The only miracle recorded in all four gospels is the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Matthew 14; Mark 6; Luke 9: John 6). A huge crowd has followed Jesus and his disciples out into the countryside, it comes time for supper, and the disciples panic. Jesus asks how they might meet the challenge and the only answer they have is that it would take six months’ wages to feed this many people. It’s an impossible situation in their eyes, a bigger crisis than they can handle.
A small amount of food is discovered: some bread and some fish. The details of the story differ in the various gospels but they all agree on one matter: Jesus pauses and gives thanks. As we begin another year, I am drawn to the thankfulness of Jesus, in part because it runs contrary to my natural approach.
What is Jesus giving thanks for? The fear of the disciples? The hunger of the crowd? The desperate situation in the world that this hungry crowd represents? The anger of the officials already brewing? The lack of food? The neediness of humanity? Frankly, there doesn’t look like there is all that much for him to be thankful for.
I’m actually pretty good in a crisis. Something stirs within me to lead me to action. After the crisis is over, I’ll probably collapse in a heap, but during the crisis, I’m a go-to guy. But in a crisis, the first thing I experience is anxiety. I think about all the problems that are present. And it is always pretty obvious that there are a great many problems. That’s what a crisis is, right, more problems than solutions? If I were present at the scene before the feeding of the five thousand, I would have been thinking of all the problems present. No money, no food, a big crowd that might turn into a mob, letting everyone down and failing, my whole future going down the tubes. Even though I’m pretty good in a crisis, I get way ahead of myself and imagine the very worst possible thing happening. My imagination can get pretty wild. It’s like I can see my whole world collapsing all around me. While dealing with one crisis a few years ago, for instance, I had a dream that St. John’s had been destroyed by some tornado or fire. I was standing in the midst of rubble and, somehow, it was all my fault. That’s how I approach crises, with a good bit of anxiety.
So what was Jesus giving thanks for? Well, for the food that was present, for the grace of God that was about to be made known, for his own sense of trust, for the opportunity itself. In a crisis, I look first at all the things that are wrong and how it may all spin way out of control and collapse. Maybe Jesus did the same, we can’t be sure. It’s hard for me to think that Jesus was never frightened at all. But he gives thanks. Maybe he takes a deep breath in the face of the anxiety in and around him, and then focuses on what is there instead of what isn’t. He is able to see that there are resources. They don’t really add up to the need but, with God’s grace, they will be enough. And he seems to know that the opportunity here is not just to feed a bunch of hungry people. There is the chance for all to know God’s loving abundance. He seems to know that the situation is not just about him solving the problem. It’s about the chance for all to know God more deeply.
There’s another time Jesus gives thanks in the face of a big crisis. On the night before he died, as he gathers the apostles together, he gives thanks for the bread and the wine. But isn’t he giving thanks for so much more? He knows this is his last night. He knows Judas will betray him. He knows all the apostles will turn their backs on him. He knows he will suffer and die in a matter of hours. And he gives thanks. Like with the feeding of the five thousand, he gives thanks for what is rather than what is not there. He gives thanks for the way in which God will make himself known in the midst of human sinfulness. He trusts that this time when all has gone wrong will lead to the time when all is made right.
The beginning of the year is always a little hard for me. As I take stock, I always want more in the year ahead than is likely to occur. I’m ambitious and I think big. My dreams are exciting but they are bigger than anyone can realistically accomplish. As I look at my dreams and the resources around, it’s easy to get discouraged. I can set myself up for a big fall.
After the year is over, I will look back and see that God has provided more abundantly than I thought he could, that the things which didn’t work out the way I wanted actually became places of blessing. After the year is over, I’ll end up giving thanks.
What might it be like for me if I began the year giving thanks? Instead of looking at the year ahead as one limited by resources and human frailty, how might I give thanks for the inevitable grace that will lead me through? The first step is for me to be a little less self-centered. To give thanks is to look to God more than to myself.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.