“I know there’s an AIDS epidemic in Africa,” we say. “But I’m in Fort Wayne, Indiana. What can I do from here?” Or maybe we say: “I know there are a lot of people in need, homeless and hungry, but there are so many of them. How much good can my little contribution really do?” So we withdraw, we tell ourselves that the problems in Africa are too far away for us to do anything, and don’t really affect us here anyway. Sometimes we tell ourselves that people in need are lazy, looking for handouts and taking advantage of the system, and it’s best not to encourage that sort of behavior, all the while hoping that our own circumstances won’t ever change to the point where we might have to depend on that same welfare system.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, because there is so much need in the world, including people we know. There are people all over the world and just down the street who are hungry, homeless, and suffering injustice. There are so many who are sick, lonely, or in need of guidance. There are so many good organizations like that need our support, but we just can’t help them all.
When Jesus sees the large crowd, he asks Philip, “So, Phil, besides 7-Eleven and White Hen Pantry, where are you guys going to find bread for all these people to eat?” You just know that Philip has a full-on panic attack right then! In fact, poor Phil is so astounded by the question, he can’t even respond to Jesus’ question. One of the other apostles, Andrew, at least looks around to see what resources they did have at their disposal. He found a boy with five loaves of bread and two fish, an insignificant amount to be sure, but he mentions it anyway. Jesus doesn’t seem bothered in the least, and he insists that they all share the bread and the fish. And when everyone had eaten his fill, the disciples gathered up twelve baskets of leftovers—which is a whole lot more bread than they started with!
The feeding of the five thousand is generally accepted as a miracle story, after all, how else could five thousand people eat and be satisfied, and have more leftovers than they’d had food to begin with? Another theory, one that I first heard in grade school, is that a lot of people in the crowd had brought some food for themselves, but they weren’t willing to share. When they saw Jesus’ generosity, however, they were inspired to share what they had brought. So, let’s think about this for a minute. If only 20% of the people had brought some food along, say a loaf of bread, that is probably enough to feed everyone. If this alternative explanation of the story is correct, it’s not so much a miracle story as it is powerful scriptural support for the idea of church potlucks!
Regardless of how we see this story, it seems to me that both interpretations are miraculous in their own way, even if the second theory is so ordinary. Jesus presiding over a potluck supper? How can something so commonplace, so unremarkable, so ordinary be a real miracle?? Maybe we’ve forgotten that miraculous things happen through ordinary things all the time.
I have 3 sons, the oldest of whom was born shortly after my 20th birthday. Babies are born every day, and it’s a normal part of our biology; it’s the necessarily ordinary way we all got here. Childbirth is so ordinary; it happens thousands of times every day. But as someone who has witnessed it on three separate occasions, I have to say it is anything but ordinary. It is overwhelmingly miraculous in every way!
When these newly born children are baptized, ordinary water is joined with the Holy Spirit, liberating them from sin and death by connecting them forever to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through ordinary water, they are reborn and they become initiated into the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. For whatever reason, God chose water, so ordinary yet so necessary to our lives, to be a sign of the Kingdom, of cleansing and rebirth. And yet, what occurs through the ordinary waters of baptism is nothing short of a miracle.
When we celebrate the Eucharist, ordinary bread and ordinary wine are joined with the words spoken by Jesus Himself, through the words spoken by the priest in the midst of the believing assembly, and transformed into the Real Presence, the True Body and Blood of Christ, broken and shared with all. Through these ordinary elements, we experience the Real Presence of Christ, and that is definitely miraculous!
This concept is at the heart of the Gospel, the idea that God is breaking into our ordinary lives all the time. He once broke into this world by being born in an ordinary town to an ordinary family, and His message was that God is always breaking in like this! God knows our weaknesses and our limitations, and God has decided to work through them, thereby freeing us from their hold on us.
Father Michel cannot save the world. Even using all of my very best sermons, published articles, inspired conversations with those who’ve come to me for spiritual direction and all the good choices I’ve made through my many years of living, I cannot hope to save even one person. I can’t even save myself! It’s not Father Michel who saves, it’s God who saves. That’s God’s job. We’re not the saviors, we’re the saved—each and every one of us. This is a great equalizer and it puts every one of us on exactly the same level. We’re equal, even though we’re not the same.
God has blessed each of us with dignity, and with specific gifts, and we’re invited to use our dignity and gifts in the service of others, in the service of all others. Even the ones we don’t particularly like, or who make us uncomfortable, or who live halfway around the planet.
It’s overwhelming, and we can’t do it alone, and we don’t have to. God has already saved the world, and God is working in the world through ordinary things, through ordinary people, to continue bringing miracles. God somehow multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish into a feast to feed five thousand. Was the bread magically multiplied, or were those with food in the crowd inspired to make it a potluck? I don’t know, and I don’t care. The disciples themselves weren’t deterred from the enormity of their task by dwelling on the improbable and the unlikelihood of accomplishing anything with such a measly amount of food. They just gave what they had, and with the little they had, somehow something happened, and everyone got more than enough to eat.
It’s easy for us to feel overwhelmed, insignificant, limited and powerless to make a difference. We are surrounded by so much need, so many injustices, so much desperate hurting—none of us can possibly work to fix everything. If we spent every penny we had and used every skill and talent at our disposal, we would still be unable to fix everything. And yet, in every city and country of the world, ordinary people, using ordinary means and ordinary talents and resources, are doing miraculous things every day. Through the waters of baptism we become members of Christ’s community, the Mystical Body. Individually, we are not the Body of Christ, but each of us contributes her or his own dignity as a child of God as well as the talents God has given. The Body of Christ is bigger than any one person, bigger than any one parish, bigger than any one community, bigger than any one denomination, bigger than any one ethnic group, bigger than any one country. The Body of Christ is bigger than anything we can imagine, and extends backwards and forward in time. Yet, each of us is a necessary part of that Body; we’re needed for the work still to be accomplished by Jesus in the world.
It’s the miraculous reality of the Body of Christ that can take what little we have and transform it into something miraculous for our neighbor, just as our neighbor can transform what little she has into something miraculous for us. This is the power and the miracle of the Body of Christ, and we are part of the power. We are part of the miracle.