Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Sports, spirituality and chaplaincy

Villa Park ... like many English football clubs, Aston Villa has its origins in local church activities

Patrick Comerford


Over the past few days, a number of sporting metaphors have been deployed to describe George Lee’s decision to resign from the Dail and from Fine Gael.

He has been described as “walking off the pitch,” and accused of “playing the man and not the ball.” Enda Kenny and Fine Gael have been compared to a manager signing Wayne Rooney for Shamrock Rovers and then not playing him.

But, whatever the links between the language of football and the language of politics, there are religious imagery and metaphors in sport too.

Start thinking of what is conjured up by phrases such as “the beautiful game,” or “The Dream Team.”

Bill Shankly ... once said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you that it is much, much more important than that.”

Bill Shankly once famously said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you that it is much, much more important than that.”

Although we know that is not so, we know there are pitfalls too in being too dismissive by asking what has football got to do with religion.

We have all heard people talk about their favourite club’s grounds as “holy ground.” This so true, in so many sports, that it was recently to the point that the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) has now given in to popular demands, and is making Croke Pwrk available as a venue for weddings.

There are good and bad images of sport in the Bible. Think, perhaps, of what the Apostle Paul says: “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own …” (Philippians 3: 12).

Or what he says about running the race: “You are running well …” (Galatians 5: 7). “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race; I have kept the faith” (II Timothy 4: 7-8). The crown he talks winning here is the laurel wreath bestowed on winning athletes. Or there are other New Testament images: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12: 1).

In the Apocrypha of the Old Testament we are told of the controversy at the time of the Macabees created by Jews who wanted to undo their circumcision so they could take part in the gymnasium without being embarrassed by the mark of faith in their body.

The church link with sports

A number of football clubs owe their origin to various church groups:

Both Aston Villa and Birmingham City were founded by cricket enthusiasts drawn form local churches. There are “The Saints” in Southampton, because they were founded from Saint Mary’s Parish, which gives their stadium its name. Newcastle United play at Saint James’s Park. There are similar church origins for clubs such as Bolton Wanders, Barnsley, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Swindon Town, Fulham and Queen’s Park Rangers.

Aston Villa was formed in 1874 by members of the Aston Villa (Wesleyan) Chapel Bible class; Barnsley (1887) was formed by the Revd Tiverton Preedy, assistant curate at Saint Peter’s; Birmingham City (1875) was formed by members of Holy Trinity Church choir; Bolton Wanderers (1874) was formed by the headmaster of Christ Church Boys’ School and boys of Christ Church Sunday school, and the Revd Joseph Wright was its first president; Everton (1878) was formed by boys from Saint Domingo’s Chapel Bible class; Fulham (1879) was formed through the inspiration of the Revd John Henry Carwell, curate at Saint James’s; Manchester City (1880) owes it origins to the efforts of the Revd Arthur Connell from Saint Mark’s Church, and his daughter, Anna, to regenerate the former rural district of West Gorton; Queen’s Park Rangers (1885) was formed by boys connected to Saint Jude’s Institute; Southampton (1885) began with boys from the Young Men’s at Saint Mary’s; and Swindon Town (1879) was formed through the inspiration of the Revd William Baker Pitt, curate at Christ Church

In Scotland, Glasgow Celtic was established in 1888 by several Roman Catholic parishes trying to raise money to help feed poor children in the city.

I imagine that in Ireland there are similar origins for Saint Patrick’s Athletic in Dublin. I’m told the colours of Drogheda United are meant to represent the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

But think too of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the role of Archbishop Croke in its formation, so that he gave his name to Croke Park and at All-Ireland finals the ball is still thrown in by the Archbishop of Cashel.

Look at the names of American football and baseball teams – the Saints, Notre Dame ... and so on. Indeed, the Saints won the upper Bowl at the weekend.

Sport as spirituality and religion

How often have you heard: “Football is a team game … but you need to be in the team.”

If religion is about regulations for life, then football can be religion for many people, if they are “in the team.”

We are not creatures made to live in isolation from one another. Relationships are important; and some relationships are so important they need and are nurtured by public ceremonial and ritual affirmation.

Those who are enthusiastic about sports often use theological words and words that laden with spiritual values when they talk about sport and speak of “vision,” “spirit,” “love,” “inspiration,” “passion,” “caring,” “belief,” and “heart.”

Indeed, for many people, their club can be their religion and their identity. There is a bond of fusion that grows without being seen until someone tries to remove it. Just think of how loyal some people are to clubs since birth or childhood, and have maintained that loyalty in the face of moving home or peer pressure to conform to other clubs.

The stadium becomes their temple; even if they are not there regularly, they know that weekly observance is the norm or the ideal for faithful followers.

For many people, their club can be the source of their spirituality too. It is a way of life – it decorates their homes, their cars, their apparel, it gives shape to their week, it marks out the days and the seasons. The football club may even be their church, through which they express their religion. They name their children Ryan, Wayne and David after their saints and heroes, they take their future partners to matches to test their suitability and compatibility, they want to be married on the grounds, they even want to have their ashes scattered over the “sacred turf.”

The match day itself plays out a whole liturgy of its own, drawing people together in fellowship, giving them a sense of belonging and a shared spirit. There is a sense of being there for a common purpose, a common celebration. They are not just spectators, they are celebrating. They express this through singing, chanting, and arm waving. “You’ll never walk alone.”

This is liturgy in the meaning of being the work of the people. They wear the appropriate liturgical colours, and they chant the appropriate communal chants: “When the saints go marching in.” Who can sing “Abide with me” without thinking of a Wembley cup final?

They dress specially and appropriately for these occasions; they put their trust and their faith in their saints and heroes, they maintain, and demand, a minute’s silence after the death of those they revere; they take away relics; they leave behind candles, and petitions and memorials, and sign their Books of Remembrance.

An army chaplain was telling me that football emblems are replacing angels on graves in many cemeteries in Northern Ireland.

On many occasions, the fans make the connections that we often fail to make in the church. Churches may empty quickly when there is a home game early on a Sunday afternoon. But the Revd Owen Beament, Vicar of All Saints’, New Cross, says that every Saturday at All Saints’ they pray for Millwall at the morning Mass. The most important thing he carries in his funeral bag is a CD of the Millwall team song. And, of course, the churches were full too after the Heysel, Hillsborough and Bradford disasters.

Sport and parish ministry

In your parish ministry you will be asked to say grace at the annual dinner of local sports clubs; to take part in one of the memorial services or commemorations for deceased members, which have become popular in many golf clubs; and perhaps to be a patron or vice-president of a local GAA club.

But you will also rely on local sports clubs for fund-raising and local charity events.

However, sport is not marginal or something to be used, a tool for your ministry. We are told that Christ came so that we may have life and “life in all its fullness.”

Sport and advocacy:

When things go wrong in sport you may find yourself being the voice not just of the church but the voice of reason within the community on issues such as:

● Discrimination against women. Why are women's sports always demeaned and reported in a second-rate way?

● Homophobia and sexuality: Football remains a bastion of discrimination on the grounds of gender and sexuality in many areas. Why is it acceptable to chant abuse from every terrace at the referee, accusing him of self-centred sexuality?

● Sectarianism: Think of the conflicts expressed through the clashes between Liverpool and Everton, or Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic. There are many examples in Northern Ireland. But as chaplain of Liverpool, the Revd Bill Bygroves was part of a team of people involved in a peace-making and bridge-building process. That work took 20 years, but they knew they were getting places in 2005 when both communities came together for an official service of reconciliation with a remembrance of those who had died in the past.

● Racism remains a major issue in all sports.

● Sunday sports raise major questions for all the churches.

● Access to sports and sports facilities: sport is about wholeness and health, and also about regard and respect in the community. We are good about speaking out on human rights and access rights in other areas. How would you respond to the way sports facilities are available on the basis of ability to pay and finance?

Sports chaplaincy

The Olympic chaplaincy experiences over the last few decades has raised some interesting dilemmas and taught some interesting points. Often, the problems become apparent not when someone wins or loses, but someone who comes second or third.

But they have also raised other issues, such as the difference between evangelism and proselytism. Fears, both religious and secular, about evangelism and proselytism threatened the capacity and freedom of chaplains at the Olympics in both Athens and Beijing.

The Revd John Boyers, a Baptist minister, has played a pioneering role in chaplaincy work with football clubs in England, making a unique contribution to the development of sports chaplaincy.

At an early stage in his ministry he became chaplain to Watford, whose grounds are on Vicarage Road. In 1991, he began to pioneer the development of chaplaincy in sport under the auspices of SCORE. Then, in 1992, he became chaplain to Manchester United.

He has found that chaplaincy is not just for Premier League clubs. It has also become a natural part of the life of semi-professional sides and even small clubs in amateur leagues, so that many clubs now have a chaplain, usually known affectionately as “Rev,” “Vicar,” or “Padre.”

Some of the problems sports chaplains face were raised dramatically in the television soap Dream Team: there was a player with psychopathic tendencies, another with homosexual inclinations, one involved in an extra-marital affair and then with a teenager; there was even one character who had an experience of a religious conversion and became a Christian.

But Dream Team sometimes became a nightmare, and was not always related to reality, and the daily, mundane toil is not always dramatic. Beyond the glamour, in real sport, there are real human faces.

And chaplaincy is not all about football. John Boyers, for example, has also been involved in chaplaincy at cross-country races, boxing finals, Rugby League World Cup finals, the Commonwealth Games, the Olympics and the Paralympics.

What is chaplaincy?

Charles Coombe, a former Dean of Kilmore, once told me how he was chaplain on a ship. They gave him a label with just his Christian name on it – “Charlie” – and underneath his role description in one word was spelled: “Chaplin.” For the full cruise he was known as: “Charlie Chaplin”

Sometimes chaplaincy can be misunderstood in the Church. But chaplaincy in general, and football chaplaincy in particular, has become the most extraordinary growth area in what are otherwise seen as secular institutions. It is a reality that church-going is in decline in many places. Yet, many institutions are looking to create chaplaincies. In this, sports clubs are no different than that other collection of secular cathedrals – the shopping centres.

One leading supermarket chain has found that staff morale is higher in shops that have chaplains than in those that have none. But for many organisations there are practical reasons for chaplaincies, and there are end-game expectations: including better morale, better practice, better team work.

When I was involved in rugby into my early 20s, we were happy that there was one of us in charge of the bags, and someone with water, and slices of oranges at half-time. But today, top sports clubs now would not think of going without a fully professional support structure that includes specialist club doctors, physiotherapists, chiropodists, sports psychologists, dieticians, dentists, ophthalmologists, podiatrists, and so on. Many team managers know too that they must include in the team of professionals a chaplain to deal with the spiritual and pastoral needs of the whole team – the players, the back-up professionals,

The word chapel is derived from the Latin word “cappa” for a cloak. The cloak of Saint Martin of Tours was revered as a sacred relic, and the sacred place where this relic was kept was the capella. The name capella was then applied to nay small place of worship that housed something sacred or holy, and eventually came to be applied to any modest-sized place of worship – and so we have chapels and chaplains who minister in them. In other words, the ministry of chaplains has its roots in being the guardian of something sacred that has been entrusted for safe-keeping within the context of the believing community.

In many ways, that is how we understand chaplaincy in sports and in shopping centres: guarding the sacred to ensure its safety, well-being and continuing existence. Unlike rectors or parish priests, chaplains are not the leaders of faith communities. The places they work in are not primarily a gathered congregation of believers as such. But they are guardians of something that is sacred and valuable in a location that may otherwise be hostile.

So often the church wants people to come to us. We organise special services, or publicise a special event, and then expect people to attend it in our buildings. But chaplaincy goes to where people are at. It is incarnational in the sense of the incarnational in John 1: taking on flesh and pitching tent in the world as it is, leaving behind the glory and getting hands dirty, preparing to make immense sacrifices.

Chaplaincy is often a support role, an opportunity to get alongside players or club staff. It provides opportunities to listen, to care, to remember and to pray for. These are trusted relationships that develop. Most clubs at some stage would recognise the need for their staff to be cared for. Chaplains can do a unique job in this area if they have the skills and the personality to get alongside people.

How would you apply this to the spiritual aspects of hospital chaplaincy, chaplaincy in a shopping centre, army chaplaincy?

A note on resources:

Score (Sports Chaplaincy Offering Resources and Encouragement) is a charitable trust founded in 1991 by John Boyers. It seeks to ensure proper training, professionalism and cohesion in the ministry of sports chaplaincy.

Visit their website at:

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a workshop with Year III BTh students on the course ‘Spirituality for Today’ on 10 February 2010.

Saint John’s Gospel (11): John 6: 1-15

A Coptic icon of Christ feeding the multitude

Patrick Comerford

John 6: 1-15

1 Μετὰ ταῦτα ἀπῆλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς πέραν τῆς θαλάσσης τῆς Γαλιλαίας τῆς Τιβεριάδος. 2 ἠκολούθει δὲ αὐτῷ ὄχλος πολύς, ὅτι ἐθεώρουν τὰ σημεῖα ἃ ἐποίει ἐπὶ τῶν ἀσθενούντων. 3 ἀνῆλθεν δὲ εἰς τὸ ὄρος Ἰησοῦς, καὶ ἐκεῖ ἐκάθητο μετὰ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ. 4 ἦν δὲ ἐγγὺς τὸ πάσχα, ἡ ἑορτὴ τῶν Ἰουδαίων. 5 ἐπάρας οὖν τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ θεασάμενος ὅτι πολὺς ὄχλος ἔρχεται πρὸς αὐτὸν λέγει πρὸς Φίλιππον, Πόθεν ἀγοράσωμεν ἄρτους ἵνα φάγωσιν οὗτοι; 6 τοῦτο δὲ ἔλεγεν πειράζων αὐτόν, αὐτὸς γὰρ ᾔδει τί ἔμελλεν ποιεῖν. 7 ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ [ὁ] Φίλιππος, Διακοσίων δηναρίων ἄρτοι οὐκ ἀρκοῦσιν αὐτοῖς ἵνα ἕκαστος βραχύ [τι] λάβῃ. 8 λέγει αὐτῷ εἷς ἐκ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ, Ἀνδρέας ὁ ἀδελφὸς Σίμωνος Πέτρου, 9 Ἔστιν παιδάριον ὧδε ὃς ἔχει πέντε ἄρτους κριθίνους καὶ δύο ὀψάρια: ἀλλὰ ταῦτα τί ἐστιν εἰς τοσούτους; 10 εἶπεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Ποιήσατε τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἀναπεσεῖν. ἦν δὲ χόρτος πολὺς ἐν τῷ τόπῳ. ἀνέπεσαν οὖν οἱ ἄνδρες τὸν ἀριθμὸν ὡς πεντακισχίλιοι. 11 ἔλαβεν οὖν τοὺς ἄρτους ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ εὐχαριστήσας διέδωκεν τοῖς ἀνακειμένοις, ὁμοίως καὶ ἐκ τῶν ὀψαρίων ὅσον ἤθελον. 12 ὡς δὲ ἐνεπλήσθησαν λέγει τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ, Συναγάγετε τὰ περισσεύσαντα κλάσματα, ἵνα μή τι ἀπόληται. 13 συνήγαγον οὖν, καὶ ἐγέμισαν δώδεκα κοφίνους κλασμάτων ἐκ τῶν πέντε ἄρτων τῶν κριθίνων ἃ ἐπερίσσευσαν τοῖς βεβρωκόσιν. 14 Οἱ οὖν ἄνθρωποι ἰδόντες ὃ ἐποίησεν σημεῖον ἔλεγον ὅτι Οὗτός ἐστιν ἀληθῶς ὁ προφήτης ὁ ἐρχόμενος εἰς τὸν κόσμον.

15 Ἰησοῦς οὖν γνοὺς ὅτι μέλλουσιν ἔρχεσθαι καὶ ἁρπάζειν αὐτὸν ἵνα ποιήσωσιν βασιλέα ἀνεχώρησεν πάλιν εἰς τὸ ὄρος αὐτὸς μόνος.

1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 10 Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

Loaves and fishes ... from a mosaic on the floor of the Church of the Feeding of the Multitude


The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle – apart from the Resurrection – that is recorded in all four Gospels (see also Matthew 14: 13-21; Mark 6: 32-44; Luke 9: 10-17). The feeding of 4,000 is told by both Mark (Mark 8: 1-9) and by Matthew (Matthew 15: 32-38), but by neither Luke nor John.

The story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes and the feeding of the 5,000 is told in a very similar way in all four Gospels, with only minor variations on the place of the miracle or the circumstances surrounding it.

Although Matthew and Mark have two multiplication narratives, and Luke and John have only one, if the sequence of events in this Gospel more closely resemble the accounts in Saint Mark’s Gospel rather than the other two Gospels, if we draw Mark’s accounts together.

We can find the resemblances in this whole chapter by following this sequence:

● John 6: 1-15: the multiplication for 5,000 (Mark 6: 30-44);

● John 6: 16-24: Christ walks on the sea (Mark 6: 45-54);

(We then skip to Mark 8, after his second multiplication):

● John 6: 25-34: the request for a sign (Mark 8: 11-13);

● John 6: 35-58: the discourse on bread (Mark 8: 14-21);

● John 6: 59-69: the faith of Peter (Mark 8: 27-30);

● John 6: 70-71: passion theme and denial (Mark 8: 31-33).

What is missing?

Well, in Saint John’s Gospel there is no teaching before the multiplication of the loaves (see Mark 6: 34).

On the other hand, John alone tells us that the feeding and the teaching took place as the Feast of the Passover was drawing near, so both the action and the discourse are to be understood with those particular perspectives.

The setting

Our last study in this Gospel was Christ’s discourse after the healing of the man by the pool in Jerusalem. Some time has passed since then, the better part of a year perhaps, and we are now back in Galilee in the following spring for the second Passover narrative (see verse 4) in Saint John’s Gospel.

Commentators point to the shift from the Festival of the Booths in the previous chapter and to the significance of the second Passover. But sometimes I wonder are we in danger of missing one other point, no matter how insignificant it may seem at first reading?

Recently, my attention was drawn to a story about how the Puritans in New England worked themselves to death in the fields without getting much in return for their back-breaking efforts. So much so that they were in danger of starving to death until the wiser inhabitants of the land taught them a few home truths about living in harmony with the rhythms of the earth. There are times to plant. There are times to rest. There are times to work the soil. And there are times to let the soil rest.

Perhaps the gap between Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 is part of the Hidden Years of Jesus ... when he was an adult, when he was in harmony with the rhythms of the earth and the rhythms of life, and when he was preparing for the harvest that is gathered in in Chapter 6.

The story of the multiplication of the loaves as told in Chapter 6 of the Fourth Gospel has a number of key details that are intended to remind the reader of the Eucharist, and the Eucharistic narrative resumes in verses 51-58. But the story is also full of Messianic hope and harvesting, and Eucharistic promise, for it recalls the story of King David. When David first fled from King Saul, he fed his small group of followers, those who acknowledged him as the rightful king, with the priest’s bread, asking the priest: “Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here” (I Samuel 21: 3).

Verse 1:

The other side refers to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was named Tiberias after the city founded ca 20-26 AD by Herod Antipas and named after Tiberias Caesar. In this way, John places the last work done among the Galilean disciples in Gentile territory.

Verse 2:

Note that here too the Galileans are following him because of signs and miracles, and not because of faith. Once again, we have the Johannine question about the link between seeing and believing.

Verse 3:

Christ is seated on the top of the mountain. What does this remind you of? The top of Mount Sinai? The mountain of the Transfiguration? The hill of Calvary outside Jerusalem?

Verse 4:

This is the time approaching the second Passover, so there is a build up in the number of Passovers being recounted, bringing us towards an expectation of fulfilment at Passover.

Verse 5:

Christ lifts up his eyes. When the disciples rejoined Christ at the well in Sychar while he was talking with the Samaritan woman, he told them to “lift up their eyes” (John 4: 35, translated in the NRSV as “look around you”) and to see the “harvest” of the seed he had been sowing.

The introduction of Philip (verse 5) and Andrew (verse 8) as characters in the scene is typical of John’s style. They represent the disciples. Just as at Jacob’s Well, they have failed to buy or produce enough bread.

Verse 6:

Philip’s faith is being tested, and, by implication, the faith of all the disciples.

Verse 7:

Where the NRSV says “Six months’ wages,” the original Greek says 200 denarii. A denarius was a day’s wage for an unskilled labourer.

Verse 9:

John alone mentions the young boy or servant, and the barley loaves. Barley loaves were the food of poor people and for animals, but strikingly, the barley loaves in this story remind us of the time when Elisha who fed 100 men with 20 loaves of bread (2 Kings 4: 42-44), saying: “For thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left’.” The feeding of the multitude therefore may be seen as a demonstrative prelude to Jesus words, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in will never be thirsty” (John 6: 35).

The ΙΧΘΥC symbol carved into marble and highlighted by later visitors in Ephesus

The feeding with the fish is a prelude to, looks forward to another meal by the shores of Lake Tiberias … that breakfast with the disciples when Jesus feeds them with bread and fish. The fish is an early Christian symbol of faith in the Risen Christ: Ichthus (ἰχθύς, capitalised as ΙΧΘΥC) is the Greek word for fish, and can be read as an acrostic, a word formed from the first letters of several words, spelling out Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ (Iēsous Khristos Theou Huios, Sōtēr, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour).

Verse 10:

Christ asks the disciples to make the people sit down – well, not so much to sit down as to recline. They are asked to recline on the grass as they would at a banquet or a feast – just as he did with the disciples at the Last Supper.

Verse 11:

Notice the Eucharistic actions in verse 11. Dom Gregory Dix identified the four-fold movement in the Eucharist as taking, blessing (giving thanks), breaking and giving.

Verse 12:

John alone has Christ commanding the disciples to gather up the fragments lest they perish. Gathering is an act of reverential economy towards the gifts of God. But we return later to the Eucharistic imagery here too. Meanwhile, the gathering also anticipates the gathering that takes place in connection with the work of the Son as he receives from the Father those who are given to him, “that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me … “ (John 6: 39; see also John 17: 12).

Verse 13:

There are twelve baskets – one for each tribe of Israel and one for each of the twelve disciples. Mark alone mentions fragments of fish being picked up too.

Verse 15:

In Saint Mark’s Gospel, Christ forces his disciples to leave immediately (see Mark 6: 45). But only in Saint John’s Gospel are we given the reason for this: the people want to make Christ their earthly king (compare this with the reference to the test in verse 6). When they want to make him their King, they want to make him a political Messiah, opposing Rome. But Jesus would not accept this way of being king or of being Messiah (see John 18: 36).


In the Fourth Gospel, the account of the Feeding of the Multitude is followed with the conversation Jesus has with the crowds who follow him to Capernaum. The main motif in the passage (verses 26-59) centres on Jesus saying: “I am that bread of life” (verse 48). In this way, Jesus links the Feeding of the Multitude with the feeding of the people in the wilderness with manna and with the heavenly banquet and the coming of the kingdom (see John 6: 25-40).

Some Eucharistic images:

In the Fourth Gospel, the preceding food miracle is at the Wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine. Now we have a miracle with bread. The Eucharistic connection of bread and wine is obvious even to the first-time reader.

The story of the multiplication of the loaves as told in the Fourth Gospel has a number of key details that intended to remind the reader of the Eucharist, and the Eucharistic narrative resumes in verses 51-58.

● In verse 10, the crowd is asked to recline on the grass, as if they were at a banquet, a Passover meal or a wedding feast, just as Christ and the 12 ate at the Last Supper.

● Once again, notice the Eucharistic actions in verse 11. Dom Gregory Dix identified the four-fold movement in the Eucharist as taking, blessing (giving thanks), breaking and giving.

● John alone uses εὐχαριστήσας (eucharistisas, verse 11), from the verb εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteo), “to give thanks,” from which we derive the word Eucharist for the liturgy.

● John alone depicts Christ himself distributing the bread as he will at the Last Supper.

● John alone has Christ commanding the disciples to gather up the fragments lest they perish. The Greek word συνάγω (synago, to gather up) gives us the word συναγωγή (synagogue) for the assembly of faith, and the word σύναξις (synaxis) for the gathering or first part of the Liturgy. The Greek word for “fragments,” κλάσμα (klasma), appears also in early Christian literature as the liturgical word for the host or the bread at the Eucharist.

Closing remarks

Jesus puts no questions of belief to either the disciples or the crowd when he feeds them on the mountainside. They did not believe in the Resurrection – it had yet to happen. But Jesus feeds them, and feeds them indiscriminately. The disciples wanted to send them away, but Jesus wants to count them in. Christ invites more people to the banquet than we can fit into our churches.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study with B.Th. and M.Th. students in a tutorial group on 10 February 2010.