The account of Jesus' feeding a multitude is read as the Gospel of the day three times during the liturgical year: on Lent IV, the Sunday Next Before Advent, and today. If that seems repetitious, it is remarkable that this is one of very few miracles which are related in all four Gospels. And for good measure, the very brief Gospel of Mark (which we read today) contains two very similar stories, a feeding of 5,000 in chapter 6 and another feeding of 4,000 in chapter 8, our Gospel lesson today.
Because these stories are so much alike, skeptical scholars have speculated that Mark was through forgetfulness just repeating himself. But on the other hand, Jesus repeated His miracles many times. For example, we have no fewer than three episodes in which He raised the dead to life. So there is no reason why a feeding miracle could not occur more than once.
It is interesting that every single instance of this miracle repeats the same four verbs, “He took, ... gave thanks, ... brake, ... and gave.” We find the identical formula in the account of the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Look on page 80 in the Prayer Book (1928, American*). There is more than one way of explaining how this miracle is related to the Sacrament of the Altar. Did the Eucharist shape the way the Gospels tell the story? Or did the miracle prepare for and point the way to the Eucharist itself?
But the main point of this miracle, the reason why it occurs over and over in the NT and in our liturgy, is the surprising abundance of God's grace in a totally unexpected place. Every single time this happens, the Evangelist (that is the technical term for a Gospel-writer) is at pains to tell us of how the left-overs were gathered up. A puritan interpretation would teach us that we should not waste food. But more likely, the point is the amplitude, bounty, and spendthrift generosity which God lavishes on His beloved people. “I have compassion on the multitude!”
And we must not overlook the place where this miracle occurred. It is a wilderness miracle, reminiscent of the 40 years wandering of the people of Israel, who were blessed with bread from heaven. Jesus performed this miracle in a place not unlike the place in which he was tempted to make stones into bread to satisfy His own hunger. There were many poor and hungry people throughout the towns and villages of Galilee and Judea; the entire area was often wracked by famine. But who were fed? Only those who go out to a hard place to see and to hear and to be with Jesus, the One who is the bread of life. Only those who take that risk are the ones who will be fed.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”
* Fr. Wells refers to p. 80 of the 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer as published by the Episcopal Church in the United States, and which continues to be published by the Anglican Parishes Association for the Anglican Catholic Church, and by the American Church Union for the Province of Christ the King. For those who have no copy available of this American Prayer Book, here is the content of page 80:
¶ When the Priest, standing before the Table, hath so ordered the Bread and Wine, that he may with the more readiness and decency break the Bread before the People, and take the Cup into his hands, he shall say the Prayer of Consecration, as followeth.
ALL glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious the death and sacrifice, until his coming again: For in the night in which he was betrayed, (a) he took Bread; and when he had given thanks, (b) he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat, (c) this is my Body, which is given for you; Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise, after supper, (d) he took the Cup; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of this; for (e) this is my Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins; Do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me.
WHEREFORE O Lord and heavenly Father, according to the institution of thy dearly beloved Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, we, thy humble servants, do celebrate and make here before thy Divine Majesty, with these thy holy gifts, which we now offer unto thee, the memorial thy Son hath commanded...
[p81...us to make; having in remembrance his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension; rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same. etc.]