One of the most attractive and fascinating aspects of John’s Gospel is his wide use of the symbolic. Many of the characters in the story are used symbolically. There are symbolic gestures or actions, and symbolic narratives. And there are elemental symbols like water and light. In John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand we have one of the best attested signs or miracles of Jesus. Of the six versions of the story in which Jesus provides a meal of bread and fish for a large number of people, I have chosen this version precisely because of its rich symbolic content. Symbols can transcend time and culture. Symbols can communicate meaning with clarity and power.
In John’s telling of the familiar story it is not one of the disciples but a young person who provides Jesus with the few barley loaves and fish which enable him to offer nourishment to the crowd. This young lad is central to the story. He is central to what Jesus is about. He is an inspiring symbol. Young people are central to what we Salesians are about and to what Salesian Headteachers are about. Without them, their presence, their openness, co-operation, spontaneity and generosity, their giftedness, our lives would be so impoverished. Young people are our future, indeed, but they are also our present. They are not just recipients, but partners. They are at the heart of the action.
The gesture of Jesus in providing a feast of bread and fishes by the lakeside is profoundly symbolic. It rides in tandem with his earlier action when at the wedding in Cana he transformed gallons of water into wine of the highest quality. Together these two events point to the fulfilment of longings and dreams articulated over the centuries by the great prophets and poets of Israel, expressing the firm hope that one day God would intervene to save the people, and establish his reign, his kingdom. Often the imagery they adopted had to do with plentiful supplies of food and rich wine. At Cana the wine is abundant. By the lakeside there are basketfuls of food left over. In Jesus the long awaited reign of God is dawning, the messianic era is being inaugurated. The reaction of the crowd at the end indicates a realisation of the significance of what Jesus has done.
We believe that through the subsequent death and resurrection of Jesus, and the outpouring of the Spirit which followed, the presence and life of the God of Jesus, the God of love, is unleashed on the world. We believe that through our baptism we are caught up in this new creation, drawn into the reign of God, the Kingdom. We are always in the heart of God. Any Salesian school is a Kingdom context. It is a place where young people and staff can experience the love of God embracing their lives. School is a place where we know we are accepted, and welcomed; it is a place of hospitality, of inclusion. It is a place of warmth and care and friendship. It is a place where we are challenged to grow, to reach out, to serve. It is a place of healing and forgiveness, a place of truth, justice and hope. That is Kingdom, and it’s now.
Within this general symbolism of the meal, the lakeside banquet, there is the specific symbolism of the bread. As John’s narrative unfolds, we find that soon after the feeding of the crowds, Jesus returns to Capernaum, the town which he has made his home. In the synagogue there Jesus, with echoes of Moses and manna in the wilderness, explores the symbolic significance of the bread, the bread from heaven, the bread which leads to life, a unique quality of life.
In the first place bread is a symbol of the revelation which Jesus brings, the enlightenment he offers. School is a place of revelation, enlightenment, awareness at many levels. We seek to introduce our young people into the exciting mysteries of so many areas of human experience and environment — science and technology, language, literature and culture, geography and history. We seek to enable them to become aware of the unique individuals that they are, to discover the mystery of their own personal truth and identity, to discover how to become what they are called to be. We seek to enable them to learn the art of interaction, teamwork, community, to appreciate the richness of difference, and not see it as a threat. We seek to enable them to penetrate more deeply their identity as children of God, beloved, nurtured, precious and free. We help them to discern what is true and wholesome, of genuine worth and lasting meaning, as an alternative to what our consumer, instant fix, materialistic, individualistic society proclaims so seductively.
For Jesus, the bread of revelation is a source of life. Life — this is perhaps the fourth Evangelist’s favourite theme. Jesus tells us that he has come, still comes, that we might have life, life in all its fullness. For me that is one of the most precious statements in the New Testament. As human beings we are called to be fully alive, alive in all dimensions of our personhood. As educators our wonderful role is to foster the aliveness of the young people we serve. School is a place throbbing with life. We want our young people to develop their bodily gifts in sport and drama and movement. We want them to develop their musical and artistic talents, their creativity and flair, their practical abilities in technology and cooking, their intellectual and relational skills. We wish to foster the flowering of God’s Spirit within them. The Kingdom of God and every Salesian school is an expression of this, is about aliveness. And that is challenging and demanding and very exciting.
Returning to the story line, Jesus blesses the bread and distributes it to the people for their nourishment. On a different occasion Jesus performed this symbolic gesture again at a meal with his friends. This bread, broken and given in love and service, is an expression of who Jesus is; it captures what his life is about, and his death: My flesh for the life of the world. We repeat this gesture, these words, in memory of him in the Eucharist. It’s tough bread.
God’s Word offers us bread. The acceptance of leadership in a Salesian school is not primarily a career option. It is a response to a call from God, a call to cooperate with God in enabling the transforming presence of the Kingdom gently and powerfully to touch the lives of both staff and pupils, a call to shed light and foster aliveness. But it will cost. Leadership is a call to service and self-giving. Jesus will be with us as our inspiration, friend and guide, our strength and support.