The disciples had forgotten to bring bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. …And they discussed it with one another, saying, “We have no bread.” And being aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread?…Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8: 14, 16, 21)
These are hard words to hear. When I heard them at Morning Prayer today, I found myself thinking of all those who really do lack bread, not just for a day-trip, but for their lives. It is easy to say to people who usually have enough, “Why do you speak about not having bread right now?” It is another thing entirely to say it to those who are chronically hungry, who must think of bread, who must travel long distances and stand in line for hours to get their daily ration. For those who are displaced, who are exiled, who are in refugee camps, asking them not to think about their predicament, not to plan, not to feel fear, seems almost an affront. There are so many who do not see loaves and fishes, and others for whom the miracle is a tube of Plumpy’nut handed them by a worn volunteer.
We do not know which category the disciples fit into, whether they usually had enough or were often hungry. John Dominic Crossan points out that craftspeople (like Jesus’ “father” Joseph) and fishermen (like Peter and Andrew and James and John) were at the very bottom of first-century society, that anyone who was anyone had land. Whether or not this is true of the disciples, Jesus was asking them to stay in a hard place: a place of hunger for bread, for life.
They find themselves in a similarly difficult place in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, which tells the story of the Transfiguration. Jesus has taken Peter and James and John up a high mountain, and they are utterly exhausted. Jesus withdraws for a while to pray, and the disciples struggle to stay awake, until they look up and see Jesus with Moses and Elijah, conversing with the two great prophets of old.
So often, I think, it does work that way. Christ comes to us in new ways not when we are well-fed and contented, but when we are harried, worn out, rushing from one place to another, trying to keep it all together for just one more day. When our lives begin to fray, when our spirit begins to fray, that’s when, if we can push through, God will come streaming in through the ragged edge, will make a way out of no way.
Next week, it will be Lent. It is a season of fasting and of prayer. It is a time to seek those liminal places in which Christ strives to meet us. Often, they look like closed doors, like the place where our endurance falters. But the Christ who multiplied loaves and fishes has more than one trick to his name. That same Christ can multiply us, as long as we are willing to sit in the barrens and wait.