When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” He said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” Then he said, “Bring them here to me,” and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over—twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.Matthew 14:13-21
The Desert: A Place of Encounter with God
Purified in the barren desert (eremós),1 John the Baptist had emerged as the fruitful “voice of one crying in the wilderness.”2 At the cost of his life, the prophet had entered the city of Herod the tetrarch to confront him with truth. When Jesus heard of his death, he withdrew to a “deserted place” (erēmon topon) by himself to mourn.3 Crowds followed him.
Sacred Scripture privileges the desert as a place of encounter with God. At the start of Jesus’ ministry, the Spirit drove him into the desert to be tempted by the devil.4 God called Abraham out of the city of Ur of the Chaldeans to follow him in the wilderness.5 Moses and Aaron declared to Pharaoh: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Let my people go, that they may hold a feast for me in the wilderness.”6
Wandering in the desert for forty years, the Israelites learned to attune their ears to the voice of God. Away from the distractions of Egyptian cities, they looked to the Lord alone for their daily bread.
The Word in the Desert
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the “word of the Lord” visits patriarchs and prophets with divine guidance and directives.7 Moses received the “ten words” (“Ten Commandments”) in the wilderness of Sinai.8
Five Loaves and Two Fish
In Matthew’s version of the feeding of the five thousand, the crowd feasted on five loaves and two fish in the wilderness. As the Father fed the Israelites in the desert with “bread from heaven” (manna) and the word of the Lord (the five books of the Pentateuch and the two tablets of the law) through his servant Moses, he will feed them with his own Son, the Word made flesh and “true bread from heaven.”9
The Desert of the Heart
When the Word of the Lord fills our being, we become a desert oasis for our God.
John departed the desert to die in the city;
Christ withdrew to the desert to mourn with pity.
1 Luke 1:80.
2 Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23; Isaiah 40:3.
3 Matthew 14:13.
4 Mark 1:12; Matthew 4:1; Luke 4:1.
5 Genesis 12:1.
6 Exodus 5:1.
7 For example, Genesis 15:1, 4; I Samuel 15:10; 2 Samuel 7:4; 24:11; Jeremiah 1:4.
8 Deuteronomy 4:13; Hebrew
9 John 6:32.