13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. [Matthew 14:13-21, NRSV]
Rock on which the multiplication of the loaves and fish is believed to have taken place (R), now sheltered under the altar at the Church of the Multiplication (L).
Our visit to Tabgha covered two different churches that remind us of two different Gospel stories: Church of the Multiplication, and Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter.
The first site is the scene of the Gospel story of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes. This miracle, also known as “The Miracle of Feeding of the 5,000”, is reported by all four gospels (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-14). Based on the criterion of multiple gospel-attestations, this feeding miracle enjoys a very strong approval for historical authenticity.
On site is the Church of Multiplication, built by the Cologne-based German Catholic Palestine Mission in the 20th century. Right beneath the altar is the rock where the miracle of multiplication of loaves and fishes is believed to have taken place.
The history of the site, however, goes way back. Originally, a small 4th-century chapel stood on that same spot. The next discovery is a 5th-century church over the foundation of the chapel of a century or so earlier. This 5th-century church yields what we now see as one of the main highlights of the current church – the magnificent 5th-century mosaic. This mosaic, which has literally become iconic across the Catholic world, lies on the floor right in front of the altar. It features two fish flanking a basket containing four loaves of bread. Why “four” and not five as told in the gospel narrative? Our guide, Mr. Murad’s answer, which apparently represents the local interpretive-consensus, is that the “missing 5th loaf” was meant to draw all who came to the ancient church back to Jesus Christ who has identified himself as the “Bread of Life” in the Gospel of John (John 6:35).
- “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
This reminder of Christ as “the Bread of Life” leads to a whole range of reflection.
1. Do not be enthralled by mere food
This is the same Jesus Christ who has pushed back the temptations of Satan in the wilderness even when he was starved of physical food. His reply that repelled Satan was:
- “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4).
After the miracle of feeding, the people pursued Jesus all the more tightly. Clearly disappointed with the crowd who was enthralled with mere food while ignoring the miraculous sign, Jesus told them:
- 27 Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.” (John 6:27)
2. Now, a different “bread from heaven”
Bread is important as basic food. The Jews who heard Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life would have made significant connections to major events in their national history.
To start off the exodus from Egypt, an exodus from situations of sin and slavery, the Jews were to eat unleavened bread while awaiting the Passover. When the Jews were wandering in the desert for 40 years, God rained down “bread from heaven” to sustain them (Exodus 16:4).
However, the people would be mistaken to think it was Moses who gave them bread from heaven; rather, it was God the Father who gave them the true bread from heaven (John 6:32). What Jesus wanted the Jews to know was the real difference this time:
- 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:49-51)
3. Learn to “pass the bread”
If we return to the story of the miracle of feeding 5,000, we will see the four-fold meal pattern enacted by Jesus, namely, he takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and passes it out for distribution.
The actions of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving cover two indispensable dimensions of every Christian life.
- While “taking” and “giving thanks” take care of the vertical, divine dimension of honouring God in recognizing all that we receive in life come from Him , and seeking His continued blessing,
- “Breaking” the bread and passing it out for distribution in communal sharing takes care of the horizontal, social dimension.
The action of the Lord in this four-fold meal pattern thus provides the blue print as it were for Christian food consumption and for all that we are able to enjoy in this world, that is:
- It is not enough to thank God and sing praises to God for what we enjoy in life;
- It is equally important that we pass the bread as well.
With that, it becomes so much easier to appreciate the teaching of Saint Augustine who is often quoted for telling communicants: “Receive what you are, and become what you receive.” In other words, in receiving “the Body of Christ”, we must learn to truly be “the Body of Christ” as well. And the “Body of Christ” is always meant to be broken and shared.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, July 2019. All rights reserved.
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