18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare.
Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.
I will renew with you the everlasting covenant (Isaiah 55:3)
The miracle of the loaves and fish is, at least from one perspective, the most unassailable evidence for the divinity of Jesus. There were certainly other equally powerful or even more powerful miracles performed by Jesus, such as His raising people from the dead or His curing people born blind or deaf. And clearly these were also great signs of the divine power operating in and through Jesus. However, these miracles could be more easily challenged, and they were, as being clever frauds. Even at that time, Jesus’ enemies claimed that the people resurrected or cured were not really dead, or really blind or deaf at all, but were just faking it, since they were really his secret disciples.
But when we come to the multiplication of the loaves and fish, we hear nothing in the Gospels about anyone denying that the miracle took place, and why not? Well, perhaps because given the large crowd present, over 5000 men not counting the women and children according to Matthew’s Gospel, and given that many of these thousand were certainly still alive after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, perpetrating a fraud would be far more difficult to prove. Surely, if this Gospel miracle were simply concocted, someone would have come forward and denounced this fraud, especially since many of these people were no longer his followers. Recall that, according to John’s account, immediately after this miracle Jesus gives His Eucharistic discourse, which he connects with the miracle, and in which he shocks the crowd by saying that His flesh is real food and only those who eat it possess Eternal life. And then John tells that “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.”
So this particular miracle recorded in the Gospels will be challenged only much, much later, and not as a fraud perpetrated by Jesus and his apostles, but as a simple myth created by later generations of Christians, simply to promote the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity, or as a religious myth created simply to illustrate the mystery of the Eucharist shared by the Christian community, but having no factual basis in history. Indeed, many Christians in our own day have bought into one or both of those explanations, and thus it is not particularly shocking that many Catholics who accept these myth theories also no longer believe in the Eucharist as Jesus explained it, that is, believe in His real presence in this Sacrament.
In truth, none of the miracles of Jesus can be easily dismissed as deliberate frauds or pious deceptions. It is simply impossible to understand the charge of such deliberate fraud being created by His immediate followers who were likely to suffer death for their proclaiming and preaching Jesus’ divinity, since their claims often met violent opposition whether they were working among the Jews or Gentiles, and eventually led to the martyrdom of all the apostles and of many of their co-workers and converts as well.
We have to ask ourselves just why in the world men would create deliberate frauds to support a religion that would bring them not fame and money and power, but rather persecution, suffering and death? And if men say it was just a pious deception that the Apostles and early Christians created, a literary device for teaching, we again have to ask ourselves where these simple, uneducated men acquired all this literary skill to create a story like this, a story that goes on and on in Chapter Six of St. John’s Gospel where Jesus ends up speaking the difficult doctrine of our having to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Did they just make all this up themselves, and for what purpose would they do so in the case of the loaves and fishes, when so many people were still around who could contradict their testimony? Would they be ready to drive people away from the religion they were preaching by making up this miracle and Jesus’ Eucharistic discourse, which is closely connected to this miracle of the loaves and fish, a hard teaching that would almost certainly appear to most of their listeners to be a call to cannibalism? Would they preach this and be ready to die for this if it were a fraud?
If we are true believers, then the Gospels have to be taken at face value as giving us real historical facts and the authentic teaching of Jesus, and not as a collection of fabrications and fraud. Jesus’ revelation takes place by words and deeds and not by creating religious fables. Faith either accepts the words and deeds as facts, or unbelief in Jesus follows. There is no middle ground.
For 18 centuries of Christian faith, the miracle of the loaves was received by the Church as a true historical miracle until certain rationalist and skeptical exegetes of the 19th Century began to explain away all the supernatural elements of the Gospels as simply concocted Christian myths, much like the myths of other world religions. The Church, however, continues to proclaim the Gospels’ historical and factual nature, and continues to teach the factualness of the miracles and that this miracle of the loaves and fish was performed by Jesus not simply to manifest his divinity, but precisely to prefigure the Eucharist he will share with His Church until the end of time, as we see in John’s Gospel.
This miracle reveals to us not simply the human compassion of Jesus for a hungry crowd, which it certainly does. But much more importantly, it reveals to us how divine compassion is operating through the human compassion of Jesus. This miracle is not only a relieving of the physical hunger of this particular gathering of humanity, which is only a temporary gift, but it is simultaneously a powerful divine promise, foreshadowing a greater much greater gift that will satisfy the spiritual hunger in the souls of all human beings, with another infinitely greater kind of food, another super-substantial form of Bread that will nourish man’s soul with the living God.
This is the final meaning of this great miracle. When Jesus sat in that deserted place and saw the crowd, he was filled with a great compassion that went far beyond his human sympathy moved by the crowd’s physical need, though this need too was his concern. Jesus saw two needs. One was on the purely human level, their human hunger for food, and he met that need super abundantly, giving them all they could eat. But Jesus is God, and so He sees much deeper, sees the more profound spiritual need these people and all people have, but it is a need that most people do not perceive in themselves, the need for God.
The Bread of Life alone satisfies the deepest need people have in their souls, and so Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fish not simply as a proof of his divinity, by a display of divine power. It is also a powerful sign foreshadowing the miracle of the Eucharist that he would perform not once or twice, but countless times, on countless altars, until the end of time in order to feed people’s hunger for God with this Bread of Life, that is, with Himself, with His flesh and blood given for their salvation. In this miracle and discourse, he was likewise revealing that His divinity is not just a matter of power, but is above all compassion, mercy, and love in infinite abundance.
The people, and even the Apostles at the time of the miracle, saw only one level of human need. They were like people of every age who are so focused on their physical and other temporal needs, that they are not much aware, if at all, of their even more profound need for, and hunger for, God. Jesus wanted to awaken their spiritual soul as well as feed their bodies. One day he would feed their souls with Himself.
The Church would quickly come to see in this divine action in a human deed, an act of creation which pointed to the divine because God alone can create. Church faith would understand that the superabundance of the miracle, the bread and fish continually multiplying in the hands of Jesus and in the baskets he blessed, the “all they could eat,” and the twelve baskets of leftovers, that this superabundance points to the divine power in this act of Jesus. For this very superabundance is the mark of God in creation everywhere, the surplus, the over-abundance of God’s creation. And so the Church will always look back on this event with the deeper vision of faith and see it all as an event tied forever to the Eucharist.
Indeed, we can now see that the whole event is Eucharistic in its overtones. Jesus first teaches the crowd, and this is like the first part of our Mass, the liturgy of the Word that prepares us for what follows. The multiplication of the loaves then follows, and this points to the consecration in the Mass and the miracle of the multiplication of the Bread of Life. Jesus no longer multiplies the bread, but transforms the bread and wine into Himself, thus multiplying His saving presence for all who eat this bread with living faith. The Eucharist is thus the far greater miracle for the eyes of faith, for it is a far greater thing to turn bread into the humanity of God, than to simply to multiply bread from bread.
How great, then should our gratitude and reverence be for this greatest of all divine gifts, the Lord Himself, and how great our love should be for the Lord who continually feeds us with the Bread of Life. May our personal faith in this Holy Sacrament grow ever stronger like the faith of the Church, and may the greatest of God’s gifts make us ever more united to God and to each other. Amen.