Every one of the four gospels tells the story. Out in some deserted spot far from town, a big crowd shows up to see Jesus.
Jesus tells his disciples to give the people something to eat, but all they can come up with is five loaves of bread and two fishes. Jesus takes the food, offers thanks, breaks the bread and shares it–and all have enough to eat and more.
It’s one of the most memorable stories in the Bible. What makes it so vivid is how specific the gospel writers are: Every gospel names exactly five loaves and two fishes for thousands of people.
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In about the year 360, that tireless traveler Egeria visited the Holy Land went to the spot where the miraculous multiplication happened. She reported back to her sisters: “Not far away from Capernaum . . . is the field where the Lord fed the people with the five loaves and two fishes. In fact, the stone on which the Lord placed the bread has now been made into an altar.”
A church too small
Before long, the little church Egeria had described was too small for the crowds of pilgrims following her itinerary. The people built a new church in about the year 480, with beautiful mosaic floors surrounding the stone Egeria mentioned. They also built guest houses for pilgrims and a monastery whose monks cared for the church and the visitors.
In the year 614, though, an invading army swept across the Holy Land (yet again). The towns and pilgrimage sites by the Sea of Galilee were left in ruins, including the church with its lovely mosaics.
The ruins disappeared under the grass on the hillside, and the holy sites by the shore were lost to history. For more than 1,000 years, the only visitors were wandering shepherds and their flocks.
In the 19th century, European archaeologists searched for the holy sites. Finally, in 1932, they uncovered the mosaics and the rock–forgotten under the grass for more than 1,300 years!
A church rebuilt
Now the beautiful mosaics and the rock where Jesus is said to have placed those loaves of bread for the hungry people are beloved features of the rebuilt Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. And there are guest houses for pilgrims again, along with a monastery whose monks care for the church and the visitors.
Some people suggest that the mosaic artist didn’t know the story very well: There are only four loaves of bread in the basket, where each gospel says there were five. Where’s the other one, the one that made it possible to feed all those hungry people?
I think the artist knew the story more than we’d guess. Where’s the other one? Jesus is the other one–the bread that came down from heaven, the bread given for the life of the world.
Audrey Novak Riley is director for stewardship and development for Women of the ELCA. She thanks the Rev. Jeanette Bidne, who told this story to a small group at the Tenth Triennial Gathering in Minneapolis. The village where the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish stands is called Tabgha.
Photo: The fifth-century mosaic in front of the altar. How many loaves do you see in the basket? The photo is in the public domain.