Grant, we beseech Thee, O almighty God, that we, who for our evil deeds justly deserve to be punished, by the comfort of Thy grace may mercifully be relieved.
– From the Collect for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
This Sunday is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, also known as Laetare Sunday. The name comes from the first word of the Introit: “Laetare, Jerusalem,” “Rejoice, Jerusalem!” The Church calls us to rejoice in the midst of Lent. However, for many Catholics around the world today, with a frightening virus spreading and public celebrations of Mass being suspended, right now is a difficult time to rejoice. Yet in His providence, the Lord is speaking to us in our concrete situation through the readings for this Sunday.
Sunday’s Gospel is from the beginning of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. John. This famous chapter of course relates Christ’s famous Bread of Life discourse. But that comes later in the chapter. Today we look at the first fifteen verses and the miraculous feeding of the five thousand.
St. John begins by telling us why so many people were gathered together with Jesus: “because they saw the miracles which He did on them that were diseased.” Our Lord performs miracles in order to show forth his power and glory, but John intends this passage as a gentle rebuke of the crowds, for he sees that they had their priorities mixed. As St. John Chrysostom notes, “Though favored with such teaching as Jesus had done, they were influenced less by this than by the miracles—a sign of the low level of faith they had” (Homilies on the Gospel of John, 42.1). The crowds do not follow Christ because he is Lord; they follow him because they want to get something from him. This too can be our attitude toward God: we see Him not as Someone who deserves and demands our obedience and worship for His own sake, but instead as Someone who can make our life here on earth better. Yet the Lord never promised to make this life better; only that if we are faithful, we can spend eternity in happiness with him in heaven.
Nevertheless, Christ in his loving condescension will always assist us, even when our motives are not completely pure. In fact, he will still perform miracles, as can be seen in his miraculous feeding of this immense crowd. And this is the spiritual reality to take from his feeding: Christ will always take care of us. He knows exactly what we need, and he knows what we can and cannot endure. So if we are in a situation of dire need and desolation, know that the Lord is there…and that he is feeding us miraculously.
Further, the Lord is not parsimonious in how he feeds us. We see in John’s Gospel that after feeding the five thousand with five barley loaves and two fish, the leftovers “filled twelve baskets.” When we are in a time of desperation and hunger, Christ does not just give us the minimum of grace to survive; he allows it to overflow in our lives in an abundant manner. “Such was the greatness of his miracle that he willed the slender supply of food not only to be enough but even to prove superabundant” (Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4.21)
Finally, Sunday’s Gospel shows the path to receiving the necessary graces in times of trial. After the miraculous feeding, John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus “fled again into the mountain, Himself alone.” Instead of being taken up in the demands and expectations of the world, Christ went to be alone with his Father. He retreated to pray. We too, especially in times of trial and desperation, must turn to our loving Father and unite with Him in prayer. Our Father, in return, will respond in the way He always does: with superabundant love, pouring out His grace upon us. And this is something in which we can truly rejoice.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications. He is the author of eight books, including Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It.