Holy Land Pilgrimage

The missing loaf of bread

February 15, 2020

We are currently in the Galilee section of our pilgrimage as we focus on holy sites that Christ ministered in for a long period of time before his journey to Jerusalem. Arguably, one of the most important event during Jesus’ Galilean ministry was his multiplication of loaves and fish, also called the “Feeding of the Five Thousand.” This is Jesus’ only miracle that is recorded in all four Gospels, thus showing its significance to 1st Century Christians.

On the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, there is a church dedicated to this miracle. This church, called “The Church of the Multiplication,” contains a famous Byzantine Mosaic dating from the 5th Century, which depicts this miracle. Pictures of this mosaic can be found throughout the Holy Land and so we have already seen this image numerous

When I first saw it, I was surprised to see that the depiction only has four loaves of bread with two fish. Yet in each of the four Gospels, the Feeding of the 5,000 began with five loaves and two fish. What were the Byzantines thinking? Did the artist read any of the Gospel accounts of this miracle? Assuming common sense on the part of the artist, we can ask, why is there a loaf of bread missing?

The key to this conundrum is the location of the mosaic. Most pilgrims who simply see the depiction on the side of a decorative plate or coffee mug would miss this context. In the Church of the Multiplication, the mosaic is on the floor just before the altar. That is to say, the missing loaf of bread can be found on the altar, and that loaf is none other than Jesus Christ, who is broken and shared for all the hungry who approach the altar for nourishment. A couple of miles down the road from the place where the multiplication miracle occured, Jesus says to his disciples, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (Jn 6:35).

The symbolism of the missing loaf brings out the central theme of the multiplication—the Eucharist. For Christians throughout the centuries, the miracle of the multiplication has always pointed to the miracle of the Eucharist. We even hear some of the same words when Jesus institutes the Eucharist and when he multiplies the bread. Before he feeds the crowd of 5,000, Jesus, “taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples…” (Mk 6:41). Later, during the Last Supper, Jesus “took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “‘Take it; this is my body’” (Mk 14:22). In the Eucharist, Christ gives himself as food to his people. He nourishes them and meets them in their spiritual hunger.

Therefore, the Church of the Multiplication, and the famous mosaic that lies before the altar, has valuable lessons for those preparing to be Priests of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, the priesthood exists for the sake of the Eucharist. We need priests because we need the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. We need priests because we hunger for the Bread of Life.

Noah Thelen

Diocese of Grand Rapids

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