17th Sunday through the Year: "Giving Thanks for So Little"
Today’s Gospel contains a familiar story: the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. It is a miracle story that reminds us of our Lord’s power over nature. We have probably also heard it used as a launching point for discussing the importance of sharing.
I would like to take a closer look today at an interesting detail of how the multiplication of the loaves and fishes actually happens. St. John reports that, “Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted.” Before our Lord distributes the five barley loaves and two fish to the 5,000 people, He gives thanks. This seems normal to any person used to praying before meals, but I think that it is actually rather surprising.
Why would our Lord give thanks for five loaves and two fishes that are supposed to feed over 5,000 people? It definitely would not be my default response! It probably wouldn’t be yours either. If I had only five loaves and two fishes to feed 5,000 people, I don’t think that I would be thankful at all. I would be frustrated, confused, bewildered, and overwhelmed – not thankful. God’s logic, though, is not our logic.
Our Lord does not pronounce any magic words over the loaves and fishes. He isn’t casting a spell like a scene from Harry Potter. He just gives thanks. It is thankfulness – the thankfulness of God Himself in the person of Christ – that multiplies the offerings of that boy who presented all he had to the Apostles.
Christ here is thankful not only for the bread and the fish, but He is thankful for the generosity of the boy who presents them. We know that Christ does not need to rely on any human person. He could have made fish, bread, or even ribeye steaks appear out of thin air to feed those hungry masses, but instead He chooses to work through the limited means of one generous boy, willing to give up all that He has.
Why? Why would our Lord choose to work in such a way? Wouldn’t it be an even greater manifestation of His power to summon steak out of thin air? Actually, no. Jesus is not a magician from a Las Vegas stage show. He is the God who prefers to work through our weak human nature, a God who tells us that His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9), as we heard a few weeks ago. The God who can transform us through the power of grace is far greater than a God of flashy miracles.
This miracle that we read about today is really an introduction to our Lord’s “Bread of Life Discourse” in the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel. We will be reading from that chapter in the Gospel for the next few weeks. Next week, Christ will use the attention generated by this miracle to point out to the Jews how they are seeking Him for material gain and not for spiritual gain when they come after Him looking for more miracles (or more free food).
In this chapter, our Lord will teach us about the Eucharist, about His precious Body and Blood given for us. It is not an accident, though, that St. John begins this introduction to that very important teaching with this lesson about the importance of giving thanks. “Giving thanks” is actually the literal meaning of the word “Eucharist,” and it is a critical part of how the Eucharist comes about.
At Mass, right before the priest consecrates the Sacred Host, he says, “On the day before he was to suffer, he took bread in his holy and venerable hands, and with eyes raised to heaven to you, O God, his almighty Father, giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying.” Giving thanks, just as it was a critical part of how the loaves and fishes were multiplied, is a critical part of how the bread and wine are transformed into Christ’s Body and Blood. If you look closely, you will even see me slightly bow my head during those words, a traditional sign of respect for the God to whom we give thanks for the great privilege of participating in these holy mysteries.
In traditional Roman Catholic theology, the consecration of the bread and wine happens because our offering is accepted by God the Father because of the spirit of reverence and thanksgiving with which Christ makes it. Remember, this is the sacrifice of Christ in which we are privileged to participate as members of His body. It is primarily His sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father, not ours. That is why the priest says, “Pray brethren that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” The priest stands in for Christ, who is offering this sacrifice of Himself – as priest and victim – to God the Father on our behalf.
What does that mean for us? It means that in the Mass, we are invited to participate in Christ’s own thanksgiving. This is true active participation – a term from the Second Vatican Council frequently, and erroneously, thought to mean that people should do more things at Mass. Rather, the deepest participation possible in the Mass is the interior joining of ourselves to Christ’s sacrifice of thanksgiving. The very same Christ who gave thanks for the humble offerings of that boy in Galilee will give thanks before and upon this altar today for the humble gifts that we offer.
The gifts that we offer are much more than the bread and wine that will be brought forward in procession shortly. Christ desires that we offer not just something else, but that we offer ourselves. We are called to be victim priests like him.
What does this mean, to offer ourselves in a sacrifice of thanksgiving like Christ does? This week, each of us should find something to be thankful for, but not in the typical way, like when you go around the table at Thanksgiving and each person has to say what he is thankful for – for having a home, for having food to eat, for grandma’s pumpkin pie. Rather, give thanks for something small, something insufficient. Find the five barley loaves and two fishes that are supposed to feed 5,000 people. Maybe it’s the bank account balance that is smaller than your credit card bill, or the paycheck that is smaller than your student load balance. Or better yet, maybe it’s the small amount of courage you have to resist evil, or the small amount of time that you are able to spend in prayer.
When we give thanks with a sincere heart, with a desire to offer ourselves to the Lord just as we are, weak, humble, and insufficient, it is then that the Lord will transform our offering of ourselves. Just as He multiplied the fishes and loaves two thousand years ago and just as He transforms the bread and wine today, God the Father will accept your offering and transform you in ways that you will never be able to imagine.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist 17th Sunday Through the Year, A.D. MMXVIII