Matthew 14 (NRSV): … 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.
Sunday’s gospel reading, for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost in the Lutheran version of the lectionary, was St. Matthew’s account of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. We didn’t have drive-in communion at my parish this week, so it was a Service of the Word, pre-recorded and released on YouTube at the usual time for our Sunday morning service.
I’ve had a bad case of writer’s block lately, and the miracle of the loaves and fishes has long been one of my favorite passages in the New Testament. So I decided to try lectio divina, a process for engaging with scripture that goes back to St. Benedict and one I’ve been neglecting.
In short, if any passage can get me back to doing lectio, this is the one.
While lectio divina can be quite elaborate and prayerful, I usually do it on the fly, using a simplified version that Fr. James Martin SJ wrote up for The Word Among Us, a Catholic devotional magazine that supplements the daily lectionary readings. It’s based on the Benedictine spiritual tradition, but there’s nothing specifically Benedictine — or Catholic — about it.
“Members of monastic communities still use this method of prayer, of course,” says Martin, “but it is equally available to even the busiest and the least monastic among us.”
Least monastic? That would be me (although I guess you could make the case we’ve all been somewhat cloistered the last few months).
Anyway, it seems a good time to get lectio divina off the back burner.
First a little review, since it’s been a while: Martin’s tip sheet is titled “Read, Think, Pray, Act: ‘Lectio Divina’ in Four Easy Steps.” Simple enough? Read: “At the most basic level, you ask: What is going on in this Bible passage?” Sometimes I like to sneak in a Jesuit spiritual exercise called creative prayer or Ignatian contemplation (after the founder of the Jesuit order), where you put yourself in the scene of a passage. Martin goes on. Think: “What is God saying to me through the text? … Often, it might connect with something in your life.” That’s for sure! Pray: “What do I want to say to God about the text?” Clear enough, even though I usually fall down on this step. Act: “What do I want to do, based on my prayer? Finally, you act.”
Always, you act. Martin says that’s a typically Jesuit attitude. But it’s not just for Jesuits. Nor is it just for Catholics. In fact it’s what draws this rather heretical mainline Protestant and self-identified spiritual mutt to his way of doing lectio divina.
Read. What’s going on here? The miracle of loaves and fishes takes place early in Jesus’ ministry, just after the death of John the Baptist. Jesus is disturbed and wants a break from the crowds that have begun to follow him in Galilee. So he goes off to a deserted place. The traditional location is a lovely hillside oasis two kilometers from Capernaum, where several mineral springs feed into the Sea of Galilee. (The picture above shows two pillars from a Byzantine-era church in a garden outside today’s Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes.) Relenting, Jesus continues his healing and teaching ministry till late in the day.
Then, when it’s getting on toward suppertime, comes the miracle. Jesus’ disciples suggest dismissing everyone, but he tells them instead to feed the crowd. This they manage to do with five loaves and two fish. On his Facebook page, Fr. Martin notes that the story “has deep Eucharistic overtones.” Like most of Jesus’ stories — including the stories about him — it’s open to several interpretations. I think it’s a parable, too.
I love trying to put myself at the scene of this story because I’ve been there. (Well, if you want to get technical about it, St. Luke says it was near Bethsaida, five or 10 kilometers to the northeast, but the other three just say it was a “deserted place.”) Since the fourth century, tradition has held it was at Tabgha (Heptapegon), which means seven springs in Greek. It’s a lovely place now, shaded by palm and olive trees and surrounded by flowering plants. But the surrounding countryside is arid grassland.
In my imagination, I’m tagging along with all the people who have come out to hear Jesus. We’re on a gentle slope leading down this little cove where the fishing’s so good at Seven Springs. It’s been an awful day — we’ve just learned that John the Baptizer was killed, and Jesus tried to get off by himself before we caught up with him here — but now he keeps preaching, and healing people and telling those little stories of his. Whatever else you can say about him, he’s a master story-teller. Funny, too.
And he leaves me thinking every time. What does this mean? What am I going to do with it? How can I be better?
This goes on till evening, when the sun’s going down over the hills to the west. His students, the guys who follow him around, interrupt him. And I can see them talking for a minute or two. Then Jesus says, “OK, guys, you get them something to eat.” He’s raising his voice a little, and I can overhear it. They circulate through the crowd, and return with several loaves of bread and two fish. He blesses the food and tells us all to sit down. And — something I never would have expected! — we all share our food. I had a couple of figs, and I ended up giving them to a guy from Bethsaida I’d never met before and never saw again.
Now, I don’t have the slightest idea how many people were there. Later I heard it was four or five thousand. And they came from all over. Galileans, Syrians, Greeks from the other side of the lake, Roman soldiers from the garrison in Capernaum, a few from Caesarea and Samaria. Even a couple of Pharisees up from Jerusalem, probably so they could keep an eye on us.
And here’s the miracle: When we’re done eating, Jesus sends his students out and there’s enough left over to feed another multitude. I don’t know how he did it, but he brought us all together. Jews, Greeks, Romans, Syrophoenicians, even Samaritans and those little bureaucrats from Jerusalem who don’t usually condescend to mix with good country folks from Galilee.
For just a few minutes there, we were a community.
I still don’t know how he did it.
Think: What is God saying to me through the text? On his Facebook page, Fr. Martin says the story of the feeding of the 5,000 was central to the early Christian church, and it “has deep Eucharistic overtones.” Beyond that, he says, it’s like the miracle at the wedding in Cana and the parable of the sower. It shows us that “what Jesus does with what little we offer is beyond our imagination.” He adds:
So beyond the demonstration of Jesus’ supernatural power; the theological resonances of past, present and future; and the Eucharistic overtones; this beautiful miracle reminds us to let God do God’s work. We can bring our five loaves and two fish, all that we have and all that we are. And even if we think it’s inadequate, we can trust in God to take it, bless it, break it open, and multiply it.
Another interpretation was shared with me by a Facebook friend. She said Fr. Johnpaul Cafiero, a well-known Franciscan friar in the Chicago area, once prepared handouts for a homily on the miracle of the loaves and fishes. There weren’t enough to go around, so he asked the congregation to tear theirs in half and give half to their neighbor. There still weren’t enough, so he asked them to tear their half in two, and so on till everyone had a scrap of the handout. Then he came to his point.
“The Gospel of the Lord,” he said. And that was it, that was the homily.
There’s something else on my mind in this season of pandemic, and it has to do with the deep Eucharistic overtones Fr. Martin spoke of. We’re into August now, and I haven’t taken holy communion since the end of February. It was central to my spiritual practice before the pandemic, and I’m missing it. In fact my spiritual director and I spoke of “hungering for the Eucharist” the last time we met, a couple of weeks ago toward the end of July. I didn’t know the miracle of loaves and fishes was coming up in the lectionary, either.
Timothy J. Wengert, who taught Reformation history at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, offers a way out, though. In an online article on “Holy Communion under Quarantine,” he notes that Luther had a nuanced position on the sacrament, holding it “was intended to take place in the Sunday gathering and not privately” but telling Protestants during a troubled time in Bohemia they could skip it when they:
… did not dare or could not receive the Eucharist. For the Eucharist is not so necessary that salvation depends on it. The gospel and baptism are sufficient since faith alone justifies and love alone lives rightly. (Boldface in the original.)
Wengert also quotes Gordon W. Lathrop, who taught liturgics at LTS, that “for Lutherans it is not only that the sacrament is a sort of Word — it is that the Word itself is sacramental: it is full of the presence of Christ, come ‘to do us good’.” Together they quote Luther, who said in the preface to a book of his sermons (known as the Church Postils) that Christ himself is present when the Gospel is proclaimed:
If you pause here and let him do you good, that is, if you believe that he benefits and helps you, then you really have it. Then Christ is yours, presented to you as a gift. After that it is necessary that you turn this into an example and deal with your neighbor in the very same way, be given also to him as a gift and an example.
In other words, the same kind of thing is going on when we read the Word of God, hear it preached over YouTube or discuss it over Zoom as when we receive the body of Christ in church. Or, I think, as when the 5,000 Galileans heard Jesus preach and shared a meal of bread and fish on the banks of the Sea of Galilee.
A lot to think about here, and I don’t think this is the last word (with a lower-case “w”) on it.
Pray: What do I want to say to God about the text? In a word: Thank you! Not much I can add to that. As Luther says, with these gospel stories, “Christ is yours, presented to you as a gift.” Jesus’ ministry was a gift to the 5,000 gathered on that grassy hillside in ancient Galilee, and those stories of his were a gift; Christ, through the reading of the gospel, is a gift to me. The only appropriate thing for me to say is thank you.
(And thanks, also, to the Lutheran theologians who remind me that to Martin Luther, the Word was a sacrament and suggest that “in this time we may just cling to the sacramental Word” in the hope the pandemic will run its course and then,” in a healthier time, we can carefully rebuild” our spiritual practice and take communion again.)
Act: Finally, you act. Receiving the gift of Christ in the Word isn’t the end of it, of course. I’ll leave the last word to Luther, “After that it is necessary that you turn this into an example and deal with your neighbor in the very same way, be given also to him as a gift and an example.” Always, you act.
[Aug. 6, 2020]
James Martin SJ, “God can multiply whatever little we can bring,” Facebook, Aug. 2, 2020 https://www.facebook.com/FrJamesMartin/posts/10157215017711496.
__________. “Read, Think, Pray, Act: ‘Lectio Divina’ in Four Easy Steps,” Word Among Us, Nov. 2007 https://www2.wau.org/archives/article/read_think_pray_act/default2.htm.
Kevin O’Brien SJ, “Ignatian Contemplation: Imaginative Prayer,” IgnatianSpirituality.com https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-spiritual-exercises/ignatian-contemplation-imaginative-prayer/.
Timothy J. Wengert, “Holy Communion under Quarantine,” Lutheran Quarterly, Online Features, April 6, 2020 http://www.lutheranquarterly.com/online-features/holy-communion-under-quarantine.