This is the only miracle performed by Christ that is recorded in all four Gospels, unless you count the resurrection of Christ. So this miracle is important. It is more than the fact that Christ our Lord showed His almighty power by doing what is beyond our power.
He did this miracle near the time of the Passover. Saint John the Evangelist is careful to note this. The other Gospel writers did not say that it was the Passover when they recorded the Feeding of the Five Thousand. In his Gospel, John often went to great lengths to point out the significance of miracles. They were not simply demonstrations of power, but were signs pointing to Christ. So it is also in today’s Holy Gospel.
The original Passover was when death passed over the people of Israel in Egypt. The Tenth and worst Plague was when the Angel of the Lord went through the land of Egypt and killed every first born. From the first born of Pharaoh on his throne, to the firstborn of a lowly maidservant who worked behind a hand mill, even to the firstborn of the beasts in the field, all would die. For the Lord went out at midnight through the midst of the land.
But the children of Israel were given this instruction and promise by God: Take a male sheep or goat without blemish, and slaughter him. Take the blood and put it on the doorposts and the lintel of the houses. Then eat the lamb, roasted in fire.
If they followed this instruction and promise of the Lord, then He would not visit them to kill their firstborn. He would see the blood and pass over their houses. And that is just what He did.
Now what does this have to do with the Feeding of the Five Thousand? At first glance, nothing at all. But the Feeding surely reminded the Jews of the way that the Lord fed their forefathers in the wilderness with manna. Just in case they did not get the point, Christ soon after taught them, “Most assuredly I tell you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. … I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.” Christ says that He is the true manna. He is the One who satisfies the hunger of our souls for all eternity. He is the One who both gives the true manna, and is the true manna.
This is not to say that Moses and the Israelites were eating Christ with the manna in a sacramental way. There is no such statement in Scripture. The sacramental eating in Holy Communion was specifically instituted by Christ in the Upper Room at the Last Supper. There is no institution in the Old Testament saying, “Whoever eats the manna is eating the Body of the Son of God.”
Nor should we say that the five thousand in the Holy Gospel were eating Christ’s Body sacramentally. Christ does not say that either.
What then? By multiplying the loaves and fishes for the five thousand, Christ is saying that He is the Provider of all food, from the first food created in Eden for Adam and Eve, to the manna in the wilderness, to each time He creates food from the soil by the hand of farmers. Whether by seemingly miraculous or ordinary means, He is the Creator of bread. More than that, He is saying that He is the true Bread, so that by believing in Him, you have eternal life.
Even more than that, He is saying that He is the Lord of the Passover. He is the One who makes death pass us by because we have His life. By His Blood, we defy death. As Christ is the One who saved ancient Israel, He has also now saved us.
Now we are like ancient Israel in the wilderness, and like the five thousand. We have followed the Lord who led us out of slavery, although following Him sometimes leads to desolate places. We sometimes must sacrifice much in our devotion and dedication to hear Christ teach us. As the crowd followed Christ into the middle of nowhere, so we sometimes find ourselves in strange places and situations because of Him.
You do not have to be a missionary braving the Amazon rain forest, bringing the Gospel to a tribe of natives for you to make sacrifices for the Gospel. If only because we dedicate time and energy and offerings to His Gospel ministry, we do not live the kind of life we could live. If we had money and time only for our own pleasure and needs, how different our situation would be! But each of us suffers at least a little poverty because of our lives are living sacrifices to Christ and to one another. We put Him first, not ourselves.
In whatever wilderness He leads us, He will still take care of us. He will not leave us stranded in the middle of nowhere to starve. He has compassion on our weakness, since He also knew hunger. Sometimes instead of hunger it is loneliness or sadness or pain or something else that we must endure for the sake of the Gospel. But whatever we suffer, He will see to our need in time.
Especially, He feeds us the meal that sustains our spirits, which is the Sacrament of the Altar. When we feel abandoned or isolated as if we were in the middle of a wilderness, He strengthens us with the reassurance of His Body and Blood. This meal is no small thing, but it overflows with superabundance of grace. As the five thousand had twelve baskets left over from five barley loaves and two small fish, so the small wafer and sip of wine you receive are far more than your mind can take in. Here is grace beyond grace, since it is the true Body and Blood of the Son of God. It is more than we could need, more than enough for us to continue this earthly journey, whatever wilderness we find ourselves in.
And we do need such strength. John makes a point to notice that the men sat down on grass. With the words of Isaiah 40, we are reminded that “all flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, because the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.” We are not mighty and lasting. We are not in control. We are weak creatures whose lives may end at any moment. As Moses prayed, “Lord, … You turn man to destruction, and say, ‘Return, O children of men.’ For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night. You carry them away like a flood; they are like a sleep. In the morning they are like grass which grows up; in the morning it flourishes and grows up; in the evening it is cut down and withers.” In our powerlessness, we are fragile.
But good Israelites who sat on the grass that day may also have been reminded that the Lord promised to be a shepherd who makes us to lie down upon green pastures. He is concerned about His flock, and knows the particular weaknesses of each individual lamb. He watches you and knows your need.
But those who want to be self-sufficient sheep who proudly take care of themselves need no shepherd. They need no Christ. They need no Lord over them. Beware lest you find yourself becoming one of those.
For us who know our need and depend upon the kindness of our Shepherd, He will not disappoint. As for death, He is the Lamb who has shed His Blood to make it pass over us. Death is conquered, and will be utterly destroyed soon enough. As for our needs in this life, He does not want us to grow faint and falter and lose hope. So He is always diligent to keep us in His tender care.
It may not feel like it at the time. He may wait to help us when we think He should act immediately. He may give you what you need instead of what you want. In the same way, perhaps some of the people grumbled that Christ did not feed the crowd sooner. Perhaps they complained that He gave them only fish and bread, but they wanted something better. He is the Son of God, you know, and surely could supply filet mignon and lobster tails. But remember that you are the sheep, not the wise shepherd. He knows your need as you do not. He understands and sees far more than you. Trust Him that He does the right thing at the right time.
Now we wait for the Passover. Maundy Thursday comes soon, but even sooner we will have the Holy Communion. In these we have a better passover than the Jews. The Cross and the Eucharist are the Passover that delivers the Lamb of God, far better than all the temporary sacrifices of dumb beasts. The Blood of God covers us forever. Death is now weaker than we are, because we will outlast the grave and burst it open, as our Lord did before us. The sweetness of the Sacrament is a meal that far outshines the bitter herbs of the Old Testament Church.
Yet there is some bitterness for us still. We are still in Lent. As long as we are in this corrupted flesh, it will be the season of sorrow and repentance. We still labor under the burden of our own sins. We are forgiven in Christ, yet we are still pathetic sinners in this vale of tears.
But in the Sacrament, our better Passover, we glimpse beyond this present world of decay. We see past the valley of the shadow of death to the greenest pastures, the new heaven and the new earth, which are the inheritance promised to us in Christ. As we eat the food of immortality, we know that we will live forever in the presence of our Good Shepherd. For the bread is the flesh of the Son of God, and the wine on our lips is a taste of the eternal wedding banquet. We are invited to that banquet by the Blood that gives the remission of sins. More than that, we are the glorious Bride, prepared to leave our present life of bitterness and enter the bright future of our loving Bridegroom. Then He will have finally and for all time given us every blessing under heaven. In His Name and to His glory, Amen.
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