Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Shepherdless, Hungry Sheep

In the liturgical calendar, Christmas continues for another week. We don’t begin Ordinary Time until after the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord this coming Sunday. In this Christmas Tuesday following Epiphany, the Church has selected as the gospel reading for the mass Mark 6:34-44, which recounts one of the instances in which Jesus multiplied the loaves. Where does this passage fit into the Christmas season?

As I read Mark’s account, two observations come to mind. First, the convergence of signs and symbols that I noted in my post, Something About Christmas, continues. Second, the numbers are significant.

“When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mk 6:34) God’s people were like sheep, so He sent to them the Lamb of God. They were without a shepherd, so He sent to them the Good Shepherd. “You give them something to eat.” (Mk 6:37) Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread” and was laid in a feed box. God gave the Israelites manna in the desert, but Jesus identified himself as the “true bread from heaven” and the “bread of life.” “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (Jn 6:35) The Eucharist is woven throughout the gospels, from the Christmas narrative, through the miracles of Christ, to the Last Supper and the passion, death, and resurrection. It is truly the source and summit of our lives.

The numbers (five thousand fed with twelve baskets left over) are significant. Don’t take my word for it, though. Two chapters later, in Mark 8, Jesus feeds four thousand with seven loaves and seven baskets left over. When the apostles then misunderstand His words about the leaven of the Pharisees, thinking that He’s talking about physical bread, He seems to become a little exasperated. “’Do you still not see or understand? Are you hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see; and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets did you pick up?’ ‘Twelve,’ they replied. ‘And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ They answered, ‘Seven.’ He said to them, ‘Do you still no understand?’” (Mk 8:17-21)

We can only guess at what the numbers mean, since scripture isn’t explicit, and our culture doesn’t place as much symbolic meaning in numbers as Hebrew culture did. One interpretation, which I believe comes from Dr. Scott Hahn, is that the fives and twelve refer to the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) and the twelve tribes of Israel, whereas the four and sevens refer to the four cardinal directions and completion or perfection, such that the two miracles of the loaves represent the extension of God’s covenant to all people, and not just to the Israelites.

Whatever the numbers might mean, Jesus seemed to think it was important that the Apostles understand the significance. We can only trust that the point He was making has been transmitted to us by the successors to the Apostles, such that we get the teaching, even though it isn’t explicitly explained in this passage of scripture.


Wes said...


I read your blog with some regularity but do not think that I have commented in the past. I have a couple thoughts for your to ponder.

In the appendix of the Companion Bible are several notes about the spiritual significance of numbers. Based on those insights I have provided several thoughts that may spark a conversation.

5,000 with 12 remaining. The number 5 denotes divine grace while the number 12 represents perfection, so through the grace of Jesus Christ we receive perfection.

4,000 with 7 remaining. The number 4 denotes creative works and always represents material creation as pertaining to the earth. The number 7 demotes spiritual perfection, it is the number of the holy spirit, the author and giver of life. So only with holy spirit, giver of life does the material creation of food exist.

Just sharing my thoughts after reading your post.

Kurt H said...


Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the information from your Companion Bible. It reinforces, I think, the point I was trying to make, that there are many possible interpretations of the numerical significance of the number of loaves, number fed, and number of baskets remaining. We might never know, this side of the eschaton, exactly what He meant. But we trust that since he thought it was important, the overall lesson still gets to us by other means, either through the Tradition or through other parts of scripture.