|44 - Feeding of the Five Thousand, July 29, 2012|
I Corinthians 1:10-18
This morning’s Gospel recounts an event in the life of our Blessed Savior, Jesus Christ, that opens onto the spiritual mystery of the Church’s Holy Eucharist. This is clear in the manner that Our Lord took the five loaves – which is the number of loaves of the prosphora - and lifted His eyes to heaven. He blessed them, and broke them, and gave them to His disciples, and they gave them to the people. The image or icon is of the Divine Liturgy when the priests bring out the consecrated bread and wine of Holy Eucharist to distribute to the faithful.
St Matthew says that the people were in a desert place. They got there by following Jesus out of the cities on foot. The image is that of the Exodus, when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and they passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, and followed him into the desert. There, they were fed manna from heaven as they made their way to the Promised Land. So also, you have come this morning “out of the city” and into the “desert place” of the Church to be with the Redeemer. You enter into the spiritual mystery of this Gospel if you have come to Church this morning following the Savior. With the Israelites, you enter into the spiritual movement of faith, which is an Exodus out of the cities of the world and into the desert of the Church’s ascetic life. Here in the desert of the Church, we are fed by Christ Himself as we make our way through the desert of this life to the Promised Land of Paradise, Mt Zion. We are fed His own body and blood that flowed from His side on the Cross to become the Church’s Holy Eucharist, the fruit of the Tree of Life. And so, we are fed the very power of God that saves us and gives us life.
But, let’s pause for a moment, and consider: was this feeding of the five thousand a real historical event, or is it a religious image cast in the form of a story that needs to be “de-mythologized” to get at the spiritual truth it’s meant to convey?
A parish priest named Fr Charalmabos relates how, one year, after the feast day of the Monastery of the Great Lavra, he walked six hours to visit Elder Paisios (+1994) at Panagouda. “I found him in the woods. ‘Father,’ I said, to him, ‘can we have a little something to eat?’ ‘I’ve got something,’ he replied.
He opened a plastic sack. It had three very small tomatoes inside and one and a half bread rusks. I said to him, ‘Elder, I haven’t had anything since yesterday. I could eat twenty of these tomatoes and it wouldn’t be enough.’ He answered me, ‘Papa Charalambos, we’ll pray, you’ll bless the food, and there’ll be more than enough.’
He opened the sack, tore it in the shape of a cross and laid it out like a tablecloth. He gave me two tomatoes and one piece of toast, and he took half a piece of toast and one tomato. So, we stood up and said the usual prayer, which finished with him saying, ‘Holy father, bless.’ I blessed the food, and we ate.
Where did my appetite go? I was stuffed. It was like someone had been shoveling food down my throat. I couldn’t even finish all of the toast. I had to leave a little bit.
The elder kept saying to me, ‘Eat, Papa Charalambos.’ ‘Eat what? I’m full, Elder.’ The rest of the day, everywhere I went, I was too full to eat at all. I kept saying to myself, ‘What a blessing! Just like when Christ blessed the five loaves and two fish, and five thousand men were filled, not counting the women and children!’” (p. Elder Paisios of Mt Athos, 515-516)
The Savior said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be light.”(Mt 6:22) This “eye” is our spiritual heart, the nous. The heart of the Church is the altar, and the altar opens onto the mystery of Christ’s Resurrection that is full of light. The eye of the Church, then, the altar of her heart, is sound, healthy, because it is alive in the Spirit of Christ. And so, the whole body of the Church is filled with light, not only in its heavenly but also in its earthly, historical existence. Every historical moment of the Church, centered on the altar, opens onto the Resurrection of Christ, and the light of Christ’s Holy Resurrection pours into every moment of the Church’s historical existence on earth.
The miraculous feeding of the five thousand was real, historical because the Incarnation of Christ was real, historical. The feeding of the five thousand manifests the luminous power of Christ our God that fills every word of His Holy Church; and every word of His Church is of the Cross by which Christ destroyed death by His death. In the Church, as demonstrated by the testimony of Fr Charalambos, the divine power of the Church’s word of the Cross is always present, for it is a living word of the Resurrection. It is immortal, eternal; it cannot die for it has conquered death. Indeed, it has happened more than once that the pieces of consecrated bread floating on the surface of the consecrated wine in the chalice are all used up, and there are still more communicants to distribute the host to. The priest simply dips the spoon into the wine and stirs a bit and up from the bottom more particles of consecrated bread float to the surface. I have always assumed that those must be particles of consecrated host that somehow got “stuck” at the bottom of the chalice; but now, I’m not so sure. I know only that however many communicants there are, and however small the host may be, the Chalice has never run out of consecrated host, and there is always some left over.
Again, do you see that the Faith of the Church is not a school of thought subject to the different interpretations of different teachers until you have not one but many so-called Christian Churches. There are not many Churches. There is only one Church because the Church is the one body of the crucified and risen Christ. There is only one doctrine of the Church, one mind, one will, because the doctrine of the Church is not a word of the mind and will of man but of the mind and the will of Christ. The Christian Faith is the word of Christ’s cross. That word is not an idea that you can argue about or interpret in different ways. It is the power of God by which Christ destroyed death by His death, not symbolically but really.
At your baptism and holy Chrismation, you received the power of God when you received the Church’s word of faith. You received the word of Christ’s cross. It is not theoretical, abstract or ideological. It is active and living, and the power of God that is in it becomes active in you, not when you argue about it or intellectualize it, but when you take up your cross and come out of the city of this world and into the desert place of the Church’s ascetic life by foot; i.e., when you follow Christ out into the desert of the Church’s ascetic life with your body, bringing your mind and soul with you, so that you are following Christ into the desert, into the ascetic life of the Church, with your whole being: body, mind and soul.
The word of the Cross is the power of God, says St Paul. The Cross is historical; the word and power of God are eternal. The bread and wine of the Church’s Chalice that become the body and blood of Christ are historical; Christ is Himself the word and power of God that are eternal. And so, each time we approach the Chalice, we approach that moment in space-time that opens onto eternity. Therefore, we dare not approach the Chalice except in the fear of God, with faith and love.
For, “whoever eats this bread and drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord,” says St Paul. (I Cor 11:26) The Greek word translated as guilty means also bound by, subject to, under obligation to. And so, St Paul may mean that when we receive Holy Eucharist, we bind ourselves to the death of Christ, whether we want to or not. To eat and drink unworthily, therefore, means to eat and drink without the intention of uniting ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death. It means, in the terms of this morning’s Gospel, that we are eating and drinking the life of the desert – this is the Church’s ascetic life – while we remain in the city. We eat and drink Christ unworthily when we have partake of Holy Eucharist with no intention to follow Him into the desert, no intention to take up the cross of the Church’s ascetic disciplines in order to crucify, to put to death in ourselves the fleshly pleasures of the city; but instead, we have every intention to continue living the life of the city, i.e., to indulge the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. We eat and drink Christ unworthily when the treasure of our heart is not the Christ of the desert but the idols of the city, the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. If that’s how we approach the Chalice, we receive what we don’t want. We want the life of the city, but we are receiving the death of Christ, the life of the desert. We are then spiritually at odds with ourselves; and we will not be made well, we will not be made to live in the power of God. We will become sick and weak because the food and drink of the Church that are now in us are working to put to death the life of the world in us that we are working to build up.
Beloved faithful, the mystery of the Church is real, it is sacred, it is historical, it is eternal, it is spiritual. It embraces us soul and body. It really heals, it really raises to life, it really clothes those who receive it in the power of God. But that power is the power that destroys death and raises those who receive it up to the life of Christ’s resurrection. If we dare to approach the Chalice, let us understand that we are receiving into our body and soul a power that puts to death the life of the city, the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, the pride of life, and I would add from St Paul’s epistle, the arrogance of our own opinions. If this is what your heart desires, then indeed, you who have been baptized into Christ, in the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near. Amen.