The Gospel reading today gives us St. John the Evangelist’s account of Jesus feeding the 5,000. Yesterday, we heard from the third chapter of John’s Gospel that God does not ration His gift of the Spirit. Whereas all creatures are limited, God is not. The limitless love and being of God are displayed in the miraculous feeding of 5,000 men from just five barley loaves and two fish. To dismiss this event, or other signs and wonders of Jesus, as merely symbolic is to admit a limitation in God and therefore reduces the Creator to the creaturely. Today’s Gospel provides an opportunity to reflect on the miraculous, as this is one of Jesus' most well-known signs.
Of course, we cannot reproduce or comprehend the ‘how’ of multiplying food exponentially in a short period of time. Perhaps God acted here at the quantum level, and maybe if this is the basis of physical reality then that level is where divine action originates. The risk in trying to analyze the miraculous through an explanation rooted in the natural sciences is not necessarily that God is ushered out, although this is certainly a risk in some cases, but that the causal order is conflated or reduced. God is the primary cause of all that is. All physical (and spiritual) reality depends upon God at any moment that it exists. The substances or fundamental elements of the world do not persist inertially, despite the pressing desire of some to read their metaphysics exclusively from mathematical equations or abstractions in physics (or forego metaphysics altogether). It just does not work in the end to think things of the cosmos persist on their own when we consider what finite substances are and what it means for them to exist here and now or at any time. Only by artificial, analytical means, like creating examples with many qualifications and cafeteria-style, a la carte, unsystematic hypothesizing, can we reasonably think, in the end, that something in the world can be without God causing it to be at the most fundamental metaphysical level.
With this said, we must also say that God delights in secondary causes bringing about effects. We would say that these secondary causes can be directed by God in certain ways to bring about effects that do not normally obtain. This is perhaps one way of thinking about divine signs and wonders. When we zoom in on just the natural processes and neglect their primary cause, we can forget that secondary causes are unable to operate on their own. Secondary causes may achieve different ends, or follow different paths of manifestation when the primary cause so directs. Signs from God, what we call miracles, are instances where secondary causes are directed by God to more clearly and unambiguously draw people’s attention to Him. Signs are elements of divine grace penetrating through our recalcitrant intellects and wills bent away from our loving Creator.
So we say that the way God acts is not in a contingent, finite manner. His action is of a different order than anything within the world. As mentioned above, each aspect of the cosmos is caused to exist by God at every moment it exists. God is not distant from the world, stepping in to intervene from time to time. Rather, the essence of God weaves through every strand of the cosmos, the causal and teleological basis of all that is, whenever and wherever it is. God remains utterly distinct yet not apart from His creation. When signs and wonders happen, what we call miracles, we see God causing things to be in a different way than we customarily experience them. We should not be surprised at this. After all, as Chesterton said, the sun rises each day because God says 'Do it again.”
The laws of physics, as commonly understood, might be one way to help us understand how the world usually goes, what we can expect ceteris parabis. Yet, there are times and places when things are not ceteris parabis. The Son of God among us in the context of His salvific mission is a shining example of God getting the attention of those whom He loves so much. As we read later in today’s passage “When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, "This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world." The signs Jesus gave to demonstrate His divinity and Messiahship were unmistakable to anyone paying attention. Even those dozing off in class had to take notice. Eternal love was breaking into the world to defeat sin and death in the most decisive way.