Kontakion of the Resurrection, Tone 7. No longer shall the dominion of death be able to hold humanity, for Christ went down shattering and destroying its power. Hades is bound. The prophets exult with one voice. The Saviour has come forth for those with faith, saying, Come forth, O faithful, to the Resurrection.
I Corinthians 1. 10-18 Matthew 14. 14-22
One thing that occurs to you, when you hear the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, is that it emerges our of an animated discussion between the apostles, who see themselves as practical men, and Jesus, Who, as the hours have passed by, seems to them to have lost all track of time and the physical endurance of His hearers.
But this is precisely it: He has not. For another thing strikes you. There are other people in the conversation and that have uttered not a word: the Five Thousand themselves. Their engagement with Jesus’ discourse has been completely absorbing and it is they who have lost all track of time. They hang on His every word; it has been sustaining them through the day and of this Jesus is perfectly aware.
What St Matthew in his Gospel is describing is the season of fasting, originally in the spring, that is common in different forms within the tradition of the Abrahamic religions that we know as Lent and Islam, for instance, knows as Ramadan. In the Rule of St Benedict for his monks, the complete fast from food is the same as subsequently adopted in Islam and lasts from rising until evening, when a light, nutritious meal of vegetable produce may be taken, together on holy days of feasting with some fish. So, here we have it. During the day, those who have gathered round Jesus close in order not to miss a single word come before God to contemplate His teaching, to seek his spiritual healing and, at the close of day, to eat with His blessing, giving thanks and dwelling in the heart on all that has happened in the day before. Thus drawn up into God’s presence it is not merely a meal during the time of fasting on earth, but a share in the Banquet of heaven as well – with the loaves of bread come also the fish for a celebration.
Now, talking of monks, I remember Cardinal Hume saying that obedience is not a blind submission to a superior’s commands, but means mutual listening – the word “obedience” comes from the same root as “audience”. Thus the young monk obeys the abbot, because he is bound to listen to the teaching of a father. In the same way an abbot remembers his time of listening to his own novice-master, to the abbot when he was a young monk, and to the many spiritual fathers that preceded them all. But St Benedict makes clear to the abbot that he is not there just to be listened to, because he must listen to the other monks – not least the younger monks, for the Lord’s will can sometimes make itself known in the fresh zeal and new pairs of eyes of the young, when older ones have grown weary, and jaded, or even hard of heart.
This is what Jesus is doing with His crowds of followers. Here is a pattern of mutual obedience. There is conversation, as with the disciples, but the communication is plain: He listens to them listening to Him. They wish for more and He pours out more and more.
Then there comes an intriguing detail in the story. The disciples propose sending the crowds into the villages to get food, so that the listening and being absorbed in the Lord’s word may go on into the night. We have seen this detail before; or rather we shall see it later, as St Matthew’s Gospel story unfolds. It is that the Lord Jesus found Himself outside. Next time, it would not be outside a village near the shore of Galilee: it would be outside the gate of the city of Jerusalem, on the rock of Calvary, dying on the Cross for our sins. Next time, the night before, He will again have taken bread, raised His eyes to heaven and given thanks. Once again He will break it and fill the lives and souls of those crowded round Him. Once again, few words will be recorded and at the centre is a stillness from which you cannot turn your ears or take away your eyes.
It is no wonder, then, that St Paul has just told us that preaching the Gospel does not need eloquent wisdom: it is the power of the Cross that says it all.
The crowds by the shore of Galilee listening, watching; the few disciples left at the foot of the Cross listening, watching: it is all the same. To anyone else, this “nothing happening”, is their hearts and minds and to the very edges of feeling in their bodies, to us it is the very presence of the action and the power of God.
This weekend we are remembering the way the powers of Europe fell into war a hundred years ago, a war whose consequences are still being played out. It changed European society for ever, and the attitude of ordinary people to religion and faith went through enormous changes, as state atheism, Marxist ideology and Nazi occultism set out to dismantle Christian civilisation after the self-inflicted failure of the old Christian empires. It is often said that in the unimaginable horrors and degradation of the trenches, decent, loyal, dutiful and patriotic soldiers abandoned their hope in God and lost any sense that Christ’s Church had anything to do with them. But this is far from the true picture. We know the stories of thousands of men who had lived their lives back home on the fringes of the Church, now turning to the chaplains to make their peace with God, seeking confirmation and Holy Communion. One of the most famous chaplains was Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, a magnificent Anglican pastor, preacher and poet, nick-named Woodbine Willie by the soldiers because of his unconditional service to anyone in their moment of greatest need, even if they had nothing but scorn for the Church, ready with words of God’s blessing and the assurances of faith at the same time as offering a draw on a Woodbine cigarette, a last human comfort in this world before turning to the next. The story of many Catholic chaplains is just as moving. At first the War Office sent the many Catholic recruits to the front with little thought to provide them with priests, because it did not understand the central place of the Eucharist, Confession and, should the time come, Unction in the practice of Catholic faith. But it did not take long for the authorities to realise that this was not just a question of morale but of the Catholic servicemen’s raison d’être. The Great War changed many people’s prejudices about Catholicism when they saw the unpretended devotion of their fellows and the brave, unstinting solidarity of the priests not just with their own men, but with all who were thrown together in the raw experience of inhuman death and degradation.
Unlike anything anyone had seen, here were Christians - and they were also needing to be Christians on behalf of those who could not evoke or declare a faith at all, yet face the same questions and horror as those who did – watching at the foot of the crucifixion of humanity again, and looking to see upon the Cross the figure of Christ. Here were Christians, amid the terror and the din of all reasonable explanation to the contrary, straining to hear Christ’s words - of peace and encouragement, and beatitude. As St Peter himself said, when many other disciples lost heart and turned away, “To whom else shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.” No wisdom can account for it; no eloquence is worthy of it. It is only the power of the Cross that interprets it, and the faith of the Christian is thus able to descry in the supreme sacrifice on the Cross not only the atoning death but the offering of life that must ultimately prevail and be our only hope (Ave Crux, spes unica).
So today we sing, in union with all who have placed their trust in Christ, with all who have hung upon his every word, watching, listening, hoping from every corner of their being:
No longer shall the dominion of death be able to hold humanity, for Christ went down shattering and destroying its power ... The Saviour has come forth for those with faith, saying, Come forth, O faithful, to the Resurrection.