“He withdrew again to the mountain by himself”.
This is not what we usually notice in this piece of the gospel. We see the multitudes; we see the little boy’s few loaves and fish and the many, many baskets of leftovers.
We are always looking for signs of God’s work, and it is interesting how we on this day in the middle of Lent find Jesus feeding the multitudes. After all, traditionally Lent is about refraining from eating, in many people's minds.
We call Jesus the bread of life – or actually, He calls Himself that – because what He gives is so much more than bread for one meal, which we also see in the fact that there is more left over at the end than they had at the beginning. And we also understand this because we keep returning to communion, to the bread and wine that in inches and ounces is very little but in faith grows to a connection to the mystery.
That connection began in a manger in Bethlehem, and in many ways a long, long time before that, but let us stay in Bethlehem for a while.
The name Bethlehem means The House of Bread. How fittingly that the one who would feed not only the multitudes but our spiritual hunger would be born in The House of Bread.
A colleague of mine once suggested with a twinkle in her eye that Jesus was not put in a crib but in a kneading trough. The image may not hold all the way through, but think how the world treated Him (the kneading) and how He had to rest (in the grave) before becoming fully and wholly who He was supposed to be for us.
He is the Bread of Life, the one who brings so much more than our eyes may see at first, and when people see the miracles they tend to want to make Him less by proclaiming Him king of the world instead of king of our hearts. Jesus does not win elections, but He changes the world one heart at a time.
Because He feeds our longings.
And how does He do that?
Certainly not always in the ways we expect or even demand of Him. Even the disciples expected something very practical like getting more money or making do with five loaves and two fish, and we often ask for less than He is willing to give. Even when we are really serious and ask for healing for others or a longer, better life for ourselves we are basically asking for too little, since life as we know it is very little in comparison to what He wants for us.
Andrew is pretty close to asking the right question when he brings the boy with the little bit of food, but he doesn’t really dare to believe that this is enough for Jesus to make something great of it, to feed the many. And you and I see the suffering in this world and we ask God to do something about it, to set it right for this moment, instead of saying, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done!”
We long for so much more than what the world around us has to offer, and what that so much more boils down to is not a 65” TV or a walk-in closet but love. Pure and simple. To love and to be loved and through that to feel secure in everything we go through in life. We long for good to happen, we long for love – and good and love are not things, but so much more.
Of course, we need a roof over our heads and food on the table, but they lose their meaning if we don’t have someone to share them with and someone to give thanks to.
We need the Bread of Life rather to be fed time and
time again with something that doesn’t fill our hearts. We need to belong, with others and with God.
And when we gather for communion, so much more happens than the tiny biscuit and the wine or juice: we gather in Bethlehem. We gather in the Bethlehem that is community and we gather in the private Bethlehem that is between us and Jesus, where our longings are laid bare and answered. In that Bethlehem we can be quiet, let our souls find peace no matter what our struggles may be. Because of the Bread of Life. Because of Jesus.
And in those moments when we feel that He doesn’t answer us maybe we are asking the wrong question. Maybe we are trying to make Him king of worldly affairs, and He turns away and withdraws to the mountains until we realize that we long for so much more than bread and wine.
We will see God’s work if we look to our truest longings. We will feel so much more satisfied if we look beyond the outward signs, and we will not need to fast as a ritual or an exercise because there is so much to feed us.
We still go through the kneading of life, hard or gentle, long or short, but we carry the knowledge within us that we are loved.
This is what we tell every little one who is baptized, this is what we are being told through the bread and the wine. That where God’s will is done all is good, all is love.
When we trust this, even when we struggle to keep trusting this, there will be more left at the end than we had in the beginning. Amen!