In my mind, one of the great wonders of religion is that its old things–its texts and rituals and doctrines–can be made new time and time again. Generations fade and arise, and people still find meaning for their lives in many of the same traditions. It’s because so many components of religion are rich, dynamic, so full of potential that people far removed from their origin find themselves in them.
Often times, this process occurs in moments of fresh insight. I encounter something in a totally, startlingly different way, something I’ve grown up with as a Catholic my whole life. This happened on Sunday, and it seems I haven’t stopped telling people about it since.
It began with last Sunday’s Gospel reading from John. After watching Jesus feed the crowd of thousands from the mere offering of 2 fishes and 5 loaves (which we encountered in the previous Sunday’s gospel), the disciples ask Jesus, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?” In addressing this week’s Gospel passage, the homilist turned to the story of the famous miracle from the previous week. Essentially, he said this:
We read the story of the multiplication of the fishes and loaves, and we imagine that, with the blink of an eye, bread and fish magically appeared in people’s hands, and eventually, so much of this appeared out of thin air that 12 baskets remained when everyone had finished. We explain this as a miracle. But why would the disciples ask for a sign in today’s reading if they had just witnessed this miraculous multiplication of food as we imagine it? Wouldn’t that be sign enough? I don’t want to take this miracle from you, but I wonder if we can return to this story of the bread and the fishes and find another miracle–one that would make sense in the context of the disciple’s demand for a sign that we find in today’s gospel. In response to Jesus’ example and message, a young boy selflessly offers all he has to eat–5 loaves and 2 fishes–for the sake of everyone else’s hunger. What if, after witnessing this generous response to Jesus, everyone reached into his or her knapsack and offered one’s own bread and fishes for the community? What if the generosity and selflessness inspired by Jesus’ message is the real miracle here? Not the magical multiplication of food?
I’m of the school of thought that there is the potential for multiple “right” interpretations of scripture. Thus, I didn’t feel that this fresh interpretation took away my miracle so much as it opened my eyes to a miracle recorded in the text that I had never seen before, despite the innumerable times I’ve considered this passage. What’s more, I found this interpretation to be much more relevant to my Christian life today. I have witnessed this kind of inspiring Christian generosity. I feel enthusiastic about praying for this, and this prayer is, for better or worse, more natural to me than prayer for the type of miracle we find in the more traditional interpretation of this passage.
Sometimes moments like this are scary, though. There is a sense that new interpretations of old components of religion threaten the legitimacy of how we’ve seen things in the past. I’m convinced this isn’t (always) the case. And I remember that this is the sort of thing about religion that I find beautiful. It is was makes it wonderful, and continuously relevant.