The feeding of the 5000 (John 6:1f.) is the gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Lent because it presents the pattern for Lent. Jesus leads us to a place where we do not have enough of what we want in order to reveal himself to us. The hunger created by the fast provides the opportunity for Jesus to feed us with true food. Lacking bread, we discover the bread of life.
We are afraid to fast. We depend upon our favorite things to comfort us. We are afraid of what will happen if we do not have them. The actual practice of fasting teaches us that we do not have to have them. We discover new freedom. St. Paul expresses the lesson of fasting in Philippians:
“I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content…I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (4:11-13)
Lent is not about our heroic, or less than heroic, attempts at self-denial. Lent is about finding Christ in the desert places. If we are always busy and frantic; if our lives are always filled with noise; if we are captive to every appetite; if we are never alone and quiet, it is harder to experience the presence of Christ. Jesus said, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him” (Revelation 3:20). Christ is always knocking but we are usually too distracted to hear. Lent provides the emptiness and solitude that are needed for the feeding miracle to take place.
When Jesus comes to us, we experience love. We experience a sense of spiritual health, wholeness and peace that no created thing can give us. This experience sets us free. Finding fulfillment in Christ, we learn that we do not have to depend upon any created thing. We can return to things as gifts and not as idols. This is the difference between the addiction of the world and the celebration of the church. The world indulges in order fill the emptiness, dull the pain and drown the sorrows. The church give thanks for the good that God has given and joyfully partakes of the same.
When we need things from the world and other people, our behavior is dictated by our neediness. We need to fill our appetites so we act selfishly. We are hurt and need others to acknowledge and soothe our pain. Our pain leads to anger, which causes us to harm others. We cannot love and be virtuous when, at the very center of our being, there is a hunger that is not filled, guilt that is not forgiven or a wound that is not healed. The experience of love in Christ enables us to love. When Christ forgives us and heals us and fills our emptiness with himself, our behavior changes. We no longer need to take because we are empty. We can give because we are full.
There is a communal aspect to being filled, forgiven and healed. We experience Christ’s love for us, in spite of ours sins, through the members of his body who know us as we really are and continue to love us and serve us as Christ loves us and serves us. Our theology requires us to understand this. If the church is the body of Christ; if it is his hands, legs, feet and arms (cf. 1 Corinthians 12), it follows that our experience of Christ’s presence will be mediated, in large measure, by other Christians.
A few Christians throughout history have been called to be hermits. For the rest, the reluctance or refusal to serve and be served, to know and be known, to forgive and be forgiven in the church is a warning sign. Jesus fed a community that was gathered together, not five thousand isolated and alienated individuals. It is not necessary that every member of the body know everything about us. But we should have honest and open conversations and relationships with at least some other Christians that mirror our conversation and relationship with God. The members of Christ’s body are sacramental signs of Christ’s presence.
We shy away from being known by others for the same reason we shy away from fasting and solitude. We are afraid of what will happen if others really know us, just as we are afraid of what will happen if the noise stops and we alone with God. So we keep a safe distance from the body of Christ, and we keep busy so as to avoid solitude and the presence of God. We are like Adam and Eve hiding from God in the bushes–as if God didn’t already know us and see us as we are. And, honestly, as if others didn’t already know us and see us as we are as well!
This highlights the fact that, while the experience of Christ’s presence is real and life changing, it is not easy. It is easier to stick with our comfortable but unfaithful habits of behavior. It is easier to feel sorry for ourselves. It is easier to hold on to our anger and maintain our grievances. It is easier to run from the problem to the pain killer. It is harder to fast and pray. It is harder to be still and wait for God. It is harder to make a good confession. It is harder to be honest with others, to forgive and be forgiven. The truth will set us free, but we must face the painful truths before we are set free.
This is why the experience of union with God in Christ, and the health and wholeness that result from it, take time to cultivate. To be sure, we are forgiven for all our sins right now through faith. But disordered patterns of behavior and thought, feelings of guilt and unworthiness and emotions of anger and bitterness take time to conquer. It takes all of Lent to make a good confession. Progress is best measured year to year, from Lent to Lent. A recognizable virtue may be formed in us only after several years of spiritual battle. It takes time because real growth, like the growth of a child or a tree, takes time.
It takes time, but the result is certain if we will persevere in faith and do not give up. Lent will lead to Easter. Life “in Christ,” with all of its spiritual battles, will lead to resurrection and life in the world to come. The feeding miracle of the Eucharist fills us with this hope. We come as sinners; guilty, needy and wounded. We take the creation, the bread and the wine, which represent us–all that we are and all that we need–and offer it to God in thanksgiving. And God consecrates it, transforms it and multiplies it so that it becomes sufficient to feed us all. The “bread of life” satisfies our hunger. The “medicine of immortality” heals our wounds. We are filled with Christ and the promise of Easter. As Jesus said, “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:54).