In the Gospel reading today Jesus feeds the 5000 who have come to hear him preach with a mere five loaves and two fishes. There is sufficient for everyone to eat. There is so much food in fact that 12 baskets are needed to collect the scraps left over. This miracle performed by Christ is often called the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves.
There is an exquisite little church on the northern shore of the lake in Galilee dedicated to this event at a place now called Taghba. The original church was destroyed in the Arab invasions of the seventh century but the pavement and foundations were rediscovered in the last century and a little temple in ancient Byzantine style was rebuilt in the 1980s. The well preserved floor mosaic of two fish and a basket of bread attests to the authenticity of this site. Almost certainly this was the church that the nun Egeria visited in the fourth century on her pilgrimage to the holy land. She records her visit as follows:
“In the same place (not far from Capernaum) facing the Sea of Galilee is a well watered land in which lush grasses grow, with numerous trees and palms. Nearby are seven springs which provide abundant water. In this fruitful garden Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The stone upon which the Master placed the bread became an altar. The many pilgrims to the site broke off pieces of it as a cure for their ailments.”
To understand the miracle which has inspired the piety of so many at this site over the centuries and in the hearts and lives of believers who have never made it to the Holy Land we need to recognise that Christ’s action works on many different levels. This in turn is based on the understanding that God ministers to all our needs if we both call upon Him and work with Him.
First there are the physical needs and that most basic level the need for food. The people had gathered in vast numbers and they had been fed by the Word. The Word was not only that which was preached but also the Preacher, the Logos, the word of God Himself. Although Man does not live by bread alone, eventually all need bread and so Christ provides for them in abundance. Note, however, that he does not, magically as it were, snap His fingers and roll out the divine banquet. The people, and in another account a small boy, give him an offering, five loaves and two fishes.
You sometimes hear people say in their ignorance: “If God is so loving and he provides for our needs, why doesn’t he do something about all those millions of people who are malnourished or who are actually starving in the developing world?” The miracle provides us with the answer. God does not do it alone. We need to make an offering, no matter how small, then God will multiply the gift. The offering does not buy God’s favour; it simply ensures that we are playing our part in God’s provision for the needy.
It is not only the physical needs that are being met of course in this miracle but at a deeper level the spiritual needs also. The reference to 12 baskets of scraps being left over is a clear indication of the 12 tribes of Israel and, therefore, the Church. The first provision of bread from heaven was the manna that fed the children of Israel in the desert after their Exodus from Egypt. This also was a sort of bread. In St John’s gospel, chapter 6 there is a variant account of the multiplication of the loaves in which our Lord specifically interprets his miracle in the terms of this manna from heaven.
32 Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 Then they said to Him, “Lord, give us this bread always.” 35 And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.
So at the same time that Christ was feeding the people physically He was feeding them spiritually with Himself. In this passage he even goes on to teach the disciples that this feeding is no less than the Eucharist itself.
53 Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. 58 This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.”
When we all gather together for the Divine Liturgy, Sunday by Sunday and indeed at other times during the feast and fasts of the Church, we witness an amazing multiplication factor equal to that recorded in the gospel today. So many are fed. It is deeply significant there we Orthodox feel a deep God implanted need to bring food to Church as a thank-offering, so that having been fed by Christ and on Christ, we might in turn might feed others. And so the Church grows and the Kingdom comes. Here then we learn a multiplication principle for daily living. In the words of the preacher in Ecclesiastes (11:1):
“Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, for you will find it after many days.”
Bring your offering to Christ, both what you have to give and most importantly yourself and you will find that under Christ found a blessing so many others will have their needs satisfied and indeed your own. Have no thought for tomorrow for day by day God will provide His bread and His wine and none shall hunger or thirst any more.