Job 41:1; Ps 104:26). Is it merely coincidence that this Gospel narrative, with its eschatological nuance, adds fish to the desert menu? It seems that this story can boast three levels of meaning: an account of a wondrous feeding; a foreshadowing of the Eucharist; a promise of eschatological fulfillment.
The meals depicted in these readings were not fast-food pickups. They were communal sharing. We see this clearly in the invitation extended in the first reading: “All you...come...!” Furthermore, that meal was somehow a celebration of covenant union. The multiplication of the loaves and the fishes that unfolds in the Gospel was not only a communal meal, but also included communal ministry. Jesus’ disciples both distributed the food and collected the fragments that were left over.
What might these readings have to say to us today? They certainly reinforce our teaching on the eschatological dimension of every Eucharist: “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). They might also prompt us to cherish the meals we share with those we love. Such meals may not be sacramental Eucharists, but they certainly can be eucharistic signs, meals of thanksgiving.