He set loaves of bread before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD.
2 Kings 4.44
In the gospel last week Jesus sighed with compassion and pity on the crowds who were like ‘sheep without a shepherd’. In other words, they were hungry for pastures that would nourish them and guidance that would lead them on the deepest level.
So what could he do for them?
Leaders are very good at the ‘bread and circuses’ approach to their people, throwing out cheap ruses that will that give fleeting satisfaction: crumbs that meet the basic need for a bite to eat and the circus for a bit of fun and entertainment.
The Roman Emperors knew all about that. And political leaders into our own day do it too. It’s about gaining short term approval, sedating the clamouring crowd.
But bread and circuses only deal with the surface.
The gospel today points us to the lasting nourishment, the deep feeding, fripperies stripped away so that we find we are given more than enough, there is more left over, more to come back to.
God preserve us, in the Church, from the bread and circus approach to faith which fobs people off with vacuous promises, glittering initiatives, passing fads married to the spirit of the age. The Gospel is inexhaustibly nourishing giving solid food not palliatives.
Jesus says, ‘I am the bread of Life’. He was born in a place, Bethlehem, that literally means the ‘House of Bread’; he was born in a manger, which is a feeding trough.
In today’s gospel the Bread of Life, feeds the teeming crowd with… the Bread of Life. That green field where the Five Thousand gathered is the pasture where the sheep are fed; this church is a House of Bread, a Bethlehem, where people are fed with the Bread of Life.
We are in the pasture here and now. Christ draws us in all our human frailty and bewilderment to give us more than the world can offer. The Church feeds on the Bread of Life and, indeed, notices the gifts that even the smallest, apparently most insignificant, people can bring. After all, it is a child who brings what is needful to the table, what seemed tiny and insignificant, which is abundantly transformed by Christ.
That’s why a healthy church never underestimates the ministry and potential of children in the flourishing of the gospel.
Let’s never stifle that instinctive faith and expectation from our children, or indeed from ourselves. And let’s nurture the faith of children in fresh ways and support parents and carers as they have the primary task of bringing their children up to the glory of God the Father.
Let’s rejoice when we hear the cry of a child, not say we’re distracted by them: they might have some loaves and fishes with them!
So not only are the crowds fed by Christ, but there is bread left over. That bread will keep them fed; it will feed others who are drawn to the banquet. As today’s psalm put it:
The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open wide your hand
and fill all things living with plenty. Psalm 145.16,17
The Feeding of the Five Thousand (which, incidentally, is portrayed in a fresco on the north side of our High Altar), the Last Supper, the breaking of bread on the road to Emmaus are Gospel sources for what we are doing now in the Eucharist.
Writing to the Church of Corinth St Paul says, ‘For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks over it, he broke it and said, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. (1 Corinthians 11.23). It the self-same action of Christ. Taking bread. Giving thanks over it. Breaking it.
Christian disciples instinctively recognise that when bread is taken, thanks given over it and broken, then Jesus Christ is present.
The Eucharist is the distinctive, precious and central worship of the Church: the source and summit of the Christian life.
This is no circus; no fast food that fails to satisfy. This is deep, slow, lasting food that opens up the divine life of Christ so that we grow in holiness.
At the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in the Holy Land, at Tabgha, by the Sea of Galilee, where the miracle is said to have taken place, there is an ancient mosaic right in front of the altar of the ancient Byzantine church. The mosaic shows the two fishes, brought by the boy, and a basket of four loaves. Four? - you might ask – where’s the fifth?
Where’s that fifth loaf? Of course, it’s on the altar itself, and it is what we now eat.
‘He set the loaves of bread before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD.’