Friends, today is the official release date for Where Jesus Prayed! I know, I know. It came early, which was such a FUN surprise! But in the spirit of the official date, I wanted to share with you the chapter I wrote from one of my favorite places, Tabgha. Enjoy!
The Church of Multiplication
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Tabgha comes from the Greek word heptapegon, describing the “seven springs” that were present in the area. Tabgha, the Arabic transmutation of the word, is the name of the city today. Though some of those seven springs have gone, Tabgha’s remote position near the shores of Galilee maintain a narrative resonance with what is remembered here: seven, a biblical number symbolizing wholeness, and springs of water, a source of life. It is a place of fullness even in the midst of its Tabgha is a quiet place. That may be because our stellar guide, Nabil, knew to bring us here early enough in the morning to avoid the crowds. But the geography of the place itself is appropriately sparse, giving a feeling of remoteness even as you stand in the middle of the church. The church here, which is managed by Benedictines, was reconstructed to mimic the breezy architecture that likely characterized a basilica that stood here in the fifth century. At the entrance to the courtyard is a baptismal font in a rudimentary cruciform shape that is remarkably well preserved.
The Church of the Multiplication, like all churches in the Holy Land, has a layered history. First built in the fourth century during the time of Constantine, it took on a larger, more Byzantine style in the century to follow, and by the sixth century the now-trademark mosaic depicting a basket of bread and two fish was added. The church was all but destroyed sometime in the seventh century. In 1982 the Benedictines finished their reconstruction, which includes the preservation of not only the central miracle mosaic but some beautiful floor mosaics as well. In the apse sits a heavy block altar, under which sits a large stone that is said to be the place where Jesus performed the miracle. Of course, like many of the places, the historicity of the location or the stone is not the primary focus, but rather the tradition of remembrance that has brought countless pilgrims to this place for two thousand years.
As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish.
Our daily bread.
In a word, the feeling you get when you sit in the quiet of the church at Tabgha is fullness. It’s not because anything about the church is particularly overstuffed; its sparse environs speak far more of monasticism than excess. But the air, the breeze coming in through the courtyard, that table sitting in the apse calling you to remember a miracle of abundance: it feels like fullness, as when you find yourself in a moment—just one, fleeting little moment—when you realize you do, in fact, have everything you need. In this instant, you are complete and whole and full beyond measure. There is so much oxygen in the room your lungs literally cannot process all of it, but if you could, you might very well be able to fly, or at least hover a few inches above ground.
God knows this isn’t always the case. For just as there are many moments when we feel full, we’re not unfamiliar with feeling empty, either. Emptiness can fill our days, if that’s not some kind of sad irony. We can begin to feel there is nothing coming in, and certainly nothing going out. The desire to be filled, to experience any kind of fullness, becomes quite literally salvation. Our prayers can become fervent, even desperate: Give us this day our daily bread. We literally cannot go on without it.
So here we come into Tabgha with our emptiness, some of it distracting and colloquial, some of it gnawing and fearsome, all of it calling for bread. We get word that Jesus has come ashore, and we run straight for the coastline. People come following after Jesus for loads of reasons, but often we come because we get the sense that he is not empty, that he has the kind of life that bubbles over and washes straight into people, like water seeping into parched cracks along the sidewalk.
So here we all are, gathered around in groups, sheep content to have found our shepherd, but hungry. Jesus takes that almost-emptiness we have, that little something, those few loaves and those couple of fish, and he blesses it. He says, for all intents and purposes, this will do. This is not nothing. It’s not emptiness. It’s a space where fullness can happen.
Jesus blesses our hollow selves and our meager little offerings and he hands them over, instructing the disciples to go set them before the people. And when they do? It is, by God, enough. It’s enough, with leftovers.
When I think of this story, I remember its sister story in Exodus, when the Israelites are traversing the wilderness and they fear that they may run out of bread. Apparently, this is a consistent human preoccupation. So God sends manna every morning, fresh as the dew, and God tells the people to gather up what they need and only what they need, because God will provide the same abundance tomorrow. It’s hard to judge them for stuffing their pockets and hedging their bets. If you were traveling like that, wouldn’t you stock some away? But of course, their plans for sustenance don’t work out as they intend. The manna never lasts until the next morning, and they’re stuck having to go out and gather up the new manna again and again.
That’s our practice, of course: we wake up and we seek the sustenance of God, and we find enough to get us through our days, but not enough to make us forget Where it came from. For God is a Where as much as a Who, because in God we find our home. Our daily emptiness has become our daily bread.
There are leftovers in this story, too, though we don’t hear of anyone trying to take them home. Maybe that’s because we understand God’s abundance when we see him, knowing somehow deep down that it’s not going to run out or go away. Then again, maybe we still forget when we reach the end of the day. Maybe that’s why we pray for God to give us daily bread, instead of weekly bread, or monthly bread. God’s mercies are new every morning, and maybe we come to get them not because God wants to keep a close, prying eye on us, but because it’s good for us to be filled, and to remember Where we go to do it.
At Tabgha, twelve disciples and hundreds of disciples-in-the-making realized that Jesus was their manna. They realized that Jesus was the place Where emptiness became fullness. And every pilgrim who has come to Tabgha since has sought the same thing, hoped for the same miracle. Tabgha, the place where we realize that our emptiness is just fullness waiting to happen.
That’s what comes of placing it before this person Jesus. Go see what you’ve got, he tells us, but he’s the answer to his own question. We’re with Jesus. And with Jesus, emptiness is just Perhaps the better question would have been, “Go see who you’ve got.” Or, to put it more truly, “Go see who’s got you.”
That’s what you feel, sitting with your feet on the fifth-century floors in Tabgha, eyes closed, air full, heart centered and wide open. This is where we remember that fullness happens. It’s a fullness that, for the moment, creates emptiness-amnesia. It’s a fullness that reminds you that Jesus has got you. Each and every day, with leftovers.
And yet . . . what nobody recognizes, what nobody sees—not the crowds that have gathered and eaten their fill or the disciples whose hands and eyes have just partaken of a miracle—is that Jesus is, at this moment, hollowed out with grief. He has lost his cousin in the most gruesome kind of way. The cousin who kicked inside the womb when meeting him, who baptized him in the River Jordan, who not only understood him but started making a way for him, maybe not only out of duty and prophetic authority but also in hopes that it would make Jesus’s difficult path just one centimeter less difficult by his efforts. John, who knew who Jesus was and loved him for it, and who was on Jesus’s side like a best friend, like family, like blood. John, who in this small and unpredictable world was a face of comfort and a vote of confidence and a walking declaration of faith. John, the one person on earth who could look Jesus in the eye and say, “I’ve got you.” John was gone, just like that, leaving Jesus fiercely alone. Empty.
Here these people stand before Jesus, wanting a world that is full, a savior who can fill them, and here Jesus stands before them, a man who is heartbroken, a savior who knows that redemption comes slowly. Here stands hope, and here stands tragedy. What does he do when he is confronted with this fullness and this emptiness?
He gives thanks, and he breaks bread. He takes this hope, and he takes this grief, and he multiplies. He makes not-enough into more-than-enough. He makes emptiness into fullness. Only the Bread of Life could do such a thing.
When Jesus heard what had happened to John, he returned to Galilee. He stood among the people even as he stood in his own grief and loneliness. He broke some bread, and he gave of himself, even when perhaps he felt there was very little he had to give. What kind of person is this, that he can break and share himself with us so that there is enough, always more than enough? Give us this day our daily bread, O Lord, and remind us always that this bread is your very life, broken for us, always enough. Even, wonder upon wonder, when you yourself feel empty.
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Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name;
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
forever and ever,