|47 - Feeding of the Five Thousand, Aug 2, 2009
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
The feeding of the five thousand in this morning’s Gospel takes place after the death of St JnBapt. The disciples of John report his death to Jesus and when Jesus hears it, St Matthew says that He went away from there in a boat and into a desert place by Himself. Then, when the crowds heard it, they followed Him from the cities, and when Jesus saw them, He had compassion on them and healed their diseases.
All the events of Jesus’ time on earth are deified events. They happen in time, but by virtue of the Incarnation, they are united to the Spirit of God in whom they open onto spiritual meanings that, in the Spirit, spread throughout the fabric of space-time like a drop of living water and are everywhere present, filling all things. And so when we read the events of Jesus’ Incarnation recorded in the Gospel, we don’t read them simply as events that happened long ago and are no more, good only for drawing a moral lesson or two. We look for the spiritual meaning that they veil, and which is with us even today.
The Lord Himself gives us to understand that St JnBapt was the prophet, Elijah who, according to Jewish tradition, would come again to announce the Messiah. With the death of John the Baptist, one has the sense that Jesus sees that the purpose of His coming has entered its next phase; for if St JnBapt is dead, that means his mission of announcing to those who have ears to hear that the Messiah has come is completed. The time for introductions is over. The time to get to work has come.
And so Jesus departs from that place by boat, it says. The boat is a symbol of the Church, which is the body of Christ, the fullness of Him who is all in all. And He departs into a desert place where He is by Himself. In the prophets, the desert harkens back to the Exodus when God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. In the desert, the Israelites were completely dependent on God for their sustenance. And so, the desert denotes also an ascetic lifestyle. By following Moses into the desert, the Israelites of their own free will chose to leave behind all the comforts and pleasures of their life in Egypt. They also left behind their slavery in Egypt. The spiritual Tradition of the Church teaches us to understand the comforts and pleasures in Egypt as the passions – gluttony, lust, greed, anger, vanity, pride, despair, laziness – to which the Israelites were enslaved. In the desert they were free; they were living an ascetic lifestyle in which they were no longer enslaved to the passions or to the comforts of the flesh that incite the passions. But, they were in the desert, where no water is and where no bread is. If they did not rely wholly on God, they would perish. And, in the desert, God provided for them. When they lacked water, He made water to flow from the rock at Mara. When they lacked bread, He sent them bread from heaven, manna. And as long as Israel was faithful to God, He protected them and they lacked no good thing.
So if we take the boat as a spiritual symbol of the Church, then when Jesus departs into the desert by boat, we are given to understand that the Church is in a desert place in this world. The Church, that is to say, is a communion of ascetics. The Life of the Church is an ascetic life. Those who truly follow Christ in the Church are following Him into the desert, away from the comforts of the flesh in this world, away from the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes and the pride of life that incite the passions in us.
This tells us that we can’t be in the Church and in the world at the same time, no more than the Israelites could be in the wilderness and in Egypt at the same time. If we have been baptized and we decide to take up again the pleasures of the flesh that incite the passions, we are like the Israelites who decided to go back to Egypt. We leave the Church as those Israelites left the wilderness in their soul, if not in body, when they set up the golden calf and worshipped it in the plain of Dura. And when we make that choice, we are choosing to eat the bread that the world offers – not the Living Bread that comes down from Heaven. We are choosing to eat and drink the life of this world, a life that ends in death and corruption.
The crowds that followed Jesus when they heard that He was in the desert are the faithful, are they not, who in their love for Christ, follow Him into the desert – they follow Him into the ascetic life of the Church – as the Israelites followed Moses. They are those who prefer to hear the Word of God to the words they hear in the cities; they prefer to eat the Living Bread that comes down from heaven rather than the bread of anxious toil that they eat in the cities, in the life that is to say that is wholly taken up with this world.
The crowds followed Him; they were hanging on His every word. They are those throughout the generations of human history who have repented, who have left the cities of the world to come into the desert, into the Church, where Christ is present, who has compassion on them because He is the only Lover of mankind. Here in the Church, here in the desert, in the ascetic life of the Church, Christ is teaching us His words of life; and by His Word, He heals our infirmities. He heals our infirmities by filling our hearts with His love and His joy so that we are filled with His grace to bear even our afflictions as testaments of Christ’s great mercy; for it is through our afflictions that He heals us of our passions and liberates us from their grip so that we become free even in the midst of our afflictions, our trials and tribulations to live not in the anger and bitterness of this world, but we are free to transcend the infirmities and afflictions of this life in the love of Christ, so that when we bear our afflictions in the love of Christ, they become by the grace of God the means by which we are healed of the passions that would destroy our soul; we are liberated from the lusts and desires of the old man in us that is at enmity with God, and we soar in the love of God, radiant with the joy of Christ that is not of this world and which the world cannot take away.
Here in the desert, the hour grew late, and the people had no food except five loaves and two fishes. One sees in the five loaves a hidden reference to the Torah, the first five books of the bible that contain the Word of God’s Law by which the righteous man will live. One isn’t as sure about the two fishes. A fish puts one in mind of a body of water; and here there are two fishes, so two bodies of water: the Red Sea of the Exodus under Moses, and the River Jordan of the Canaanite Conquest under Joshua?
But how can these five loaves and two fishes be multiplied to feed the multitudes? They can be multiplied because the One Who is in our midst is the very One in whom the five loaves and the two fishes find their full flowering. For Christ Himself is the Living Bread that comes down from Heaven; and He is Himself the Great Fish – Jesus Christ Son of God Savior, which in Greek forms an acrostic that spells the word for fish, ICTHUS. In other words, one sees in the miracle of the five loaves and the two fishes a sign that the One to whom the Torah refers and the One whose victory over Satan and the last enemy, death, to which the crossing of the Red Sea and the River Jordan refer, is here personally in our midst. Jesus Christ is the Word that the words of the Torah are writing about; He is the Lord by whose command the Red Sea and the River Jordan parted so that the Israelites could cross and gain the Promised Land.
In His presence, the words of the OT come to life; they blossom like flowers to produce countless petals, so many living words of God brimming with the fullness of the life of the Holy Spirit that every man woman and child can eat till they are full. In His presence, the crossing of the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan finds its deepest fulfillment, the conquest of the Kingdom of Heaven; for He is Himself the King. He is our Joshua and in His presence the desert blossoms like a rose, the ascetic life of the Church bursts into countless rose petals, all bearing the fragrance of heavenly joy. It produces living bread from Heaven, the very body of Our Lord Jesus Christ; it brings forth the Living Waters of the Holy Spirit, the very blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ in a heavenly banquet, the banquet of the Church, Holy Eucharist, which makes the desert as the Garden of Eden, the life of asceticism into a sumptuous feast of a never-ending partaking of the divine nature. Every infirmity is healed in Christ’s Holy Resurrection, the perfection of the crossing of the Red Sea and the River Jordan. For, Christ is in our midst. The King of Heaven is in our midst. Healing is in our midst. The Compassion of God is in our midst. The Life of Heaven is in our midst.
In this joy of her heavenly feast, the Church calls out to all: “Come and see! Come out of the cities, come in repentance away from the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life and come to the Lord Jesus Christ in the desert, in the ascetic life of His holy Church and you will receive the gift of His Holy Spirit the Treasury of every blessing, the Giver of Life. You will receive Christ Himself as your food and drink, in whom is the forgiveness of our sins, the cleansing of our impurities, and the healing of our every infirmity, for He is good and gracious and the only Lover of Mankind. Amen.