11 August 2019

Sunday of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Homily at the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 11 August, 2019

The Feeding of the Five Thousand is so very familiar that we can miss all that St Matthew is telling us (Matthew 14.14-22).

First, note that the disciples describe the place Jesus had retreated to as a desolate place. We are being reminded of the Lord’s Forty Days in the wilderness battling with the Deceiver, but also communing with the Father, before He begins his public ministry. But the readers and hearers of the story are also being pointed forward: to the forthcoming retreat of Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before He died, truly desolate and alone, as the apostles fall asleep and there is no human force to prevent His divine intention to be betrayed into the hands of sinners and to go for our sakes to His Passion and His Cross that we may have life eternally, and not death.

Secondly, note that someone has worked out where Jesus in His boat has made for across the water; they have passed the message on, and the people follow him, walking round the lake or crossing in their own craft. We are being reminded of the Pillar of Cloud by Day and Fire by Night, which led the People of God out of captivity in Egypt across the Red Sea and into the wilderness, from there to reach the Promised Land across the river Jordan. For “a land flowing with milk and honey”, read loaves and fishes. In the same way, the Hebrews in the desert and the Jews in a desolate part of Galilee eat and are satisfied. St John tells us from memory of the sort of thing that Jesus would say to His disciples: “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness. They are dead. Whoever eats of this Bread shall live for ever.” (John 6.49, 51) Do not forget that before the Tent of the Holy of Holies that the Hebrews carried round with them in the wilderness, in which the Lord dwelt upon the Ark of the Covenant when He was not leading them in the Pillar of Cloud and Fire, there was a table on which were placed the twelve loaves of the Bread of the Presence, fresh every Sabbath as a memorial of the twelve tribes of the people, as an offering to the Lord, and as a consecrated meal by which the priests commune with God. This sacred rite was continued in the permanent Temple in Jerusalem. St Matthew had just referred to Bread of the Presence of the Lord a little earlier in his Gospel, recalling how King David and his starving companions entered into the Holy Place of the Temple and took the loaves to eat, even though they were not priests. St Matthew’s message is not that the people with Jesus in Galilee are not breaking the divine Law in being given the Bread from Heaven by the Son of David, but that they are being invited into the Presence of the Lord God Himself, to the place of the priests before the Holy of Holies, as the barrier between earth and heaven, God and man, is dismantled, since the Holy of Holies is now where Christ is, and in Him all come into the Kingdom of God, “on earth as it is in heaven”.

Third, note that it is evening. We are being reminded of at least four events in the future, and the allusion explains them, and they in turn interpret the miracle. It was an evening when the Lord gathered the disciples in the Upper Room and took the bread, said the blessing and told them the secret of the Kingdom – “This is My Body; this is My Blood.” The day was also far spent and the evening almost come, when darkness covered the land, the Lord yielded up His spirit, and the veil of the Temple was rent in two. So here at by Galilee we have the enactment of broken loaves that become His broken Body, not because of a catastrophe but through His deliberate blessing. And it was another evening, St Luke tells us, that a Stranger walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. At the end of the day it was the way He took bread, said a blessing and broke it, that He made Himself known to them, and they knew it was the Lord that had been crucified after telling them how to recognise the secret of the Kingdom. Then, again, it was an evening, the evening of the first Sunday that the disciples had locked themselves in a room in Jerusalem, only to find Jesus among them, giving them the peace of resurrection, the blessing of the Holy Spirit breathed upon them, and the power of forgiveness that comes from saying, “This is My Blood of the new covenant poured out for you.”

So, in a mere nine verses, St Matthew has told us the entire path of salvation from the captivity of the people of God in Egypt, to the foundation of the priesthood in the wilderness, to the coming of God to dwell in humanity in the Person of the Lord, to HIs Passion and the Cross and the Resurrection, and then to the arrival of forgiveness and the blessing of the Holy Spirit. It is all made known in the Breaking of the Living Bread, at which the old veil in the Temple was broken in two, so that the priests may bring the Lord into the souls of the people who are filled and satisfied by Him, and thus bring the people into the presence of the Lord. Thus they may live the life that is always directed upwards by Christ’s Ascension, to God and His Kingdom. As St Paul puts it in today’s Epistle (Romans 6.18-23), “You were slaves to sin … but now that you have been set free from sin, and becomes slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end – eternal life.”

It is no accident that our Divine Liturgy follows the same pattern as in that lonely place not far from the sea of Galilee. We follow the Lord out of the ordinary world into His presence in the next, which is this world as it more truly is, beyond sin and shortcomings, and our own dead end. We see the bread that has been set out in His presence about to be brought in to Him for blessing. We listen out for the words of the secret mystery revealed, that indeed it is His Body and His Blood, as the Holy Spirit that he breathed out for the forgiveness of sins rebounds upon the gifts to translate the whole Church and the whole creation, even without it noticing, into the dimensions of heaven, not just those of the world. In a scarcely visible act, the Bread is lifted up and broken, and the priests share it as in the Temple - except that in the Christian dispensation the veils and doors of the Holy of Holies are opened up, and the Bread is brought out and shared with the all the people who are in that moment brought into the Kingdom.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand provides us with the Living Bread that comes down from heaven and indeed we eat our spiritual fill and are satisfied. But more than this, we are drawn into living life according to the sequence and pattern of Christ’s life, from new birth, to suffering and bearing through our sin, taking up our Cross and being raised from the dead. This Cross we take up daily to follow Him. But, like His Body, it is our body that is broken to be remade, from the impurity and “natural limitations” that St Paul speaks of today, into His likeness. “The Bread which we break – is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”, says St Paul (I Corinthians 10.16). Indeed; and it costs us not less than everything if the old human is to go, and the new is to be made by the amalgam of what is redeemed from loss and what is given in grace.

But you and I know that, when we come down from this mountain of the Divine Liturgy, and we leave the Lord to be, in His solitary Majesty in that “desolate place” of the Trinity’s communion once near Galilee, or another time in Gethsemane, or Golgotha, or the cold Tomb, or today when we leave this Church, that we will think to ourselves that we have to return to reality, resigned to thinking of the heaven of which we have had an inkling but which is not yet. It is as though we are hypocrites, living one life in Church and another in the world. The Lord tells us about this, and his prayer is all about keeping earth and heaven together in the constant communion of forgiveness and our daily reliance on the Living Bread. But, back to those “natural limitations” and the world is quick to accuse of our double standard. We rebuke ourselves that our open Christianity, our worship with hearts lifted up, and our belief in following Christ are all, despite our efforts, constantly rumbled as putting on act. But have a better hope. The truth is that, not our worship and our discipleship, but our sin, our shortcomings, our impurity, our spite and our unkindness that is really the unnatural act we are putting on. Our life in the Liturgy, following God round the lake to hang on his word, to be filled and satisfied, to be blessed and changed by forgiveness: that is our true self. That is why we are here and that is why we constantly come to face the Lord and, in His Presence, give up the act of being what we should not be. And when we leave here, we do not return to “limitation” for our in our mind and our heart we are still turning round to face the Altar and the Iconostasis from which our Lord and His Mother look out into us, insisting we say over and over again until it becomes second nature, and then our first, “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 …”