The story of Jesus feeding the multitudes is one that most of us learned as children. As a kid, I remember focusing on that miracle and wondering how the scene actually unfolded: were the disciples focused on the crowd, and when they turned back, a few baskets had been replaced by hundreds? Or, did Jesus keep reaching into the same couple of baskets over and over, with more and more loaves and fishes emerging like a magician pulling endless scarves from a hat? It was a mystery of epic proportions.
Later in life, the metaphor of the profound spiritual nourishment we receive through our relationship to Christ, the trust we can place in God to meet our soul’s deepest, most elemental needs, illuminated and enriched the story in a different way.
Today in reading the story, what strikes me is the sheer humanity of Jesus’ actions; the simple yet loving response of one human being to another’s need. Jesus is also God, and I suppose he might have chosen to simply reverse the feeling of hunger-abracadabra-into a sense of fullness. Or, he could have said, "Let me teach you to overcome your hunger with the power of thought." Even, "offer it up;" certainly an honorable sacrifice in many cases, but not what Jesus expected.
No. He told the people to relax and allow him to feed their aching bellies. Is there any more human response than that? Any act more caring, attentive, or understanding than simply getting food into a loved one’s stomach who is hungry? Sharing a meal, of course, has profound symbolic meaning. But this meal goes beyond symbolism. We are being shown a very intimate reality: that Christ is not of the spirit world but is fully present in the details of our natural human existence. He is aware, compassionate and engaged in our humanness because flesh and spirit are not separate, but one.
And what are the reverberations in our world today? Where is Christ waiting to be fed, experiencing pain, hoping to be educated, needing to be uplifted? With the recent triumph of Easter, I am asking myself anew: how am I called to be more present to the details of my own and others’ lives, to elevate and celebrate humanity, to be aware, compassionate and engaged?
Nancy Nickel is director of communications at the Passionist Development Office in Chicago.