Loaves and Fishes

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I went to Mass the other day at the small desert chapel near my home. As I walked along the dirt road leading to the chapel I noticed a bluebird hopping along the edge of the road. As I passed she flew, but she only bluebirdmanaged to clear a sagebrush and then landed again. It looked like she had a broken wing. I felt helpless, knowing it would just make matters worse if I tried to catch her. Well, maybe she’ll be okay, I hoped, and went on to the chapel.

In his homily, Father Eric recounted the story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, how there were all these hungry people — thousands of them — following Jesus around, but there was no food available. Jesus had just heard of the murder of his friend, John the Baptist, and was grieving. But the peoples’ hunger touched him — both their spiritual and physical hunger — and he asked his disciples to find a solution. The disciple Philip was a can-do sort of guy, Father Eric said, but even he couldn’t come up with a solution, except to send the people away, which would be like sweeping the problem under the rug, and wouldn’t respond to either of their hungers.

But then a small boy pulled on Jesus’ sleeve and offered him five little loaves of barley bread and two sardines. We know the boy was poor because barley bread was the staple of the poor — the better-off people ate wheat. These were small loaves that could fit into the palm of your hand. We remember what happened next — Jesus took the bread and fish and miraculously fed the multitudes with it.

That was a miracle for sure. But there was a prior miracle: the moment the boy tugged on Jesus’ sleeve. His offering wasn’t a solution to the problem, but it was the best he could do. I imagine the look on the kid’s face, lifting up the hunks of bread to Jesus. Right there, that’s the miracle, in that gesture. The boy knew he couldn’t solve the problem but that didn’t matter. He offered what he had from the innocence of his heart.

After the Mass was over I started walking back home, when I suddenly understood it. In our time each of us is facing “the hunger of the multitudes”: the slaughters, wars, suicide bombers, refugees, climate change, soil loss, species loss, racism, injustice, inequality, despair. We are facing problems of such magnitude and complexity that we naturally shrink back from them like the disciples — denying them or avoiding them. After all, what can we do? There are no solutions — at least, not solutions that we have much power to make happen.

But we do have our version of little barley loaves and sardines. What is it? What is it we have to give?

Our care.

Caring may not change anything, it may not assuage anyone’s hunger or avert any disaster, but it’s what we have. This little tenderness of our hearts, this caring, this willingness to be touched by the world’s suffering — we can offer this. Every act of caring, no matter how small, frees us from self-absorption and disconnection, and acknowledges our interdependence.

Some Christian commentators have suggested that Jesus didn’t actually multiply the number of loaves and fishes. They say what happened was that people saw the little boy’s gesture and were ashamed they were hiding food in their robes while the boy gave his away, so they all brought out the food they had and everyone shared and everyone had enough. That’s a miracle too. One child’s caring ignited everyone else’s.

But what our care produces in the world isn’t really our business — we don’t care in order to produce an effect. We just care. Our caring will show up however it does — in acts of kindness, understanding, generosity, patience, protest, resilience, creativity. In the end, acts like these may not save the world, but at least they’ll grace it.

As I walked back from the chapel I came to the place where I had seen the bluebird, and there in the middle of the road was her dead body, squashed by one of the cars leaving the service. No one’s fault. And yet the great juggernaut of human heaviness was what rode over her, just like it is riding over the delicate world, just like it killed John the Baptist, just like it hid the loaves under peoples’ robes. What can we offer in the face of that heaviness?

I picked up her body and took it into the desert away from the road, said a little prayer and buried her. It wasn’t much; it wasn’t a miracle. But it was what I could do.