Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which giveth life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us,
and we in him….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Fourth Sunday in Lent is known as “Laetare Sunday” and is a brief moment of levity and celebration in an otherwise austere season of fasting and penitence. Laetare is the Latin word for “rejoice” -- so this is literally “Rejoice Sunday.” For those churches that have them, it’s an option today to switch out the Lenten array of the vestments and altar furnishings you see up here for a rose-colored set to highlight the mood. And then there’s yet another title for today, “Refreshment Sunday” --- which gets at the same point -- but also directs our attention to the Gospel lesson appointed this morning, where we hear of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, as recorded in John’s Gospel.
In both this miracle that Christ performs and in our Collect of the Day, you can pick up the intentional contrast that is provided for our reflection. We’re in the middle of Lent, a season defined by fasting and living “not by bread alone,” but here we find our Lord giving the crowd the bread that they need to live nonetheless. And, as Jesus is the host of this bountiful feast, we are then further presented with the image of Christ as “the true bread which giveth life to the world” -- the true bread that we receive in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar at each and every mass. So this Sunday really is Refreshment Sunday: the themes are all about God’s abundant provision to those whom he loves. It reminds us that all of our acts of self-denial this Lent are performed within the love of the God who hates nothing that he has made -- not us, not the creation from which we get our food, nothing.
So let’s dive into this wonderful story from John’s Gospel and see what refreshment we can find for our souls. First, remember that everything that Christ does in his earthly ministry reflects his two natures, both human and divine. So, last week, with his cleansing of the temple, we saw this this act of judgment was directed against both the material and spiritual injustice that was being afflicted by the merchants and the money-changers. Jesus is never concerned exclusively with the material dimension of human life; nor is he -- as in so much of our conventional understanding of him today -- concerned with mere “spirituality” divorced from the fact that we have bodies and live in a material world. There is no dichotomy between matter and spirit in Jesus’ ministry, just as there is no division between his divine and human natures. Christ is the perfect union of God and humanity in a single person, and his ministry likewise reflects this union perfectly. Whereas last week’s Gospel lesson revealed this unity in the negative terms of his righteous judgment, this week’s lesson shows us the flip-side: the positive and compassionate care of our Lord towards the crowd.
“Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.” This in itself is significant. The Passover was the feast which commemorated the night in Egypt where the angel of death passed over the houses of the Israelites, marked with the sacrificial blood of a lamb which took the place of the firstborn sons. This lamb then provided the meal of the Passover feast, which means that the people of Israel were literally eating the means of their salvation. The food of the Passover feast was none other than the sacrificial lamb. Behold the Lamb of God; behold him that taketh away the sins of the world.
But in our Gospel lesson, Jesus and the disciples are in an ever bigger predicament than the ancient Israelites preparing for the first Passover. “Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a multitude was coming to him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?’ This he said to test him.” They don’t have any bread on hand (let alone a lamb), nor the money with which to buy it. “Here we see the poverty of Christ”  and his disciples: they do not have sufficient resources of their own with which to feed the crowd. At this point, Christ is still speaking exclusively about literal bread, the ordinary kind of bread that the crowd needs to keep themselves going. But as of now, he and the disciples can’t even give them that. They have no bread and they have no money to buy enough. They’re starting with nothing -- as is the crowd, for that matter. The challenge for Christ is that something beyond logistics is needed; something beyond the merely practical distribution of food is required if the crowd is going to be fed. Something like a miracle, perhaps; something like grace.
Now, theoretically, it was totally within Christ’s power to conjure up some bread out of nothing, he being none other than the Word of God by whom and through whom all things were made out of nothing in the beginning. And he also could have transformed some stones into bread, as he was tempted by Satan to do in the wilderness, just as he transformed water into wine at the wedding at Cana. That is to say, Christ was capable of creating bread out of that which was not bread, whether out of nothing or out of something else entirely. But with this miracle, Christ has a different objective in mind. He does not intend to feed the crowd in spite of the lack of bread. He does not intend to simply bypass the situation and make it happen. The main problem here is not that people need bread to survive; there’s nothing wrong with their basic human need for food. I mean, it’s obviously a problem in that there’s no bread around for them to eat, but their need is not a “nuisance” that Jesus just has to deal with. Again, the human needs of the crowd are not an annoying tagalong to the spiritual needs that Jesus would rather attend to, for Jesus doesn’t recognize any such distinction. So instead, he waits for Andrew to notice that “there is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish,” even though Andrew is hardly expecting that to make much difference: “but what are they among so many?”
After making the people sit down, though, it says that Jesus “took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.” Jesus takes the little amount of bread and fish that are already available and miraculously multiplies them to the extent that the people are not only held over, but are fully satisfied. And even after receiving “as much as they wanted,” there was still an excess -- “twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten,” to be precise. “Those who ate were completely satisfied,” as St. Thomas Aquinas wrote of this passage, “because they took as much as they wanted. For Christ is the only one who feeds an empty soul and fills a hungry soul with good things…” . And he “does so with unlimited power, since he does all things superabundantly” .
In his love for the crowd, Jesus has accepted what was already there, even with its initial inadequacy -- just as he had accepted the human nature that was already there with its weakness and mortality in his Incarnation. For God hates nothing that he has made. He does not despise material things nor does he just tolerate them while trying to work in spite of them. Rather, he embraces the limits and deficiencies of both the bread and the crowd that needs it. And after giving thanks to God for the good gifts that he had received in his hands, Christ transfigures what was once lacking into an abundance. “Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it,” as the saying goes. Which means, in other words, that God does not bypass nature or the material world as though it were evil in itself so that he can bestow his grace upon us; rather, God bestows his grace in and though the natures that he himself has made, and in so doing, he elevates them into a perfection that was otherwise unimaginable. The bread that Christ distributes is still bread -- he doesn’t destroy it or make it into something else -- but by being multiplied it has now become a sacrament: a means of God’s abundant grace that surpasses even the deepest hunger of the crowd.
Which brings us back to that little detail that all of this took place when the Passover was at hand. Recall what I said at the beginning that the Passover meal was provided by a sacrificial lamb, the blood of which marked the door so that the angel of death would pass over it and spare the firstborn son. But this sacrificial lamb was but a type of the Lamb of God who was to come, and so it was defined by the limits of an ordinary meal. The Passover lamb was to be completely consumed on the night of the feast, with none of it remaining the next morning (Exodus 12:10). There was to be no excess, no fragments left over. After the Passover meal, the Israelites would have hungered soon enough. But here, Jesus is revealing himself to be the “the bread of life” such that “he who comes to me shall not hunger” (John 6:35). For “I am the living bread which came down from heaven,” he says, “if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). The abundance of bread that Jesus miraculously provides to the crowd today is a testimony to himself; the full satisfaction of the crowd after the feast of bread points them to Jesus, the bread of life.
All of this comes together this morning to remind us that Lent is not about the disdain for the body or the body’s natural needs. It is not about resenting our desires. Surely you’ve noticed that no matter what it is that we want, our desires are always excessive of what those things can actually provide us? We always want something more out of the things we desire. This in itself is not the problem, because this excessive desire for something more was planted in us by God himself, for the something more that we want is ultimately love. What human beings desire above all else -- whether we always recognize it or not -- is fellowship with God and neighbor and the love that is shared within it; this is what Christian theology calls the virtue of charity. And since God simply is love, to say that we desire love above all else is just another way of saying that we desire God above all else. As St. Augustine famously said in his Confessions, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” But as human beings, we are not just disembodied thoughts and feelings; we have bodies and we live in a material world full of other bodies and other things. We have to eat to survive; the command is to not live by bread alone, not to live without bread at all. So the problem is not that we desire God nor that we desire bread (the “bread” here standing in for whatever material thing we might want) but rather that we try again and again to satisfy the desire for God with bread -- that is, with that which is not God. The self-denial of Lent is all about recognizing this mistake in ourselves: by resisting our desire for bread, we are able to more clearly experience our desire for God and tell the two apart.
But fortunately for us, God has given us one particular gift that doesn’t require us to choose between the desire for God and the desire for bread. For God has given us his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. He has sent to us the living bread of heaven, the bread given for the life of the world that is none other than his very flesh. Here, in the Blessed Sacrament, we behold the Lamb of God whose blood was shed for our salvation and the True Bread which is multiplied by the Holy Spirit so that every Christian at every altar at every mass at every time can partake thereof and be satisfied. And there is always more leftover, for the grace of God is infinite.
The fragments that remained from Christ’s feeding of the five thousand were enough to fill twelve baskets, one for each of the twelve apostles. Thus the baskets “signify the twelve apostles and those who imitate them,” Aquinas says, for we have all been “filled with the riches”  of the sacraments. So look to the altar, look to where Christ has given thanks and distributes his very body and blood for our satisfaction and for our salvation. Amen.
 St. Thomas Aquinas. Commentary on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans.