Five Loaves and Two Fish, 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B), July 30, 2000

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
17th Sunday in OT, Year B
July 30, 2000
2 Kgs 4:42-44; Eph 4:1-6; Jn 6:1-15

1) In today’s Gospel, there is a marked change from previous weeks. We have been reading from the Gospel of Mark ever since Corpus Christi. Now we turn for the next five weeks to the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, which is referred to as the Bread of Life discourse. It is the most developed chapter in all of Sacred Scripture on the Eucharist, God’s greatest perduring gift among us. We will have time over the next several weeks to look at this chapter, and look at Jesus in the Eucharist, with great detail, but today we turn to the beginning of the chapter and the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves.

2) In the back of our beautiful Church of Espirito Santo, the second stained glass window from the on the left, close to the confessional, there is the beautiful image depicting this miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. We see Jesus in the top window with five of his disciples around him. Then we see the startling image of the young boy with his five loaves and two fish, one of the loaves of which Jesus has taken and is now giving thanks, before he would give them to the crowd. Underneath this scene there is a basket in which we find the five loaves and the two fish.

3) This image captures one of the often overlooked elements of this miracle: the fact that it was a young boy who brought the loaves and the fish. Think about the scene. There are 5000 people there, and therefore at least a couple thousand adults. None of them thought to bring any food for the day. The only one who thought enough in advance to bring some food was the young man. This young man has always been seen by the saints looking at the Gospel as the image of a good disciple. Jesus said elsewhere in the Gospel that unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. He also said, let the little children come to me. Well, this young boy was allowed to come to Jesus and gave him all he had, five loaves and two fish.

4) Five loaves and two fish. Let’s be honest, it wasn’t much. Five loaves and two fish wouldn’t be able to feed the average family in Espirito Santo dinner. The apostles recognized how seemingly ridiculous it would have been. They said they would need six months’ wages — literally two hundred days’ worth of work — in order to buy food to feed such a crowd. But they were missing the point. As the Gospel says, Jesus was testing them for he knew what he was going to do. So he took the meager five loves and two fish blessed them, gave thanks for them and distributed them to those who were seated and, as we know, the apostles gathered up twelve big baskets of leftover bread, in a certain sense, one for each of them so they would never be able to forget what Jesus was capable of doing.

5) What essentially happened in this miracle? Jesus took what the young boy gave him and then out of that generosity, even though it was meager, worked a stupendous miracle. Jesus still wants to work miracles like this today. He wants us to be as generous with him as that young boy, no matter how much or how little we have, but to give it to him and to allow him to make miracles with our lives, with our generosity. He can work miracles out of everything we give him, and he wants to.

6) I would like to tell you a true story about a Vietnamese Archbishop who is now the head of the Congregation for Justice and Peace in the Vatican. His name is Archbishop François Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. I have had the privilege, through a mutual friend, of having dinner with him three times. His story is a modern-day illustration of this Gospel.

7) Archbishop Van Thuan was named Archbishop of Saigon in 1975 right toward the end of the war. When the war was finished, he was arrested by the Communists, who sent him — and along with him many bishops, priests, religious and catechists — to prison. He spent four years in a terrible, filthy prison where he was barely fed, often beaten and maltreated in many ways. But that was just the beginning. Then they sent him into solitary confinement because he was having too much of an influence on the Communist guards who were watching him. He spent 13 years altogether in prison. While in prison, he had to struggle to survive physically, because the Communists would barely give him any food, and mentally, because he often would have no one to talk to for weeks, he feared losing his mind. The demeaning and subhuman conditions he was forced to live in, however, did not kill his spirit. The Communists didn’t want him to die in prison, and he knew that, so when he arrived, he said to them that he hoped they would allow his family to send him his “stomach medicine.” They family knew what he was asking for, and inside a medicine bottle, they would send him some wine. Each night, in his prison cell, he would put three drops of wine on his hand, one drop of water, and take a few stale bread crumbs and celebrate the Eucharist by heart. Every time he came into contact with his guards, he would try to love them even though they would maltreat him. To their insults, he would tell them he loved them. To their Communist taunts and ridicule, he would ask them if they wanted him to teach him foreign languages. Eventually he started to convert his guards. He was becoming so successful at it that the Communist authorities eventually allowed him to keep his guards, so that he wouldn’t convert any more. He eventually had one of them steal him some shards of wood so that he could make a small cross that he would hide inside a hollowed-out book. When he was eventually freed after 13 years, he kept that cross, enclosed it within some steel and uses it as his pectoral Cross, the Cross that Catholic Bishops wear around their necks. The chain for the Cross he made out of the chains that used to bind his feet in prison.

8 ) What does his story have to do with today’s Gospel? He says that it was this Gospel which helped to keep him alive in prison. Each morning when he would get up, he would unite himself with this young boy and give the Lord his five loaves and two fish. Every morning. He said that over time the five loaves became smaller and staler, the fish became more and more emaciated and tiny, but every day, he gave the Lord all he had, all his strength, all his kindness, all he could muster, so that the Lord might do something with it. And the Lord did. The Lord through his generosity each morning in prison started to convert his guards, started to bring the Light of the Lord into the darkness of that dank hell hole of prison he had to call home, started to bring goodness into a place of such evil.

9) Three years ago, Archbishop Thuan wrote a book and entitled it, Five Loaves and Two Fish. He said that in prison he felt very much like that young boy. What could five loaves and two fish do before five thousand hungry mouths? Without Jesus, very little, but with Jesus, they could all eat their fill and there would be much left over besides. It was the same thing with him. What could his little acts of love in prison do to counteract the Communist persecution and hatred that was torturing Vietnam? Well, with Jesus, they could do so much, and change lives forever. Some of his Communist guards that he converted through his patient love of them while they were hating him and hating everything he stood for, have now gone on to become priests, despite the persecution that continues to happen to the Church in Vietnam.

8) And now the focus turns on each one of us. In light of these two stories, that of the young boy with the five loaves and two fish, and that of Archbishop Van Thuan, how can any of us fail to see what the Lord can do through our generously giving him what we have. We may think that we only have one loaf and one fish, but if we give it to the Lord, he can do amazing things with it. We might have more. We might have been greatly blessed by the Lord in terms of education, or experience, or wealth, or health or love, or any particular talent. If we give these with great generosity to the Lord, he, too, can do such enormous good through them. Whatever we have, he can use for his kingdom. Whatever we have, he wants to use for his kingdom. When we think about it, he didn’t have to use the five loaves and the two fish of the young boy for the miracle. He who made the seas, the mountains, the heavens and the earth, he who gave manna from heaven to the Israelites in the desert, could have created the bread and fish, as well as cooked filet mignon and lobster, out of nothing. But he didn’t want to do it that way. He wanted us to cooperate in his good works, he wanted to take whatever we gave him and make it the foundation for what he would give us in return and for what he would give out of love for all of our brothers and sisters he died for.

9) So today there will be two collections. The first will be for the support of the Church. That one will be taken normally by the ushers with the baskets. As Fr. Jim has told me, and I can see by looking at past bulletins, you have always been generous there. But that’s not the collection I’m interested in today. The other collection will be taken right before it. It will happen when Isidoro goes with the Crucifix to lead those who are bringing up the gifts of bread and wine. The bread, water and wine there are symbols, symbols meant to express the five loaves and two fish that the parish gives so that the priest, in the person of Christ, can through the power of God bring about the Eucharist, the greatest miracle ever. When that paten comes up, today put on it all you have, like the five loaves and two fish, so that when I lift that paten up to heaven and ask the Lord to let it become for us the bread of life, he may take all of these gifts, unite them with his own, so that we, through this miracle, may be fed with the Bread of Life who is Jesus and overflow with his presence like the twelve baskets of overflowing leftovers.

10) There’s another stained glass window in this Church that I cannot fail to call to your attention. It’s over on the left as well, the seventh one from the altar. The bottom pane of glass features the loaves and the fish. The top one, however, is the Crucifixion of the Lord. What is the connection between the two? With great brilliance and prayer, whoever designed these stained glass windows linked the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross. Why? Because the multiplication of the loaves and fish was a miracle that pointed to the miracle of the Eucharist, a miracle that started during the last Supper in the Upper Room and culminated the following day with Jesus on the Cross. That is the exact same sacrifice we now participate in here. God the Father took Jesus’ own five loaves and two fish and transformed them into the Eucharist, Jesus’ body, which, throughout the centuries, has fed millions upon millions of his disciples, who are starving for him, right down to our own day, here at this Mass, right now. Jesus loved us so much that he considered that death on the Cross such a small price to pay in order to save us and give us the chance to live forever with him. But he loved us even more. He loved us to the point of saying that he wanted us to give him whatever we have so that he might unite with him to that sacrifice on the Cross, bless it, present it to the Father, who would use these gifts, who would ultimately use us who are symbolized by the five loaves and two fish, for great, great things, that no one would have ever thought possible.

11) So today, at the foot of the Cross, let us stand like that young disciple, and give the Lord all we have.