Sunday Next Before Advent
The Gospel. St. John 6. 5.
At that time: When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip ; Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat? And this he said to prove him : for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him ; Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little. One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, saith unto him ; There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes : but what are they among so many? And Jesus said ; Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down in number about five thousand. And Jesus took the loaves ; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down ; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would. When they were filled, he said unto his disciples ; Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost. Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten. Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, this is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.
I have no doubt that by now we are all more than familiar with today’s Gospel lesson; Christ’s miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Certainly we can recite the particulars from memory; a great crowd of people have come to hear Jesus speak, and Our Lord, sensing that the multitude is getting hungry, challenges his Apostles to feed them. After casting about for a bit, they bring to Jesus a small amount of cheap bread and a couple of small fish, which they have procured from a young boy. And after invoking a blessing, Jesus has the Apostles distribute this food, and tells them to gather up the remains after everyone has eaten. To everyone’s amazement, the “leftovers” are enough to fill twelve baskets.
OK, so we “get it”, right? We understand that the message here is all about Our Lord’s power to perform miracles, and likewise we might also see in this account a foreshadowing of the Holy Eucharist. But as with all of Scripture, there are additional layers of meaning in this story; and here we can find our inspiration for the coming Advent Season.
First, we have the example of Our Lord’s compassion. At the beginning of the 6th chapter of St. John’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus has just sailed across the Sea of Galilee and further that the multitude has followed him, which implies that the crowd had made the journey by land. Jesus appears to try to get some “alone” time, by traveling further up a hill, but still the crowd follows him.
But rather than resent the fact that even here he can get no rest from the throng, Our Lord instead responds with love; he recognizes the need of the people who have followed him; they need to be fed. And he knows just how to go about it. He is going to get us involved.
He turns to Phillip (who was from that region), and asks him, “where can we go to buy food for these people”? Phillip goes into a panic, because he has heard only the last part of the question; “…buy food for all these people”? “We can’t afford to buy enough food for all of them”!
Phillip has missed the point of the question; “where can we go”, in other words “to whom should we turn”? Then, as it is now, the multitude needed to be fed; but all too often we react as Phillip did, missing the point and thinking that we don’t have the ability or the resources to respond to such a challenge. We focus on our earthly limitations, and fail to remember the Heavenly power that we may have in our hands, if only we will look in the right direction. Like Phillip, we fail to remember that with God, all things are possible.
Fortunately, another of the Apostles, Andrew, was “eavesdropping” on the conversation. And so he searches about and finds a boy who is willing to share his meager lunch. Andrew brings the boy to Jesus, but even he is skeptical; “what are they among so many”? Ironically, Andrew has also missed the point, even as he did the right thing.
Andrew had identified someone (the young boy) who was open to coming to Our Lord and to offer his seemingly insignificant gift. But Andrew’s comment, “what are they among so many”, fails to take into account that no gift that is offered to the service of Our Lord is insignificant. And even as he did the “right thing”, he has also missed the point that such gifts are possible only when we bring others to Christ.
From here it is permissible to simply accept this story at face value; as a miraculous feeding of a multitude, and as a precursor of the Holy Sacrifice. But even at that, there are other ideas that we may safely explore that can add to our perception of this miraculous event and the lessons we may take from it.
First we have the example of the young boy. We are not told how he came to be there in the first place, but we can imagine that the lad began his day by packing up his lunch before setting out. And in the course of events, he was probably swept up with the crowd who were on their way to see Jesus. The image we are given is one of relative innocence; he followed more out of curiosity than of any real need or desire. He just wanted to know what all the hubbub was about.
But then he hears this man, Andrew, talking to people, seeking some way, some assistance to feed the crowd. And in all innocence, the boy offers to share his lunch. He knows that it is not much, but he is willing to make this sacrifice nonetheless. And so Andrew brings the boy and his offering to Jesus.
I have already covered Andrew’s role in this portion of the story, but here now we must consider the boy. From our perspective, he doesn’t have much to offer, but what he does have he willingly offers. He has heeded Our Lord’s call, and even though it seems that his offering could not possibly make any real difference, Christ shows us that miracles can be found in even the smallest things.
The boy has given from his heart and God magnifies that gift; miraculously expanding it to the point that the resulting Grace was more than five thousand people could consume. The lesson here is obvious; we must always be ready to bring our gifts to God, no matter what we may think of their significance or importance. We must be ready to heed his call and respond by opening our hearts to Him. And we must be ready, and willing, to bring others to Christ, so that they too may offer their gifts to him; because we know that Christ is able to transform even the smallest of things into miracles.
But now, back to the crowd. It stands to reason that the boy could not have been the only one in that whole throng who had thought to bring food with him; particularly those who decided to travel miles to see Jesus. Many of the Jews of that time would have carried baskets with them that were designed to transport whatever items they procured during the day, and also to carry their own lunch.
But when the call goes out, none of these people respond. Undoubtedly, most of them thought, “I have only enough for myself; I don’t have anything to spare for everyone else”. And so they remain silent even as Our Lord calls to them. But then, they see this young boy, walking with Andrew to Jesus and offering to share his food.
Now imagine that you are in the crowd as you witness this; the boy opens his basket and offers his sparse lunch to Jesus. Jesus blesses this gift, and instructs his Apostles to distribute the bread and fish amongst the crowd; to share the gift of this child with all those who presumed to withhold their own. In the face of such an act of love and compassion, how could you not change your mind and instead offer to add your own contribution as well?
This too is a miracle; from the smallest example, from the most insignificant of offerings, Jesus is able to change hearts and minds. Our Lord’s acknowledgement of this young boy’s sacrifice turns the selfishness of the crowd into a fellowship of sharers. Yes, the miracle of this story is indeed all about multiplication; but it is not just about the replication of bread and fish; it is also about the increase of the Kingdom of God.
And so it is incumbent upon us to respond to Our Lord’s challenge; “to whom should we turn, so that these may be fed”? And that response must be to bring others to him so that they too may offer their gifts; “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, saith unto him ; There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes”; and we must do so because we know that even from the most insignificant offering a miracle may result and the hearts and minds of men may be changed. We must remember that from the smallest act of love, God is able to work wonders.