I know exactly where I was. I was sitting in the quire of Canterbury Cathedral. It was March 1976. To be more exact, it was the Fourth Sunday in Lent. With a little detective work, I know that it was 28 March 1976.
I know that it was the Fourth Sunday in Lent, because the gospel that day was this story of the boy with the five barley-loaves and the two, small fish. I remember to this day the experience of hearing, as if for the first time, the story of the young lad who shared his lunch. Now, every time I hear this passage, I find myself sitting in Canterbury’s quire.
This story opens chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. The chapter begins here, which is part of the larger feeding story, and then moves on to the Calming of the Sea, and finally the Bread of Life discourse. It’s an incredibly rich and significant chapter, full of possibilities. Because it is so rich, the story of the boy is often lost. It’s easy to overlook him, or to lose him altogether. In fact, the other three gospels, all of which record this miracle, fail to mention the boy. And John fails, or has other reasons, not to name him. It is this nameless boy who has held my attention for over forty years.
There’s a rich, very dense, chewy cake called pan forte that is an Italian specialty, especially in Tuscany. The version from Siena requires 17 different ingredients, one for each of the 17 contrade, or sections of the city. Honey, sugar, spices, fruits, nuts, flour. The pleasure is in the sheer complexity of this very dense confection, usually served with coffee for dessert, or even for breakfast. Pan forte.
Today we have the pan forte, the “strong bread”, of Gospel stories: the wedding feast at Cana. We have Jesus, the mother of Jesus, the disciples, the wedding guests, the servants, the steward of the feast, the happy couple, the parents and family of the newlyweds. It’s the beginning of a life together; and, indeed, new life could be conceived in the womb of a young mother this very night. And we have water, wine, water turned into wine, plenty of food, music and dancing, surely. It’s the “third day”. There’s the hint of some difficult mother/son dynamics. His hour has not yet come. “It most certainly has,” she might have said. “Do what he tells you.” The glory of Jesus is revealed; the disciples believe. It’s his first “sign”, as John puts it. Do have a look at the wonderful Coptic icon here with Jesus in the claret-red garment and his very pleased mother beside him.