In today's Gospel Jesus withdraws to a lonely place with his disciples so that they can be by themselves. His actions here reveal His sorrow at the death of His cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus is given little time to mourn, as the people leave the towns, and go to that lonely place on foot. This is the prelude to the feeding of the five thousand, when Jesus provides food for the multitude from five loaves and two fish.
This feast in that lonely place follows the account of the celebrations that took place for Herod's birthday (cf. Matthew 14:1-12); a celebration which ends in the beheading of John, and the presentation of his head on a platter to Herodias, Herod's wife.
John had preached against Herod's marriage to Herodias, because she was already married to his brother Philip. For his protest John's head is severed from his body, a gruesome act, but one which is designed to send a clear message: those who oppose the union of Herod and Herodias will be violently dismembered.
Today's Gospel is from Matthew, but we can also see that in Mark's account of John's beheading the themes of unity and disunity. In Mark's account Herod offers to give Herodias' daughter half his kingdom, thus dividing his inheritance, and then refuses to break the oaths he has made to her: oaths bind, the breaking of oaths divides.
The act of violence is designed to silence the voice of opposition, so that the king will no longer be troubled about his illicit marriage. Yet Herod is divided within himself. When he hears about Jesus he tells his servants: 'This is John the Baptist, he has been raised from the dead'. The guilt of Herod's conscience is ruled by fear, as he identifies Jesus and John as the voice of God's judgement.
After hearing of this violence Jesus withdraws to a lonely place. His withdrawal is not an attempt to divide Himself from the people, but an opportunity to spend time with His Father.
Herodias has sought to maintain the false unity of her marriage with the violent separation of head from body; Jesus, in unity with His Father, seeks a quiet place to gather His disciples in the midst of violence.
The people are drawn to Jesus, and are united around Him as He heals their sick. Where violence threatens to divide the people, the gentle, healing presence of Jesus unites them.
As the day draws on and it is evening, Jesus' disciples urge Him to send the people away to the surrounding villages, so that they can buy food. Jesus, however, will not disperse the people, and tells the disciples to give them food. Then taking the meagre rations of five loaves and two fish: 'He looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke' (Matthew 14:19).
In raising His eyes to heaven Jesus shows His union with His Father: in blessing the bread it will provide unity not only for the body ,but also for the Spirit: finally, in breaking the bread, Jesus gives a sign of His broken body, through which He will unite a divided world.
The people are united in the meal that Jesus provides for them. Whereas Herod fears the people, and Herodias seeks to control them by violently dividing them, Jesus unites them. This unity looks forward to the unity of the Church, united through the saving sacrifice of Calvary.
As the Gospel proceeds we hear about the violence that divides the people, leading many to reject Jesus, and His disciples to be scattered at His death. His broken body, raised to new life will triumph over this violence, so that we may share in His banquet, in which those who listen to God's voice will have: 'good things to eat and rich food to enjoy', and are given the promise: 'your soul shall live' (Isaiah 55:2-3).