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Lent reminds us that food counts in our lives. We are hardly spiritual giants: Abstaining from our favorite foods; cutting out meat on Wednesdays and Fridays; skipping entire meals, perhaps—we find such fasting a difficult challenge. Few desires are as strong as the craving for food.

John 6 may seem to rub salt in the wounds—Jesus feeding the five thousand. Do we really need to hear this story of Jesus filling the crowds to the gills when our stomachs protest with hunger?

A large crowd is coming to Jesus. “Philip,” says Jesus, “whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” Philip knows they don’t have the money to fill all of these hungry people. Andrew comes to his defense: “There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?” Philip and Andrew are realists. They both know these people will be fasting tonight.

“Make the men sit down,” says Jesus. Then, giving thanks, he takes the five loaves and two fishes and hands out the food. Note the abundance John describes: “As much as they would,” “When they were filled,” “Filled twelve baskets with the fragments.”

The Lord has done this before. “Sanctify yourselves against tomorrow, and ye shall eat flesh . . . not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; But even a whole month!” (Num. 11:18–19). Here comes Moses, a realist like Philip and Andrew: “The people, among whom I am, are six hundred thousand footmen; and thou hast said, I will give them flesh, that they may eat a whole month. Shall the flocks and the herds be slain for them, to suffice them? or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to suffice them?” Then comes the Lord’s challenge to Moses: “Is the Lord’s hand waxed short?” A wind brings in quail to the camp, well over a foot high. God gives food in abundance.

Then remember that famine with the prophets in Gilgal (2 Kings 4). A man comes up to Elisha—much like the lad coming to Jesus, except this man comes with twenty barley loaves and full ears of corn. “Give it to the prophets,” Elisha tells him. This time, Gehazi is the realist taking the role of Philip and Andrew: “What, should I set this before an hundred men?” But Elisha persists. “And they did eat, and had left over, according to the word of the Lord.” 

There is no mistaking it: The Lord is into feeding his people. He does it time and again. Each time, he tests them with an impossible situation. Each time, there is a realist failing the test in unbelief—Moses, Gehazi, Philip, and Andrew. And each time, the Lord performs a feeding miracle, so that people end up being stuffed.

These stories may hardly seem appropriate for Lent. When we are in the middle of fasting, we do not need stories of sumptuous meals. Fair enough, except John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand itself reminds us that it is Lent: “And the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh.” This is a puzzling comment, seemingly unrelated to the feeding miracle. Why does John add it? 

We do well to pay careful attention to the time of the year. Think back to the start of the narrative of Jesus cleansing the temple, back in John chapter 2: “And the Jews’ passover was at hand . . .” (2:13). When we go to chapter 11, as we move toward Jesus’s passion and death, we find the same phrase once again: “And the Jews’ passover was nigh at hand . . .” (11:55). Three times the same comment; this is no coincidence. God may just have something to tell us.

Indeed, he does. Feeding 600,000 Israelites in the desert, a hundred prophets in Gilgal, five thousand on the mountain side—each time, God is giving his people a sign. A sign of what?

In each story, the realists—Moses, Gehazi, Philip, and Andrew—object that they cannot feed all these people. But each time, God has power to save. “Is the Lord’s hand waxed short?” is his rebuke against Moses. The great fifth-century patriarch of Alexandria, Saint Cyril, writes, “One might reasonably respond to the words of Philip and Andrew similarly: Is the Lord’s hand waxed short?”

The Lord’s hand is never waxed short. Not in the desert, not in Gilgal, not on the mountainside. No matter the time or the place, his hand has the power to feed innumerable crowds. Feeding his people is a sign of God’s power to save.

 “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.” It is Lenten time; we have cut back on our eating. And so we think about food all the time—just like the Israelites that complained in the desert; just like the prophets, hungry during that famine; just like the five thousand, eagerly eating their fill from the loaves and the fishes.

You know why we fast: It makes us aware of our hunger—not just physical hunger, but spiritual hunger, our hunger for God. Fasting makes us focus on Jesus.

“And the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh.” Soon, the Lamb will be slaughtered. This is the day we have been waiting for ever since, in the very first chapter of the Gospel, we heard John the Baptist’s desert announcement: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” Soon the Lamb will be slaughtered, for soon it is Passover, the feast of the Jews.

Everyone in the household gets to eat from this Lamb. Is one Lamb enough for us all? Is one Lamb enough for the world? Could I, too, get to eat from this Lamb? We are like Moses, Gehazi, Philip, and Andrew. We are realists; no, more like skeptics. We have a hard time trusting that the entire world gets to eat from this Lamb.

“Is the Lord’s hand waxed short?” he says to us. Three feeding miracles, each one a sign—a sign that Lent will come to an end, that at Passover time he will feed us.

Our skepticism must be painful for the Lord to behold. How many more times will they question the reach of my hand? How many more times do I have to show I have food galore?

I know what I’ll do, says the Lord. Not only will I give food, I will be food. Instead of a sign, I will give them the truth. I will become the Lamb they can eat—for when they see the Lamb on the Altar, and when they eat there the Passover Lamb, surely they will be filled and never go hungry again.

Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.

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Image by David Shankbone via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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