45 - Five Thousand, Aug 3, 2014

I Corinthians 1:10-18

Matthew 14:14-22

We have in this morning’s Gospel a rich theological image of the Church. Hearing of the death of John the Baptist, the LORD goes by boat into the desert by Himself. The crowds follow Him, coming out of the cities on foot. There’s an incongruity here: the LORD traveling by boat to this desert place, the crowds following Him on foot. One presumes that the LORD went by boat across the water, and the crowds went around the water. But, why doesn’t St Matthew seek to reconcile the incongruity? Does he do so on purpose? Does he mean for us to see the LORD traveling by boat and the people by foot as a symbol of a deeper meaning?

I cannot help but wonder if St Matthew has the most blessed Theotokos in mind when He says that Jesus got into a boat and came to a desert place. Christ getting into the boat is a symbol of Christ’s self-emptying when He took flesh of the Virgin and came into the world, a desert place because of its enslavement to death and corruption. But the boat also looks like the Ark of the Covenant in which was placed the Word of God given to Moses on tablets of stone. There, too, the people were following Moses out of Egypt into the desert. The Ark of the Covenant is a prefigurement of the Theotokos; and this takes one to the time when the 70 elders of Israel went up Mt Sinai with Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, just before Moses went further up the mountain to receive the Law from God. There, it says, they saw the God of Israel and they ate and drank. (Ex 24:9ff.) But, it says that they saw under the feet of the God of Israel, as it were, a paved work of sapphire (i.e., deep blue) stone, and the body of heaven in its purity. (Ex 24:10) The Church sees the paved work of sapphire stone also as a prefigurement of the Blessed Virgin, and so a prefigurement of Christ’s Incarnation when He would become flesh from the Most Blessed Virgin and dwell among us.

But, the reference to water when Jesus goes by boat into a desert place evokes the image of the Exodus when the Israelites followed Moses through the Red Sea into the desert

From all of these biblical images, then, Jesus going by boat into the desert stands out as an icon of His Incarnation. Only here, in the desert, the five thousand were able to see the God of Israel because “the body of heaven in its purity” is the human body in which Christ appeared to Israel, and “the paved work of sapphire stone” is His most blessed Mother who gave to Him His humanity.

 But, Jesus goes into the wilderness by Himself, it says. And, His journey into the desert follows the death of John the Baptist. One thinks back to Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. There, the heavens were rent open in the same way as was the curtain closing off the Holy of Holies in the temple of Jerusalem at the moment Jesus died on the Cross. In the correspondence between the opened Holy of Holies and the opened Heavens we see the inner unity of Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan and His Holy Passion.

The opened heavens are where Jesus is going, as the Promised Land was the destination of the Israelites passing through the Red Sea and the wilderness. But, to get to the opened heavens, Jesus must go into the desert to ascend the Cross “outside the city”. He must go “by boat”, i.e., in the body He took from the Blessed Virgin. He is buried in a new tomb in a Garden that was very near the place where He was crucified. (Jn 19:41) (One thinks of Moses ascending the mountain to receive the Law, and being buried “outside” the Land of Canaan!)

Now one sees the inner unity of the heavens opening at Jesus’ baptism, the veil of the temple being rent in two at the moment of Christ’s death on the Cross, and the stone being rolled away to open the sealed tomb that was in the Garden to reveal that the tomb was empty. The crucified Savior is not here, said the angel to the myrrhbearing women there in the Garden. He is risen, as He said! Lo, He goes before you into Galilee. There, you will see Him! And, it so happens, that it is from Galilee that Jesus drew near to the Jordan to be baptized by John; and it is back into Galilee that the Savior goes when He comes out of His 40 days in the desert after His Baptism.  

 And, it so happens, that this feeding of the five thousand takes place, so it would appear, in Galilee, in a desert place near the Sea of Galilee. (For, Jesus, it says, comes to this desert place from His home town of Nazareth in Galilee.) Following this miracle, the LORD leads His disciples across the sea to Gennesaret, called Chinnereth in the OT, which is also in Galilee and which means “Garden of Riches.” This seems to me to seal the theological symbolism of this morning’s Gospel. It shows that the Savior feeding the five thousand is a theological image of the Church, the Body of Christ and the continuation of His Incarnation on earth, by which He opens the Garden of Eden to all. We need only to take up our cross and join the great company of faithful, saints and martyrs who have taken up their cross to follow Him out of the city, i.e., out of the world, and into the desert where He is to be found.

Now, before we were united to Christ in our baptism, says St Paul, we were dead in our sins and trespasses. But we also have the imagery of the Psalmist: “My soul thirsts for Thee, my flesh longs for Thee as in a dry and thirsty land where no water is.” (Ps 63:1) The desert is our own soul. That makes our heart the tomb where our spiritually dead soul is buried. We follow the Savior out of the city, out of the world, and into the desert of our soul on foot – i.e., taking up our Cross, that we might get into the boat of His Church, His Body, to go with Him to Gennesaret, (Lk 14:34) to the “Garden of Riches”, to be united with Him in Histomb that opens onto the Garden of Eden in His Holy Resurrection.

This morning, and at every Divine Liturgy, the faithful of Christ’s Holy Church go on foot out of the city to follow the LORD who goes by boat, the mystery of the Theotokos, to the desert place of our soul – the tomb of our heart. There, in the mystery of the Church’s Holy Eucharist, they receive from the bishops and priests the bread and wine that have been offered to the LORD, blessed and broken to become His most precious and most pure body and blood, just as the five thousand received from the holy disciples the five loaves and two fishes that the LORD had blessed and broken and given to them. In other words, we here this morning are among the five thousand. This miracle is what is happening today in Christ’s Holy Church in the desert of our soul that the LORD makes to blossom like the Garden of Eden.

The theological symbolism hiding, if you will, in this morning’s Gospel, tells us why we call our worship “divine” or “holy”; the mystery of the Church’s worship opens us to the inner world of our own soul and heart – if we are drawing near in the fear of God, with faith and love – and in that, we are entering into the profound and most sacred mystery of Christ’s Holy Pascha and of our salvation; of the healing of our souls to eternal life in Christ Jesus our LORD, God and Savior.

It says that when the LORD saw the people coming out to Him, He felt deep compassion for them. When we come out of the city in repentance, when we take up our cross and follow the LORD on foot into the desert, vowing not to return to our sins and trespasses, He sees us and He has deep compassion on each one of us. He heals us. He teaches us. He forgives our transgressions. He nourishes us by His Grace and Compassion always. He receives our paltry offering of bread and wine and He makes it glorious; He sanctifies it; He deifies it, He glorifies it and it becomes His own body and blood that He gives to us as our food and drink, and we become members of His own crucified, risen and glorified body. If we ask Him to, He will begin to create in us a clean heart, to put in us a new and right spirit, to make us into a new creation. He leads us out of the city and into the desert and into the heavens that have been opened, into the Garden of Riches, the riches of His own Heavenly Kingdom. Amen.