There are some days remaining in the Christmas-Epiphany season,and while we're reminded that the name, Bethlehem, means House of Bread, the Gospel account of the Feeding of Five Thousand comes to mind. Here's some thoughts about this scene which is so important it appears in all four gospels, even more than once at times.
As the day wore on, his disciples approached him and said, "This is a lonely place and it is getting very late; send the people off to the farms and villages round about, to buy themselves something to eat." Give them something to eat yourselves;" he answered. They replied, "Are we to go and spend twenty pounds on bread to give them a meal?" "How many loaves have you?" he asked; "go and see." They found out and told him, "Five, and two fishes also." He ordered them to make the people sit down in groups on the green grass, and they sat down in rows, a hundred rows of fifty each. Then, taking the five loaves and the two fishes, he looked up to heaven, said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to distribute. He also divided the two fishes among them. They all ate to their hearts content; and twelve great basketsful of scraps were picked up with what was left of the fish. Those who ate the loaves numbered five thousand men. Mark 6:35-44
The disciples reminded Jesus, "it's getting late." The painting above is sensitive to these few words - see, the sky is darkening. But perhaps the little sentence is not about wristwatch time as much as a reminder that I don't have forever. It's getting late in my life, and I don't have forever to start being generous. It's getting late in my life and I don't have forever to get a prayer life. It's getting late in my life and I don't have forever to forgive an old offense or to start treating my family better. Indeed, it's getting late; I don't have forever to ....
Do the disciples sound indignant when they ask, "Are we to spend...on bread?" As if to say, "Jesus, do we have to assume responsibility for all of these people?" Jesus doesn't even respond, rather he seems to ignore what they've asked and takes the situation in hand himself. Maybe Jesus wouldn't agree that we're as other-referred or generous as we think or imagine ourselves to be: as a family, as a parish, as a nation.
"Five and two fish...on the green grass...a hundred rows of fifty each, twelve baskets, five thousand men." This is the language of amazement, isn't it? Someone was so amazed as to remember even the details of what Jesus had done. Do I love Jesus like this: even in the details?
Notice too that Jesus involves the disciples all the way: getting the people to sit down, turning the disciples into servers and to gather up the leftovers. I knew a young man who was looking for a church to connect with. He shopped around and finally decided on the church that welcomed him at the door and then immediately gave him something to do - hand out the worship brochures as folks arrived. Jesus gave the disciples something to do!
"They all ate to their hearts' content..." Reflecting on the dramatic increase in the number of people around the world who claim to be atheists and agnostics, Pope Francis said, "We have no one to blame but ourselves. We have failed to satisfy the thirst people have for God and so they go elsewhere." The people ate to their heart's content. I often feel that our Church has become a cauldron of polemic - arguing and debating over who's in/who's out, policies, doctrinal purity, censures, disciplines and laws. But that's not what satisfies the hungry heart.
"Five thousand men." Mark uses a masculine word here. Likely these men went out into the lonely place because they thought an army was going to form around Jesus to overthrow the Romans. Wrong. If Jesus is going to overthrow anything it's more likely to be what's inside that's keeping me from being more kind or compassionate. This Jubilee Year of Mercy? If all we're doing is going through holy doors and collecting indulgences and we come out the other side not more kind and compassionate...that sounds like something of a flop.