Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, or of Great Britain’s entry into it. How few people imagined what it would be like! Pope St Pius X died on 20th August 1914, dying, it’s said, of a broken heart. As a holy man he sensed the horror that was coming. The psychologist Carl Jung at the same time kept dreaming of rising tides of blood. In 1916 Thomas Hardy published a poem, “In Time of the Breaking of Nations”. The phrase, ‘the breaking of nations’, comes from Jeremiah. It’s an exact description of what happened. And wars lead to wars. There are connections between World War I and World War II and even between them and what’s happening in Israel and the Gaza Strip or Eastern Ukraine. On it goes, the breaking of nations and buildings and families and lives and bodies and hearts.
In the midst of it, Sunday after Sunday, the Church offers us the Gospel. And at the heart of today’s, we see Jesus breaking bread.
Today’s Gospel tells an episode that must have been very dear to the apostles. It’s one of the few miracles recorded in all 4 Gospels. In his account, St John says it occurred near Passover, so between mid-March and mid-April, the very time there would have been much green grass. The location traditionally is Tabgha, on the north-western shore of the Lake of Galilee. There there is the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves served by Benedictine monks.
Let’s look a little more closely at the reading.
“When Jesus received the news of John’s death he withdrew by boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves.” John was his cousin and forerunner. Naturally, Jesus wants to withdraw. He wants to take this to prayer and help the disciples understand John’s end: this is what discipleship means. And he, Jesus, was becoming a wanted man himself.
“But the people heard of this and leaving the towns went after him on foot.” In a way, these people are the heroes of the story – 5000 of them, not counting women and children, so 20000 at least. Many would have been used to making the 70 mile journey up to Jerusalem for the feasts. But now they intuit that the Presence of God they looked for in the Temple was actually wandering through their own villages. They’d have been poor people. Their life expectancy was short. They were living hard lives fishing or farming, very dependent on rainfall, always with the spectre of famine or locusts. Many of them would have been ill or disabled or otherwise physically impaired. They know they’re on to something in Jesus and they’re ready to give up a working day to look for him.
“So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd, and he took pity on them and healed them.” As God he had already stepped from heaven to earth and been born of the Virgin. Now as the God-man he steps ashore from the boat. And as man he sees in this one crowd what he everywhere sees as God: the sad heaving sea of human longing and suffering. As God, he had always been “compassionate to all his creatures” PS 144). Now as human he “takes pity” on them. The translation’s too weak. “His innards turn inside out” would be nearer the Greek, or simply, “he’s gutted”. “And he healed their sick”. Imagine this! How familiar the photos of stretcher-bearers bringing in the wounded from the battlefields of World War I, or the pictures of crying children in Gaza! Here’s the very opposite. Here are broken bodies suddenly functioning again, ulcers drying up, people made whole. No sound of steel on steel or whining shells, Here, surely, astonishment and joy, people embracing each other, cries of praise and gratitude.
Well, the disciples were tired and hungry. They said what we’d have said: send them off to get some food. But our Lord, we might say, is just getting into his stride. These people had walked miles to be with him. So, “give them something to eat yourselves”. Impossible, of course. There’s only 5 loaves and 2 fish – the apostolic catering not so good! And so the second sign – the multiplication – begins. It’s so full of connections, past and future. Here’s bread in a lonely place, like the manna in the desert. Here’s bread going beyond itself like Elisha’s twenty barley loaves suddenly feeding 100 men. Here’s prophecy being fulfilled: “buy corn without money’”. Here’s the free food the Messiah was meant to provide. Here’s the Last Supper anticipated and our Eucharist foretold, and even a glimpse of the wedding feast of the Lamb waiting for us in heaven. Here’s the pattern of the Mass almost step by step. Healing first – for us of the heart and soul, the forgiveness of sins through the healing Sacrament of Penance. Then the orderly taking up of position on the grass, in a posture of readiness, the stilling of the heart and the opening of the ears. Then he takes the five loaves and two fish, God’s creation, raises his eyes to heaven, blesses his Father and the food, breaks the bread, hands it to the disciples and they to the crowd. It’s the pattern of our Offertory, Eucharistic Prayer and Consecration. “They all ate as much as they wanted”. A hungry, dishevelled crowd has been transformed by Christ – healed and nourished, surprised by joy, touched by Christ. “They go out, they go out, full of tears, carrying seed for the sowing; they come back, they come back, full of song, carrying their sheaves” (Ps 125:5-6). How different this green field from those of Flanders!
And at the heart of it is the breaking of bread, the very opposite of the breaking of nations. ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’: there’s one side. He “broke the bread and gave it”: there’s the other. And there’s the choice. On the one hand, the scattering, wounding, destructive power of human enmity; on the other, this other thing, weak and strong, this thing which gathers, heals and nourishes. On the one side, humanity devouring itself; on the other, the Body of Christ. On the one hand, corporate self-harm; on the other, Christ’s voluntary self-offering. Two passions. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut 30: 15, 19).
And what about us? We’re the disciples. And what Jesus does for them he wants to do with us. He lifts them up to see what he sees and feel what he feels. He draws them into the logic of the Eucharist. Tired and hungry, with their five loaves and two fish, they’re co-opted by him. They become the co-distributors of his bread. Reluctantly, haltingly, they learn to give themselves to God’s purposes. They become agents of unity and joy, servants of life. They enter into the breaking of bread and all it means. So can we! We won’t lose out. At the end there were twelve baskets left over – one for each! The Lord takes care even of our stomachs.