In Matthew Chapter 14, we learn of a momentous day in the ministry of Jesus.
It begins when Jesus hears that his cousin and close companion, John, has been beheaded. John was the one person who deeply understood Jesus’ mission, with the exception, perhaps, of Joseph and Mary. Now he is dead – and through a senseless execution. The news is something of a blow to Jesus.
Jesus needs to take a step back. To ponder this news. To pray about it. He stops what he is doing. He withdraws from the crowds to whom he is preaching. He takes a boat and goes to a deserted place to pray. In the thick silence of the desert, where he is alone, he realizes that a moment has come. John’s death prefigures his own. This conflict with the world, which John intensely lived, Jesus will also live. John’s death reveals that the conflict between the kingdom and the world is stark. John took his stand, as the forerunner. In the silence of the desert, Jesus knows it is time for him to deepen his own stand, as well. To set his face toward Jerusalem. To move steadfastly toward the reason for which he came.
People see where Jesus has gone. They follow. So do Jesus’ disciples. This fact touches Jesus’ heart. It shows that some people are listening. Some are drawn toward the light. Jesus welcomes them. He is moved by their presence and their needs. He sees them as sheep without a shepherd, as children seeking the love and the life of the Father. He heals those who are sick. The people linger. Jesus’ disciples come to him.
“Send them away,” they say. “It’s late. The people are hungry. They need to eat.”
“It is not necessary to send them away,” Jesus says. “You feed them.”
The command is nonsensical.
“We have only 5 loaves and 2 fish,” comes the more reasonable reply from the reasonable disciples. One can’t feed a crowd of 5,000 with scraps.
“Bring me what bread and fish you have” says Jesus. Then he summons the crowds to be seated on the grass.
He takes the bread and the fish. He raises his gaze toward heaven. He blesses, breaks and gives the bread to his disciples; then his disciples give the bread to the crowds.
In this moment, Jesus brings his disciples into the very center of an act that he has yearned to do since before time began (Lk. 22:15).
An act that had been prefigured by the multiplication of the manna in the desert (Ex. 16). An act that pointed forward to the Last Supper, where he also took bread, raised his gaze to heaven, broke the bread and then gave it to his disciples. Calling the bread his very body, his very self; calling the wine his blood, his life force.
This scene in the desert is rich with metaphysical weight. John the Baptist has died and now Jesus is fulfilling the sign of the manna and pre-figuring the mystery of the Eucharist. He does so in the middle of a desert, before a crowd of people hungering to know the truth. When John, the disciple, saw this, he grasped the deeper meaning. As he described the story, in his Gospel, of Jesus multiplying bread to feed the great crowd, he saw through to what this miracle foreshadowed: the gift of bread and wine in the mystery of the Eucharist. Thus already in John 6, John has Jesus declare: “The bread that I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world . . . The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” (Jn 6:51,54)
We can infer from this passage that, with John the Baptist having left the scene, Jesus feels a kind of urgency to communicate his divine life to his disciples. John’s witness has hastened and sharpened his own.
And yet the day is not complete. The revelation Jesus makes to his disciples has one more chapter. Jesus sends his disciples ahead of him, by boat, while he stays back to dismiss the crowds and continue his prayer. As the night wears on, stormy winds arise in the lake and the boats are tossed in the waves. It is a shaking, a trembling, a destabilizing that seems willed by God. Because into this vulnerability steps Jesus with a message to convey. He comes to his disciples in the 4th watch of the night (that means between 3 and 6 am). The disciples see him and are afraid; they think he’s a ghost. He speaks:
“Courage. I am. Do not be afraid.” Like the bush that burned before Moses without being consumed (Ex 3:2), Jesus stood there: stood before a storm, unshaken; strode atop the waves, unsinking.
He stands there as though to utter another word, another revelation of God that springs straight out of the book of Exodus. His presence restates the I – Thou of the Exodus story, the dynamic of intimacy and covenant between God and his people.
This is the very name God revealed to Moses at the burning bush – when Moses asked who he should tell the Israelites had sent him, what was God’s name?
“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” came the reply. “Translated, that means: I am who Am. I am who was, who is, who will be. I am the one who is” (Ex 3:14).
This is what Jesus burned to reveal to his disciples that night. The night of the day when he foreshadowed the great gift of divine life, the Eucharist.
Against a canopy of darkness and storm, he reveals a mystery of grandeur, a gift of divine light that stands out starkly against the night. John the Baptist has left the stage and Jesus is now ever more ardent in his mission to proclaim the gift of divine life. Even if it is a gift that must shine in the darkness.
I want to pause before this moment: the disciples in the boat, Jesus there upon the water, uttering the divine name, revealing the divine essence. I want to enter this moment. I want to sit in it, sink in it, let it wash over me, let the winds swirl around me. This moment when Jesus stands above the waters and the waves, beneath a dark sky, amidst swirling winds.
And says: “I am.”
What happens here? Jesus stands, revealing in image and in word the very presence and being and life of the Father on earth. What wonder strikes the disciples’ eyes? What thunder resounds in their ears? A sight and a sound that makes known to their psyche the presence of the Father. An impression of life. An existential surge. Like a breath in the lungs of him who can no longer breathe. Like a pulse to the heart of him whose heart has stopped. Like life to the lifeless. Breath to the breathless. Sight to the blind. Word to the deaf. The breath of the father to the soul of a child. The life of the Father to one still in the tomb. It is a wonder. It is Jesus moved to the next phase of his ministry by the ultimate witness of his beloved cousin, John the Baptist.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, you reveal the face of the Father. The name of the Father. The presence of the Father on earth. In the lungs of your disciples, you breathe the spirit of the Father. Amen. Have mercy on me, a sinner. Let it be to me according to your word.