What is the point of these miracles in which multitudes are fed and satisfied by a minuscule amount of food? Clearly, it’s not the elimination of hunger everywhere: many starved in Elisha’s time and in in Jesus’, and many still starve today. If we have, as Paul says, “one God who is Father of all,” what’s going on? Is God playing favorites? Or are the rest of us somehow incapable of receiving or being vehicles of such grace? It’s hard not to be challenged by these questions when we read of such wonders taking place thousands of years ago when we live in this well-ordered, scientifically explainable world.
Miracles are always manifestations of divine truth and will, not arbitrary actions. They are also instances of alignment of God and a human being. God acts through and in a person who has accepted God’s will and made it their own. In this sense, miracles are a very specific kind of magic: magic which does not say, “My will be done,” but “Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven,” and really means it. The former can have effective power: Pharaoh’s magicians turned their staves into snakes when Moses did so, and in the Acts of the Apostles, we find an account of the conversion of the Samaritan magician called Simon. Miracles—-sacred magic-—are different: they are not personal or arbitrary actions, but collaborations between God and human.
In order to understand the conditions necessary for miracles, it might help to look at a counterexample: a case where Jesus did not work a miracle. When Jesus was hungry after fasting forty days in the wilderness, he was tempted to turn the stones into loaves of bread. On the surface, this would seem to be just another case of feeding the hungry: suitable grounds for a miracle, right? But Jesus doesn’t work magic on his own behalf. He submits his will to God’s, quoting Deuteronomy to say that “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The context of Christ’s quotation is important: Moses is reminding the Israelites of their forty years in the desert, saying: “[God] humbled you, he made you feel hunger, he fed you with manna which neither you nor your fathers had known, to make you understand that man does not live on bread alone but that man lives on everything that comes from the mouth of Yahweh.” By citing this passage, Jesus is explaining why he will not act on his own to change the stones into loaves: if God chose to give Jesus bread in the wilderness, the Father would inspire the Son, who would call manna from Heaven. Rather than separate his will from God’s and satisfy himself, Jesus remained faithful, and hungry.
Let’s return now to the feeding of multitudes. It’s important to look at how exactly this feeding took place. Elisha and Jesus did not simply take the food that was there and multiply it so that all could see a little food transformed into a lot of food. This kind of stagy magic show would stink of pride and charlatanry: “behold my power!” Instead, they simply distributed what they had, trusting in God that it would be enough. The people who were fed also trusted in God: anyone who didn’t would have left in disgust to find food elsewhere upon seeing how minuscule a dinner they would receive there.
The Eucharist is, in a sense, a feeding of a multitude even vaster: the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ: billions and billions served! On a smaller scale though, here, today, we will break bread in the Eucharist. Now, I know a bit about the process we use to determine how much bread and wine should be brought forward to be consecrated. It’s, shall we say, not terribly scientific: we look out from the Sacristy before Mass and, depending on how much of a hurry we’re in, take a rough count, or just guess. But in twenty-three years, I’ve never seen the Eucharist exhausted. Now, I can’t prove anything, and don’t intend to try, but I do wonder whether we’re getting a little help now and then.
The scientific method can’t work here: if I were to attempt the obvious experiment of deliberately putting only a little bread in the baskets, I would run into another case where a miracle, seen as a free action of God through a freely giving human being, would be impossible. Jesus’ next quote in the desert from Deuteronomy underlines this: “You must not put the lord your God to the test.” Miracles occur when, and only when, we do the best we can to fulfill God’s will, so that God can augment what we do with our whole selves.
There are accounts of people fasting for extraordinary periods, subsisting sometimes for years on nothing more than the Eucharist. Here again, it is God who provides for them, since they follow God’s will for their lives. If, however, I were to fast to test this rather than out of devotion, I would be choosing my own will rather than God’s, and would likely find myself getting hungry by and by.
Each of us is capable of miracles, or perhaps I should say that each of us is capable of being a participant in and a vehicle for miracles. I believe that we have already worked some, and will continue to work more. It is only doubt which does not find miracles and opportunities for miracles all around us. The paradox is that at the time when one works a miracle, one must be focused not on the wonder of the miracle as such, but rather on the task at hand. God’s will is to feed us and care for us, delighting in giving us good gifts; it is not to indulge in spectacle or encourage complacency. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and we work to earn it. God asks only that or prayers and work be honest.
Seen in this light, all the miracles involving bread are brought together. They are signs which lead us towards the banquet in the Kingdom of God. Through our faith and hope, we become able to receive the truly sustaining bread God gives, which is the gift of his perfect love.