Jesus fed the multitudes from only five loaves and two small fish. And when they'd eaten enough, the leftover crumbs filled twelve baskets1. He performed a similar miracle later with seven loaves and seven baskets of leftovers2.
But did it actually happen? If only we had a time machine to go back a couple of thousand years and verify such stories.
So here's a thought: In a relatively few short years, both you and I will be dead. With our comforting belief that Christ's salvation has bought us a ticket to eternal bliss in heaven, we'll find ourselves in a dimension where time, as we know it, does not exist. Will that mean we can travel 'back' in time to Galilee and see what really took place?
Why not? It sounds a fun thing to do. Anyway, what else could we do to pass the eternal time 'up' there? We could hop onto a heavenly cloud, float down to Galilee, c. 30 A.D., sit on a tree and watch what happens.
Scenario one: Ah! There he is; that little boy. Yes, he does indeed have five loaves and two fishes. And here comes Andrew to introduce the boy to Jesus.
Wait a minute... Yes, Jesus has taken the bag and he's handing out loaf after loaf, fish after fish. Just like one of those magicians you see on TV who pulls rabbits from a top hat. But this magician is not just like the others. Sure, he's got the flowing robes that could conceal a few extra loaves of bread. But enough to feed thousands?3
This is not a magic trick; it really is a miracle.
Scenario two: Jesus takes the bag of five barley loaves and two small fish, but nobody is hungry so nobody accepts the food.
Does that sound likely? Thousands of people, having rushed from their homes from the surrounding towns into the countryside, without time to prepare a picnic, and nobody is hungry hours later? Amazing! Maybe not a miracle, but amazing nonetheless. However, the unlikely 'not hungry' scenario doesn't address the twelve baskets of leftovers.
What was Jesus doing there anyway? He was saddened by the execution of John and no doubt wanted a bit of time on his own, but all these groupies flocked after him. Rather than tell them to go away, "he had compassion on them and healed their sick".
We are not told how many people he healed, neither are we told what sicknesses he healed. Such multiple healing is surely a miracle and yet the details are not recorded. What we have is a precise number of loaves, fishes and baskets. These items are, for some reason, much more important than the miraculous healing. So what is the significance?
For the story of the loaves and fishes to last so long, something really miraculous must have happened.
Something really miraculous must have happened? Says who? Fairy tales have lasted much longer than two thousand years, so let's look at our third and most cynical scenario.
Scenario three: There was no miracle. There wasn't even a gathering on the hillside. There wasn't even Jesus. It's all a big fairy story.
This is the easiest to accept because no proof is necessary to say something didn't happen 2,000 years ago. But in this story, the events were pivotal to a much larger picture.
If we deny this story then we are denying the very existence of Jesus. And then we are all in serious trouble!
Putting aside for the moment whether the events happened in exactly the way recorded in the Scripture, what does this story itself mean?
For the cross image on this page, the arrangement of loaves and fishes on a dinner plate page mimics the Celtic Cross, but a Loaves and Fishes Cross could be any design which includes items used in the miracle. The cross symbolises the passion of Jesus, the loaves remind us that He is the "bread of life", and the fish is a common symbol for Jesus Christ (see Ichthys). Arranged almost in Yin-Yang fashion, they represent the dual nature of Jesus Christ.
The fish is also a symbol of baptism. Fish swim in deep water yet do not drown; indeed, they need to be immersed in water in order to survive. Similarly for us to survive spiritually, we need to be baptised by immersion into the waters of Christ's love.
Jesus referred to the twelve filled baskets when he spoke with his disciples. And just as the twelve baskets were filled4, so were the Twelve Apostles filled with the love of Jesus. When Jesus departed it was important for the Apostles to be filled with the 'leftovers' so they could continue the work Jesus had begun.
The significance of the five and seven is rather cryptic in that 5 + 7 = 12. The number five reminds us of the Five Wounds of Christ and seven is frequently seen in the Bible. Just as the week is complete after seven days, the number seven can be related to completeness and wholeness. (The early church was more fond of numerology than the church is today.) "I am the bread of life" is one of the Seven I AM's of Jesus.
The Greek Orthodox priests today carve pieces of Communion bread out of five loaves that are prepared for the Eucharistic celebration; the Russian Old Believers use seven loaves.
Jesus performs a second miracle with loaves and fish to emphasize that the forgiveness of God is not just a one time event. If we sin again, His love is such that He will forgive us our sins again. He refers to a similar miracle at the time of Moses, who provided manna to the children of Israel in the wilderness. But in the loaves and fishes miracle, Jesus is talking about the bread of life5.
In the story of Elisha who fed 100 men with only twenty loaves we read: "the LORD says: They will eat and have some left over."6 The love of God is the same. We can accept His love, be filled with His love, and yet there will still be some left over.7
And that is the real miracle of this story.