The Hidden Meaning of the Loaves & Fishes

Editor’s Note: Reflection on the Mass readings for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) – Second Kings 4:42-44; Psalms 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15. This series usually appears each Wednesday.

Photography © by Andy Coan

Finding the hidden meanings.   Unraveling mysteries.  Deciphering symbols.  The thrill inherent in all this is partly why Dan Brown’s book, the Da Vinci Code, sold so well.

But Brown’s secret code, the 2000 year chain of clues supposedly leading to the true identity of Jesus and his holy grail, is simply a parody of the real mystery embedded in history.  The writer of this authentic code is the Holy Spirit and the code book is the Bible.  For thousands of years people have “searched the Scriptures” under the guidance of the same Spirit who inspired them, looking for connections between people, places, things.  They’ve discovered one coherent story of salvation history amidst many different books, written in different genres and styles, by many different human writers over the course of centuries.

This Sunday, the Church has put together readings to bring out connections that many of us would fail to see without a little help.  Just about every Christian has heard the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, in fact numerous times.  But we’ve probably overlooked the fact that they were barley loaves.  What significance could that have?

Plenty.  First of all, someone in the Old Testament had multiplied loaves, and they too were barley loaves.  Elisha was the successor of Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets.  Elijah had multiplied flour and oil to save a widow and her son from starvation.  Elisha did a bit better than his master, multiplying 20 barley loaves so as to feed 100, with some even left over.  But in the Gospel, Jesus multiplies 5 barley loaves and feeds 5,000, leaving 12 baskets left over.  We’re talking serious one-upmanship here.

So here’s one clear message: Jesus is a prophet greater than even Elijah and Elisha.

But there is someone else who is referenced here, though you have to look a bit harder to see him.  Did anyone else in the Old Testament provide bread for God’s people in the wilderness?  Of course!  Moses and the manna.  What is the symbolic number associated with Moses?   There are five books of Moses which are called the Torah or Pentateuch.  No wonder Jesus starts with five barley loaves.  He is transforming the Mosaic Law into something much bigger, greater, and more nourishing.  Moses predicted that God would raise up a prophet like himself (Deuteronomy 18:18).  The people got the point–Jesus had to slip away to avoid them making him king (John 6:14-15).

But let’s get back to those barley loaves.  There is even more symbolism here to probe.  Barley is the first grain to be harvested in the spring, and the feast of unleavened bread celebrates the first fruits of the barley harvest.  Jesus performs this miracle as Passover approaches, and will go on later in John 6 to explain that he himself is the bread of life.  The miracle of the loaves points backwards to great events in the Old Testament to give us clues as to who Jesus really is.  But it also points forward to the future, to what Jesus will do in the upper room on the night before he died and which will made present again in every Eucharist.  The people recline where there is much grass, verdant pastures (Psalm 23), and the Good Shepherd, after giving thanks (eucharistia in biblical Greek) feeds them with rich fare that causes their cup to run over with blessings of not only earthly satisfaction, but eternal life.

How many baskets of scraps are left over?  Twelve, the mystical number symbolizing God’s people.  Twelve tribes, twelve patriarchs, and now twelve apostles, the patriarchs of the New Israel gathering up the remnants of a feast that will be the new covenant meal of God’s new people, the celebration of their deliverance, the new food for the journey to the true promised land, heaven.

But how about the fish?  What do they symbolize?  You’ll have to do some research and figure that one out for yourself!  

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit or call 1.800.803.0118. This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor and is reproduced here by permission of the author.

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About the Author

Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit or call 1.800.803.0118.

Raised in Italian/Irish neighborhood in Providence, RI, Marcellino D’Ambrosio never thought about being anything else but Catholic. But like other Catholic teens, his faith was the last place he looked for fulfillment. Following in the footsteps of his parents, both professional performers in their single years, Marcellino set his sights on stardom, playing bass guitar in several popular rock bands by the time he was 16. At that time he encountered a group of Catholics whose Christian life was an exciting adventure, an adventure worth living for. So he laid his bass guitar aside and embarked on a road that led to a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Catholic University of America. His doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of the renowned Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles, focused on one of the theological lights of the Second Vatican Council, Henri Cardinal de Lubac, and his recovery of biblical interpretation of the early Church fathers.

His writing has been published in the international journal Communio, Abingdon’s Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, the Tablet, Catholic Digest, Our Sunday Visitor, and Catholic News Service’s syndicated column "Faith Alive." His popular book, Exploring the Catholic Church and video course by the same name (known as Touching Jesus through the Church in the USA) have been used in hundreds of parishes all throughout the English speaking world. The Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about the Passion of the Christ, of which he is co-author and co-editor, may prove to be the fastest-selling Catholic book of all time with over a million copies sold in less than three months.

Dr. D’Ambrosio, the father of five and a business owner, brings to his teaching a practical, down-to-earth perspective that makes his words easy to understand and put into practice. Audio and video recordings of his popular teaching are internationally distributed. He often appears on the international Eternal Word Television Network is regularly heard on the nationally syndicated radio show "Catholic Answers Live." Dr. D'Ambrosio has been a guest on Geraldo Rivera, At Large on FoxNews Channel, the Bill O'Reilly radio show and Radio America's news program Dateline: Washington.

In 2001 Dr. D’Ambrosio left his position at the University of Dallas to develop the work of Crossroads Productions, the apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization that he co-founded twenty years ago, and to more directly oversee the growth of Wellness Opportunities Group a company dedicated to helping people improve the quality of their lives physically, mentally, and financially. He, his wife Susan, and their five children, reside just outside of San Antonio, TX.

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  1. Thank you for this very interestinig article. If barley is the flour used in the time of Christ, why isn’t this also used for Holy Communion today?

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