This Sunday we celebrate the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, at which we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus at the Last Supper. In the gospel for this feast we hear the familiar story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, an event which seems to foreshadow the feeding that Jesus will do at the Last Supper.
Jesus has been teaching the crowds and healing the sick, and time gets away from him. As sunset approaches, Jesus’ disciples ask Jesus to dismiss the crowd so that all these people can make their way to the surrounding villages to get something to eat and find a place to sleep for the night. Jesus responds, “Why don’t you give them something to eat yourself?” At this the disciples seem confused; they only have five loaves of bread and two fish among them. Does Jesus expect them to feed everyone on this paltry collection or to go buy food to feed the multitude?
Without directly answering them, Jesus tells the disciples to arrange the people into groups and to get them seated. Then Jesus takes the fives loaves and two fishes, blesses them, breaks them, and gives them to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. As it turns out, there is enough food for everyone to eat their fill and then some, as the leftovers fill twelve baskets.
The tendency is to focus on the miraculous in this story: how Jesus’ praying over the loaves and fishes leads to their multiplication. Yet to really understand this miracle, we have to go back to the beginning of the story. We have to start with Jesus’ simple question to the disciples, “Why don’t you give them something to eat yourselves?” The beginning of their reply is, “We have nothing…”
Erin went to high school with me for four years and I said hi to her in the halls every day. However, if I saw her sitting with her mom at a football game, I did not wave her over to the student section. When I organized a group of girls to go out for dinner on the night of a dance to which none of us had dates, I did not think to call her on the phone. Erin had a developmental disability of some sort, and it made me uncomfortable to be around her. A few years later, I overheard her mom saying to someone else, “It sure would have been nice if just once, Erin had been invited to something socially by her classmates during high school.” Her mom was not angry, just sad that not one person in our graduating class of 297 people had thought to treat Erin as a friend. I felt ashamed and slunk away before Erin’s mom saw me. In my relationship with Erin, my first response was that I had nothing to give.
As it turns out, the disciples do not have nothing. They have five loaves and two fishes—certainly not enough to feed the multitude, but definitely something to offer. And Jesus takes this small offering and works wonders with it. Jesus does not create food from nothing; he works with the gifts that his followers have to offer. And in doing so, not is there enough food for everyone to eat their fill, there are leftovers! From the little the disciples have to give, Jesus makes an abundance that is even more than the people can receive.
I had stayed up later than I should have reading a few extra chapters in a nail-biting mystery. The phone rang, and luckily I got it on the first ring before my parents woke up. My friend Luke was on the other end, frantic. Luke struggled with depression, and he had had a bad fight with his parents that night. He told me he felt like he was losing it; he told me he felt like punching the walls. I felt in over my head; it was scary hearing him talk this way. But I stayed on the line and listened to him. We even prayed together because that was my kneejerk reaction to overwhelming situations. Just before we finally hung up at 4 a.m., Luke said simply, “Thanks.” It did not feel like I had done enough, but I think that God was able to use my small gift of being present to Luke to give Luke what he needed that evening.
If we are what we eat, then in the Eucharist, we become Jesus’ real presence in the world. Just as the Eucharist sustains us, we are called to be a nourishing presence in the world. This means both literally, by helping to feed those who are physically hungry, but also metaphorically, by being Christ’s hands, feet, arms, ears, eyes—really, Christ’s love—in the world. And if this seems too scary, if it feels like we have nothing to give, we must remember that Jesus can work with whatever we have to give, turning it into an abundance that we can scarcely imagine.
Jesus asks us, “Why don’t you give them something to eat yourselves?”
- When in your life has your answer to this question been, “I have nothing to offer”?
- When in your life have your answer to this question been, “I don’t have much, but I do have this”?
- In what ways can you help to meet the physical hunger in the world?
- In what ways can you help to nourish people’s metaphorical hunger (for love, for acceptance, for joy, for hope, etc.)?