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The True Miracle of the Multiplication of Loaves

It is a fact of human nature that if our senses are constantly bombarded with the same thing, say for example, music that is too loud or an environment that is all the same color, or even violent or wicked images, we become numbed and even start to tune out, shut down. Too much of a good thing is too much. We need variety and we need deprivation. Holy Mother Church knows this, because she is the greatest expert in humanity that there has ever been. This is substantiated by an examination of her teachings, practices and slow, careful adjustments through many centuries, the antics of the occasional high-profile prelate notwithstanding. Because of the needs of human nature, we fast before our feasts. We have variety in our calendar and in the rhythm of our sacred liturgical worship.

Well into the second half of our penitential season of Lent, we have a fixed liturgical break. “Fixed” I say, because it is a Sunday that doesn’t float within the season as do our beautiful feasts of St. Joseph and the Annunciation. On this 4th Sunday of Lent, we peer towards ever closer Easter and we rejoice. Also, in the depths of time in our Roman Church an even stricter penitential discipline commenced the day after this Sunday. This Sunday is like the big gulp of breath before plunging again into the cold water.

From the first word of the first chant of Holy Mass, we call this Sunday “Laetare.” For you budding Latinists that looks like an infinitive, but it is really the imperative of the verb laetor, which is deponent. Laetor looks passive but is active in meaning, like the appearance of the reverent, actively and interiorly participating congregants at Mass in the Vetus Ordo. The Introit chant is from near the end of the Book of Isaiah, in a chapter which initially concerns the sort of sincere and humble worship demanded by God and the dire consequences of neglect and pride. In Is 66, the humble who embrace the Lord and His ways will be like newborn children tenderly cared for by their mother Jerusalem. Isaiah also foresees the final coming of the Lord and the ingathering of both Jews and Gentiles into the new Jerusalem and the creation of a new heaven and new earth. Remember that as you continue to read.

On the maternal/offspring theme, in the ancient Church this was the time of the formation and testing of candidates (catechumens) for baptism and entry into holy Mother Church. After their baptism at Easter they would be called in Latin infantes. Therefore, on this Sunday we rejoice also at the prospect of new members of the Church.

In view of Easter joy, a slight Sunday relaxation of our Lenten discipline is reflected in the rubrics for liturgy today. For example, on this day in Lent we are permitted to have the otherwise banned instrumental music and flowers on the altar. We see, I hope, rose vestments rather than penitential violet. The “rose” in question is, I also hope, not baby-rattle pink, regardless of the infant images mentioned above. It is in Latin rosacea, (ro-záh-chay-ah), which is something between madder and salmon. The deeply Roman tradition of rosacea vestments grew from their use at the Roman Station church for this Sunday, the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem where the relics of the Cross and Passion brought from the Holy Land by St. Helena (+c. 329), mother of the Emperor Constantine (+337), were deposited. It was the custom on this day for Popes to bless roses made of gold, some amazingly elaborate and bejeweled, which were to be sent to Catholic kings, queens and other notables. The biblical reference is Christ as the “flower” sprung forth from the root of Jesse (Is 11:1 – in the Vulgate flos “flower” and RSV “branch”). Thus, Laetare was also called Dominica de rosa… Sunday of the Rose. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to develop rose colored vestments from this. This Roman custom spread by means of the Roman Missal to the whole of the world. It also, by mutual enrichment, crept into the corresponding “rejoice” Sunday in penitential Advent, “Gaudete!”

Turning to our readings for this rosy Sunday, St. Paul explains to the Galatians and to us the symbolism of the two sons of Abraham, Ishmael, born of the slave Hagar and Isaac, of his wife Sarah. These two mothers are likened to different covenants, which of course are sealed on mountains, the former being Mount Sinai and slavery under the Law and the later being, of course, Jerusalem and freedom. Those who belong to Holy Church, Jerusalem, are like the free child Isaac, the son of God’s promise to Abraham. By baptism we move from being like the one to being like the other.

By the way, St. John Cassian (+435) wrote in his Conferences (14.8.4) that Jerusalem can be viewed in four different ways: historically as the city of the Jews, allegorically as the Church of Christ, anagogically (i.e., according to a hidden, mysterious meaning or prompting an elevated interpretation) as the heavenly city of God, which is the mother of all, and tropologically (i.e., according to a figurative turn of phrase or trope) as the human soul, which is often upbraided or praised under this name by the Lord.

The Gospel pericope on this Laetare Sunday presents one of the Lord’s two miraculous feedings of the multitudes. This is the first of the two and it is the only miracle of the Lord, apart from the Resurrection, reported in all four Gospels. Context: in the account in Matthew 14, the Lord had learned of the death of John the Baptist. In order to pray He withdrew to a secluded place near Bethsaida, the hometown of Peter, Andrew and Philip probably about 6 miles from Capernaum on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. The place of the miracle has been identified by some as modern day Tabgha, where there is a lovely church in which you find preserved an ancient mosaic of two fish and a basket with loaves of bread.

Its ancient name was Heptapegon or “Seven Springs,” and Jerome thought that it was the place. In any event, He was followed to this “deserted place.” The Greek eremos, “wilderness, desert,” recalls the People’s 40 year exodus in the desert where they were fed on the manna bread as well as the Lord’s 40 days in the wilderness where He fasted. The crowd that followed the Lord was vast, some 5000 men, not including the women and children; it was near Passover, so there were a lot of people on the road heading for Jerusalem.

In the face of this crowd, the place and the time of day, evening, the Lord put Philip to the test, perhaps because he was from the area, asking “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”, an odd thing to ask since they were in a deserted place, which means there were no handy bakeries. Philip responded that there wasn’t enough money and wryly added that a boy had two fish and five loaves of bread. The Lord multiplied what they had. The leftovers of bread filled twelve baskets. Also, considering context, this is John 6 in which we have also people hunting down the Lord because of the miraculous feeding and He delivered the “Bread of Life” discourse (vv. 22-59).

Another connection with the Exodus from Egypt and the time in the wilderness is the fact that, according to the account of this miracle in Luke, in getting the crowd organized for the time of the feeding the Lord told the Apostles to sit down get the people – many thousands – to sit down in groups of fifty. That was probably super easy and fast to do! However, it is important because in the Book of Exodus, Moses chose able men to act as leaders and judges over groups of the people including in divisions of hundreds and fifties (18: 25-26 and cf. Mark 6:40, which says, “groups of hundreds and fifties”). The Lord is the New Moses and He revealed that a New Exodus was taking place toward a new Promised Land, ultimately a New Jerusalem.

By the way, it is crystal clear from the account in John that the leftovers that filled the twelve baskets were derived from the five loaves. This is a miracle of multiplication and not a “miracle” of sharing, as some Modernists claim.  Modernists want always to reduce the supernatural to the natural. Hence, they say that this event was really about how people spontaneously started to share the food they had but hadn’t told anyone about. This nutty idea was first advanced by a German (big surprise) scholar Heinrich Paulus who didn’t believe in miracles. Furthermore, if this is a recapitulation of the People receiving the miraculous manna bread from heaven, it makes no sense if this feeding of the multitude by the New Moses who is also God should be a mere human act of sharing. That said, there is even a goofy idea among some Catholics that the sharing was indeed miraculous, but not because there was a real multiplication of loaves, but rather, because the event parallels the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (more on that in a moment), even though the number of loaves remained five, without material increase, the sense of sharing in the love of God never runs out.

No. While that dreamy notion might provide something to chew on, whatever else we can derive from the event recounted in all four Gospels, the Lord performed the miracle of increasing the quantity of bread so that well over 5000 people ate to satiety. Period.

About the Eucharistic connection, above, if the feeding of the 5000 looks backward and fulfills the foreshadowing of the Exodus, it looks forward to another miraculous feeding event, the Last Supper. Consider the parallels. It was proximate to Passover in both instances. It was evening. Those present all reclined. Christ took, blessed and broke the bread. He gave thanks (eucharistesas both times) and gave it to the disciples. Starting from the distant past, we move through the manna to the new miraculously multiplied bread to the new manna, the bread transformed into Christ’s own Body and Blood, which is Itself a foretaste of the new creation and the world to come.

On Laetare Sunday we remember the bookend Sunday in Advent, Gaudete, we should juxtapose this miraculous feeding of the multitudes in Jewish territory, with the other miraculous multiplication the Gentile region of the Decapolis, near Hippos on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. After this second miracle of feeding, the Lord asked His disciples if they understood the symbolism of the 5000 with the twelve baskets near Bethsaida, and the 4000 (recounted only in Matthew 15 and Mark 8) with the seven baskets near Hippos. “Do you not yet understand?”, (Mark 8:17-21). Let’s us try to understand. If the twelve baskets in the Jewish region represent the regathering of the twelve tribes of Israel, then the seven stand for the seven nations of the Gentiles (cf. Deut 7:1) who will ultimately be gathered in Christ’s Church. All peoples will be one in Christ.

We might take something away from this other than just more knowledge about how all these pieces fit together.

Note the pattern. The people were in a deserted place. They were in a state of deprivation. They were, in effect, fasting. They went from a state of fasting to a state of abundance, of feasting. There is deprivation before entering the Church and there is super-abundance of joy in baptism. There is Lenten penance before the Feast of the Resurrection.

As we age, we begin to be deprived of health and the ease of use of our limbs and senses. In the end, in the resurrection of all the dead, all will be restored and be perfected in the characteristics of the glorified body, impassibility, subtlety, agility and clarity. As rose bushes must be routinely pruned so that they will blossom more floridly, so too we are pruned in time and, God willing, we will bloom continuously in the Beatific Vision of the image after which we are made. If we want to obtain all the blooming and joy that we can in the new creation, let’s consider all the opportunities to gain graces by the merits of Christ that we have already squandered. Let us do penance for the sake of heavenly joy. We should want to get very good at this repetitive pattern of lacking and gaining in our lives which will reach its nadir in death and its acme in heavenly bliss. By willingly taking on mortifications for ourselves, we enter into this mysterious echo of the exitus, conversio, and reditus, the going forth, turning about, and return. And because we are all in this together, we can take on penance for the sake of others. It all redounds to future glory. It is the way.

Never be discouraged into inaction or indecision because you think that your small effort can’t possibly be enough to make a difference. God can do a lot with our little.

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