All four gospels say that Jesus fed a great crowd near the Sea of Galilee by multiplying a few loaves of bread and some fish. It’s an important miracle.
John’s account (John 6), read at Mass on weekdays from the Friday of the 2nd week of Easter until Saturday of the 3rd week of Easter, indicates the miracle takes place during the feast of Passover. Like the Passover feast, the miracle and the teaching that follows occur over a number of days.
The Passover feast commemorated the Manna God sent from heaven to sustain the Jews on their journey to the promised land. Jesus claims to be the “true bread,” the “living bread” that comes down from heaven.
Jesus is a commanding presence during the miracle and the days that follow in John’s account. “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” he asks Philip as crowds come to him. He then directs the crowd to sit down, feeds them with the bread and fish, and says what should be done with the fragments left over. Unlike the other gospel accounts that give the disciples a active role in the miracle John’s account gives them a small role. Philip and the other disciples are tested during the miracle and the teaching that follows it.
As they embark on the Sea of Galilee to return to Capernaum after the miracle, a sudden storm occurs and Jesus’ rebukes the wind and the sea, the forces of nature, so that the disciples reach the other shore. All four gospels have some version of Jesus’s power over the sea and therefore the natural world. He has divine power.
The crowds to whom Jesus speaks at Capernaum after the miracle are also tested as well as his disciples. They want to make him king after a plentiful meal and only look for a steady hand out instead of “the true bread come down from heaven.” Their faith is limited and imperfect after the miracle. They miss the meaning of the sign.
The disciples also are tested; some walk with him no more.
The miracle of the loaves and the fish remind us that Jesus is Lord and we are people of limited faith. We only see so far. The Risen Lord leads us to the other shore. He is the Bread of Life. “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life,” Peter says to Jesus at the end of John’s account. And so do we.
“God raised him on the third day,” Peter says at Pentecost, “and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” (Acts 10, 37) In simple, concrete ways, eating and drinking with them, Jesus showed he was alive, but it took his disciples time to believe and then time to witness to their belief.
Belief and disbelief occur at his tomb. The tomb of Jesus was empty. (Acts 2,29) Where is his body, Peter asks in today’s readings as he speaks to the people of Jerusalem? David’s tomb was nearby and the great king’s remains lie there. Why is Jesus’ tomb empty?
The tomb of Jesus even then, in Peter’s day, must have been a place pointed out and contrasted with the tomb of David. Later it was destroyed when Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, but the tomb was still known to those who honored it as the centuries passed. When Constantine’s workers searched for it in the 4th century they had a tradition that told them where to look.
Today there’s almost a unanimous agreement by archeologists and historians that the tomb of Jesus. is found in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, recently restored, but it’s still a sign that’s questioned.
Matthew’s gospel, read today, speaks of stories circulating after Jesus’ death that his body was stolen from the tomb. (Matthew 28, 8-15) For those who believe, though, it was not stolen. “God raised this Jesus, of this we are all witnesses, ” Peter, a trustworthy witness, says.
And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.”
But Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him. ”When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher. Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary of Magdala went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and what he told her.
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked Jesus (John 3:9). How can a person be “born of the Spirit?”
The youthful Mary had also asked the angel Gabriel, “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34)
In the Gospel of Luke, Mary received the forthright response, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).
Gabriel’s answer did not explain how in the scientific sense, but it named the agent of the miraculous Virgin birth. “Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
Nicodemus received a less clement response:
“You are the teacher of Israel and you do not understand this? Amen, amen, I say to you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony.
Written in the last half of the first century, the Gospel of John was composed in the milieu of the tension between the early church and the synagogue. The shift to the plural, “you people,” seems to express a sorrowful gulf between Jesus and the community of teachers represented by Nicodemus.
The Torah is a window onto eternity. Nicodemus was expected to recognize the face of God and the works of the Spirit of God, given all his learning.
If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
The “I” of the Dabar/Logos/Word spoke “in the beginning”—Bereshit—the first word of the Torah. The entire book of Genesis is a record of God’s covenant love with humankind. The Lord God Almighty of Israel gave to Moses the gift of the Ten Commandments to guide his people in living a holy life on earth, paving the way to “heavenly things.” Through his mouthpiece, the prophets, the Lord God described himself as a king, shepherd, prince of peace, potter, father, lover, husband, mother, hen, Spirit, wind, breath, rock, fortress, tower, and more. By means of vibrant and colorful earthly images, God painted a splendid portrait of his character for Israel.
Nevertheless, making the leap from the Torah to Christ was by no means self-evident. Nor is this dialogue with Jesus in the dark of night easily comprehended. Nicodemus speaks for all persons, past and present, in his perplexity. A survey of biblical commentaries on this passage reveals an abundance of varied and divergent interpretations. Nicodemus’ “How can this be?” continues to reverberate down the centuries.
No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
Jesus identified himself with the ladder of the holy patriarch Jacob-Israel (Genesis 28:12). The Greek verbs for ascending and descending in John 3:13 and the Greek Septuagint version of Genesis 28:12 are identical.
Jesus also identified himself with the likeness of the poisonous serpent that healed the children of Israel in the desert (Numbers 21:9).1 Moses’ original action of “setting” the serpent on a pole becomes in the Messianic light an exaltation and glorification2 of the “Son of Man,” a self-referential term from the Psalms, Ezekiel, and Daniel that Jesus frequently used. The promised Messiah has come to heal the brokenhearted and bind up the wounded, and to send his Spirit to renew the face of the earth (Isaiah 61:1; Psalm 147:3; Luke 4:18; Psalm 104:30: Genesis 1:2).
The angel Gabriel’s answer to the Blessed Virgin Mary is the answer for all her children, the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ her Son. For the Woman whose womb waters were overshadowed by the Holy Spirit is a living symbol of the watery Womb of God the Father.
And the earth was tohu vavohu (without form, and void); and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Ruach Elohim (Spirit of God) was hovering upon the face of the waters.
Genesis 1:2 (Orthodox Jewish Bible)
From the Virgin Father’s Womb to the Virgin Mother’s womb, the creation and recreation of Adam and the earth are accomplished by “water and Spirit” (John 3:5).
We join Nicodemus in his journey from the nighttime of obscurity to the dawning light of faith in the resurrection of the Son of Man on the third day.
In the dark of night, Nicodemus secretly sought out Jesus to obtain the light of truth. He risked his reputation among the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin if he was caught consulting Israel’s most wanted.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him.”
The gentle voice of truth in the heart managed to gain a hearing in Nicodemus above the internal and external din of mob pressure and conformity. Humility and courage opened his eyes to see the hand of God in Jesus’ signs among the people.
Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
A new seed, a new birth, a complete regeneration of our nature in divine grace was called for by Jesus. Anóthen (ἄνωθεν), “from above,” “from the origin,” or “again” and “anew” hearkens to a beginningless beginning—God himself (John 1:12-13). The water and Spirit of the original and eternal Womb of God the Father beckons humanity and the cosmos back to its origin (bereshit, the opening word of the Torah in Genesis 1:1, “in the beginning”).
Nicodemus said to him, “How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?”
Nicodemus, listening with the ears of flesh (sarx) and not the spirit (pneuma), interpreted Jesus’ words on the empirical plane alone. Once born from the maternal womb, who can be born “again”?
Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit.
Flesh and spirit, Adam and the cosmos, were created to be one in the beginning. The sin of division and war among the elements characterizes the landscape of reality post-Eden. John’s Prologue introduces a new beginning, a new bereshit in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
The new Adam is anóthen, born “from above,” the Son of God who has integrated spirit and flesh, humanity and the cosmos, Jew and Gentile, and male and female in his own person. A new beginning calls for a new birth, the fulfillment of the cosmic cleansing of Noah’s flood.
Christ, the ark of salvation, leads all creation ashore the Promised Land in his Body through “water and Spirit.” At Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river, the Father declared the divine Sonship of Christ to all the world:
“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:11; Matthew 3:17; Luke 3:22
Words, images, symbols and reality in Genesis 1:2 and John 3:5 come together in the lives of real persons transformed by Christ in the Holy Spirit.
Do not be amazed that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Are the children of God evanescent and hard to pin down, like the wind? Jesus’ description sounds rather ghostlike. The risen Christ himself models the enigmatic and poetic description of persons “born of the Spirit.” Like a ghost, Jesus appeared and disappeared, and moved through solid walls and doors in his risen flesh. At the same time, he invited his disciples to touch his body and realize that he was not a ghost:
While they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed, he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them.
Two millennia after the resurrection, the words and actions of Jesus in the Gospels continue to stretch human faith and imagination. Saints past and present, starting with the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, St. Mary Magdalene, the holy women, and the disciples testify that Christ is truly risen. He is risen indeed!