The event we read about in today’s Gospel, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, is one of the most extraordinary miracles Jesus did during his earthly life. Even though we weren’t there 2000 years ago to be fed by the hands of the disciples, this miracle is also one of the most meaningful for us today. It shows us clearly that when men and women give Jesus what they have, he can multiply it to do wonderful and miraculous things for us and for others.
Let’s go back in time together to that late afternoon on the seashore of Galilee and look at the scene to make sure we don’t miss any important details. Our Lord had just finished several hours of preaching and healing of the sick. Since it was getting late, and the disciples cared about the people in the crowd, they came to Jesus and told him to dismiss them so that they could get something to eat. The disciples likely knew that the people would stay as long as Jesus was preaching and miraculously healing the sick.
If Jesus were here, right now, curing people of their cancer, broken legs, diabetes, deafness, advancing blindness and other maladies, we probably would be in no hurry to leave either.
So the disciples cared about the crowds, but their care led them to suggest something that actually was not in the people’s best interest — to leave Jesus, rather than come to him.
Jesus responds immediately to the disciples. “There is no need for them to go: give them something to eat yourselves.” Feed them yourselves!
By the response of the disciples to this, it appears that they would have, if they had the resources. “All we have are five loaves and two fish,” they replied. This response shows clearly the type of lives the disciples were living.
First, they were living lives of great sacrifice and also great sharing. There were only carrying seven pieces of food total to feed what at least had to have been Jesus, the 12 apostles and an unnamed amount of other close disciples. You can do the math yourself! They were not going to be eating very much that night. And yet they were willing to share that food with others.
“Bring them to me!,” Jesus said. Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, raised his eyes to heaven, said the blessing, broke the bread, handed them to his disciples, who then handed them to the crowd.
Took – gave thanks – gave out. Did you spot the miracle? I didn’t. No hocus-pocus, no sleight of hand, no smoke and mirrors; the miracle simply happens because Jesus is present; because Jesus is God.
John makes it clear that this miracle is a sign. In other words, it points beyond itself to a higher reality. The people, of course, do not yet understand this. They are still at the level of having had their hunger satisfied in a way that cost them nothing.
Indeed, the very hunger of the people for bread is a sign pointing beyond itself to a higher, or should we say, deeper hunger. It is Jesus’ great desire to lead them to understand this hunger as one only God can satisfy. He wants to bring them to understand that their hunger is more for him than for bread.
The miracle of the feeding of the multitude is a sign whose meaning is realized at the Last Supper (the Eucharist) and which will be fully realized only in the heavenly banquet at which Jesus will feed us with the food of angels.
Notice that Jesus handed the bread and fish to his disciples who then passed it among the the people in the crowd. We read that Jesus himself gave the bread and fish to his disciples who passed it out to the crowd. Everyone got bread and fish from this source.
The crowds ate until they were full and then the disciples collected the scraps and filled twelve wicker baskets. Twelve baskets of leftovers — one, basically, for every apostle. It’s almost as if Jesus wanted to be able to give them a tangible reminder, in a certain sense, of what he could do when they gave to him what they had.
What does this event say to us today? It shows us what Jesus can do when a disciple puts what he or she has at His disposal. The disciples gave Jesus all they had that day — and it wasn’t much — but with the five loaves and two fish Jesus were able to feed a crowd of 5000 men, until they were satisfied.
So Jesus can also do with us. When we put what we have at his disposal — our time, our talents, our resources, even our failings — he can do great things.
I want to apply this episode to a very concrete example today. Over time, I have had the chance to have conversations with several people all of whom have, in one way or the other, asked or told me: Father, what can we do about our society? So many young people don’t believe in God anymore. Everyone’s watching television. No one’s coming to Church. How can the Church compete against that? What can be done to turn things around? What can be done against the violence, the random killings, children being killed by abortion.
When we look over our society, we, like the disciples 2000 years ago, see thousands of being who are hungry — yes some definitely for food, but countless others starving for the word of God and the Bread of God in their lives, whether they recognize it or not. Rather than come to the place of true nourishment, Jesus, His Word and His actual flesh and blood, they’re instead resorting to all types of junk food that isn’t good for them but which fills their appetites so that they no longer hunger for the real food.
So many parents, who would never think of failing to feed their children, starve their children spiritually, never taking them to Mass. Most of us feel helpless when we see just how great a need there is, like the apostles must have felt in front of the enormous crowd. And Jesus says in the face of such thousands, to you, to me, to each of us, “Give them yourselves something to eat!” And we reply, all we have are minimal talents, we don’t have great influence — how can we possibly give food to such a crowd? Then he adds, “Bring what you have here to me!” He can multiply our little contributions, and he will.
I’d like to give a couple of concrete ways we can do this.
First, we can use the simple fact that we have the gift of life, the gift of a smile, the gift of a tongue and voice, to encourage those who are away from Christ to go or return to him. We can, moreover, like the disciples in the Gospel who brought the bread to others, bring Christ to others where they are. This goes, of course, for friends or family members who are away from the faith. We can invite them back to Mass.
We need to live the type of life, to show the type of joy that Jesus wants to give us here at Mass, in order to attract others back through such joy. Wouldn’t it be a real application of today’s Gospel if each of us were inviting one person to come back to Church. If you think that that person would never come back, or never think about becoming a Catholic, put confidence in Jesus, who can take your small efforts, and even gentle question, and multiply its effects beyond your imagination.
In Christ, all things are possible. If we give him what we have, he can do such wondrous things. Look at what he did with Mary’s yes to the Angel Gabriel! Look at what he did to Peter’s profession of faith! Look at what he’s about to do to mere bread and wine! Just as in the Gospel with the loaves, Jesus will look up to heaven, say the blessing, break the bread, give it to his disciples, saying This is my Body — and it really is. This is the one Bread of Life that has been multiplied to feed literally billions throughout the centuries and every week, who are starving for the word of God. But just as Jesus told the disciples to distribute the fish and bread to all those who were hungry, so he says to each of us today, to go and distribute Him, his love, his word, to a world that’s dying of hunger for him. If you do that, today, tomorrow and every day, when you arrive one day to see Him in all His glory, he will say to you, “I gave you five loaves and two fish. And you have fed hundreds for me.