The multiplication of loaves: sermon on the sixth Sunday after Pentecost

“I have compassion on the multitude, for behold they have now been with me three days …”

One of the most famous of the miracles of our Lord is the feeding of five thousand men, apart from women and children, with five loaves and two fishes. That is the miracle that we hear described on the fourth Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday, and it is narrated by all four evangelists. The miracle that is described in this Sunday’s gospel is different: it is the feeding of four thousand men, apart from women and children, with seven loaves and a few small fish. Just in case anyone might suppose that it was really the same event, and that different evangelists simply gave different approximations of the number of people present, we find that both St Matthew and St Mark narrate both miracles: firstly, the feeding of the five thousand about one year before our Lord’s death, then the feeding of the four thousand shortly before His transfiguration. What’s more, Jesus speaks to the apostles about these two miracles, after He has performed them, and He gives them to understand that there is some mysterious meaning not only in the miracles themselves, but in the numbers of people who were fed on each occasion, and in the number of loaves multiplied, and even in the number of baskets of scraps that were left over at the end. You can read about that in the eighth chapter of St Mark.

I shall not try to uncover all these mysteries, but simply to ask this question: “Why did our Lord work two such similar miracles? What was His motive?” You might say to me, “Perhaps it was just because on two occasions there was a large crowd that was hungry.” That is true, but that doesn’t explain why both miracles were recorded. St John tells us at the end of his gospel, “Many other signs did Jesus also in the sight of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” Our Lord worked many miracles that we know nothing about. When the Holy Spirit moved the evangelists to record one miracle rather than another, there is always a reason. So, why did He move St Matthew and St Mark to record both the miraculous feedings, of the five thousand, and then of the four?

We may surely understand the bread, in these two miracles, to be a symbol of the Body of Christ. He Himself uses this comparison elsewhere, when He said to the crowd in the synagogue, “I am the living bread.” And in the Holy Eucharist, we receive His Body, really present under the appearances of bread. So, it seems natural to suppose that in the feeding of the five thousand, and of the four thousand, the bread represents His Body. 

Now, in both these miracles of multiplication, this bread is blessed, that is, offered to His Father, then broken, and offered to the crowd. The first breaking of this bread seems to me to represent His Passion. Christ’s Body was as it were broken upon the Cross. In one of the Psalms, He foretells His Passion, saying, “I am poured out like water; and all my bones are scattered. My heart is become like wax melting in the midst of my bowels.” When He breaks open the bread, at the feeding of the five thousand, He is representing what would happen to Him the following Passover, when He would give up His life for the world. 

If this is so, if the breaking of the bread represents the Passion, we might expect that such a miracle would occur only once. Our Lord suffered only once. As St Paul tells us today, “Christ rising again from the dead, dieth now no more.” Yes, but though He suffered only once, He does not offer His Body only once. Jesus has left His sacrifice to the Church, the Holy Mass, and in this way, He continues to offer Himself, for as long as this world lasts.

That, it seems to me, is why He worked two miracles that are so similar to each other. It is because the Mass is so similar to the Passion. In the first miracle, performed at Passover, He was representing His death upon the Cross, which would occur one year later. In the second miracle, today’s gospel, He was representing the Holy Mass. In His Passion, Christ’s Body was as it were broken open by His sufferings and when He sent forth His Spirit: in the Mass, this happens mystically, at the consecration, and again when the priest breaks the Host in order to receive it. That is why the apostles sometimes called the Mass “the breaking of bread”: it is the breaking, that is, the offering, of Christ the living bread.

Perhaps this is why there were fewer people present for the second miracle than at the first. Our Lord died for the whole world. But the Mass is the sacrifice of the Church, and it is offered above all for the Mystical Body, which is less than the whole world. That is why the priest at the beginning of the canon says, “Be mindful, O Lord of thy servants and handmaids, whose faith and devotion Thou knowest”. 

If this is so, we see why both miracles form part of the gospel that the Lord willed to be preached in the whole world. They are both necessary for people to know. People need to know that they have a Saviour, that God loved them enough to come among them and die for them. That is the feeding of the five thousand. Nothing could be more wonderful. Yet wonderful though that is, He wished to do more. He did not want His sacrifice to be simply something for later generations to read about, simply an event recorded in a book, even the most beautiful event in the most truthful of books. As well as feeding the five thousand, He wanted also to feed the four thousand. He wanted His sacrifice to continue in the Mass, so that we, the faithful, who are like the crowd that follows Him in the wilderness, should not live only on words or on memories but by His true Body. In so doing, we begin even now to fulfil the words of St Paul: “as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life.”