Learning Lessons from the Loaves

The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves bears a significance and symbolism like few others of Christ’s miracles, which is perhaps why it is the only miracle from His ministry that we can find in all four Gospels.  It is, in fact, an image of the Church.  That is why in the catacomb art the Church’s Eucharist is symbolized not, as one might expect, by a picture of loaves and wine, but rather by loaves and fishes.  The artwork transports us not back to the upper room in Jerusalem, but to the Galilean wilderness near Bethsaida.

This miracle came to avert a crisis.  Christ saw that His disciples were at their wits’ end and in a state of exhaustion after all their work touring the countryside in pairs (Mark 6:7f), and so He took them by boat across the lake to a deserted place to find the peace and stillness they so desperately needed.  Others however saw where they intended to go, and ran on ahead.  Thus, when Christ and His disciples disembarked, they found not an oasis of solitude and peace, but a throng of needy people waiting for them.  Despite His disciples’ need for solitude, Christ felt compassion for the crowd, because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:35), and so He spent the day teaching and healing them.

Then came the crisis.  The day was declining, and the people needed to be fed.  Some had come from a distance and might not make it back home if they departed hungry.  Should they go the surrounding villages to buy food?  Then Christ said an odd thing to His disciples:  “They do not need to go away.  You give them something to eat.”  One can imagine the disciples looking at each other with the voiceless question in their hearts, “What can He possibly be talking about?”  They searched through their stash of money and returned an answer.  No can do.  “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little” (John 6:7).  Two hundred denarii was two hundred days’ wages for a working man, but here there were thousands needing to be fed.

The Lord was undeterred.  What food did they have?  A little boy had brought his lunch, consisting of five loaves and two fish.  (The word “fish” was opsarion—not a big fish, but a little sardine-sized fish.  The Greek means “something eaten with bread, a tidbit”.)  That would be plenty.  Christ ordered the disciples to have the people recline for supper, and they did, in little companies of fifties and hundreds, dinner parties waiting for dinner (Mark 6:40).  Christ took the bread, looked up to God, said the customary Jewish blessing over food, broke it, and gave it to His disciples.  And kept on giving it, until all were fed.  And not just fed—stuffed.  The usual word used to describe their fullness is “satisfied” (compare Matthew 14:20 in the RSV: “they all ate and were satisfied”), but the Greek word used here is chortazo—not just full, but unable to eat another bite.  The word is used in Revelation 19:21, where the RSV translates it as “gorged.”

What lessons can we learn from the little loaves?

First of all, God will give us life, but only if we give Him everything we have.  The little boy could have hedged his bets, and given Christ one of the loaves, keeping four back for himself.  Or perhaps split the loaves and fishes with Him.  Or given Him almost all, keeping back only half a loaf just in case.  But the boy didn’t keep anything back.  Rather, Christ took everything he had.  So it is with us. Christ will give us an abundance of life, both in this age and also in the age to come, but we must hold nothing back from Him.  Christ said it plainly enough: “Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:33).  Every loaf we have must be put into His hands, down to the last scrap.

Secondly, we receive the supernatural bread not directly from His hands, but from the hands of His apostles.  A Churchless Christ is not a Christian concept.  If we would have life from Christ, we must come to His apostles, and find it in His Church.  That is perhaps why Christ ordered that the crowd be organized into little groups of fifties and hundreds.  If one wants to find “organized religion,” here it is—organized and gathered into little groups, little gatherings, little churches.  Each time we gather for the Divine Liturgy we return to the wilderness of Bethsaida, and recline in one of those little groups.

There is a sense that each Liturgy is served in that wilderness.  If every Christian baptism takes place in the Jordan, and every Christian wedding takes place in Cana, every Eucharist takes place in the wilderness of Bethsaida.  There we find the supernatural bread that Christ places in our hands.  There we find the loaves and the fishes.  There we find Christ, Who feeds us to the full.  With Him we are sheep without a shepherd no more.