Some of the most important moments of our lives take place around meals.
After we're baptized, receive our first Communion, and are confirmed, we celebrate with a reception. Our weddings are celebrated with a big meal. Even our funerals usually conclude with a luncheon.
The big holidays and holy days are all celebrated with meals: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. And all of these meals have special rites to them - from almost universal things like eating turkey at Thaksgiving, ethnic celebrations like wigilia, and family traditions.
And we can't forget that almost all these occasions are also celebrated with the Mass - where the food and drink we receive are Jesus himself. That's the Catholic way: when we get married, there's a Mass; when we graduate, there's a Mass; when someone dies, there's a Mass.
This is also the way that God marked important occasions with the people of Israel. When he led them out of Egypt, they ate the Passover meal. When he made a covenant with them and gave them the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, they offered sacrifices and then Moses and the elders ate a meal in God's presence. As they traveled through the desert, God provided food in the form of manna (mysterious "bread from heaven") and quail - until the reached the promised land and could eat the food that they grew and raised.
Our first reading from Isaiah describes what Scripture scholars call the messianic banquet - meaning a meal in the new age, when the Messiah had come and restored Israel. In that reading the prophet talks about a meal where not only do you get what you truly desire, what truly satisfies, but you get it for free, as a gift from God. In this meal, God will renew the covenant that he made with David and extend it to all the people.
As we can see, this image of a meal is significant in God's plan of salvation.
With all that in mind, we come to the gospel and the story of Jesus feeding over five thousand people. There are several layers to this story.
First, we see Jesus' care for the people. They had followed him into the wilderness without thinking of what they would eat or drink. They wanted to be with Jesus - and Jesus takes care of them.
In this he leaves us an example: Jesus takes care of those in need, we should do the same.
The second layer is connected with the story of the Israelites in the desert. In both stories, the people are in the wilderness without food; then God provides miraculous bread and another kind of food (in Exodus, quail; here, fish), and the food that they received was enough to feed everyone. In the gospel story, there is even food left over.
Jesus is being portrayed as the new Moses. He has come to lead God's people to freedom, but in an even more important way. Likewise, the meal that Jesus provides points to an even greater one.
Jesus came to free humanity from sin, and gives us a meal that is not just bread, but his very self.
That's the third meaning of this story. The messianic banquet, the meal in which God makes a covenant with us for all time is the Eucharist. I'm sure you all heard the familiar words in the gospel: Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples.
It is in the Eucharist that God makes a covenant with us, and, unlike the manna in the desert or even the bread that Jesus gave the crowds, the Eucharist does not just nourish are bodies, it feeds our souls.
I know I've preached about this a lot, it feels like a hundred times, but we can never overestimate the importance of the Eucharist. The Church teaches that it is the source and summit of our faith. It is everything, because it is Jesus.
That's why it is so vital to make it an absolutely essential part of our lives. It doesn't matter if we're busy, or if we're on vacation, or if we're not excited about it - get to Mass. I'm preaching to the choir a little bit, because you're all here, but it doesn't hurt to remind ourselves how important this is.
When we receive Jesus we are saying once again, "Amen, Lord. I believe in you, I love you, and I want to live my life for you." There is nothing more important.
Today, as you receive the true bread from heaven, open your hearts and ask Jesus to make his home there. Ask him to transform you through the gift that he gives freely and generously.