48 - Feeding of the Five Thousand, Aug 18, 2013

I Corinthians 1:10-18

Matthew 14:14-22

The miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 recorded in this morning’s Gospel took place immediately after it was reported to Our Lord that JnBapt had been beheaded by King Herod. (We will remember the beheading of St John the Baptist on Aug 29, not many days from now.) When He hears of the beheading of JnBapt, Jesus went up into a desert place alone, it says. But, the crowds followed Him on foot, coming away from out of the cities. When He sees them following after Him into the desert, it says that He felt a deep, tender compassion for them and He healed all their sick. (Mat 14:14) Then, the Lord feeds them, taking the five loaves and two fishes. He blesses them in the same manner He would bless the bread and wine at the “Last Supper. All are satisfied, it saysand there is an abundance left over.

This miracle of the feeding of the five thousand in the desert – as well as the feeding of the 4,000, which happens shortly after with its own significant details (Mt 15:29ff.) – looks very much like the event recorded in the book of Exodus, when Moses, after throwing blood of the sacrificial oxen against the altar – which I take as sealing the covenant of the Lord that he then reads in the hearing of the people – took 70 of the elders of Israel up the mountain. There, it says, “they saw the God of Israel, and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone (i.e. the color of deep blue) like the very heaven for clearness. They beheld God, and they ate and drank.” (Ex 24:10 & 11)

Immediately after this, Moses goes farther up the mountain. The cloud of God’s glory covers the mountain and Moses is called to go up into the cloud. It says that the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire in the sight of the people of Israel (Ex 24:16-17). Moses was up on the mountain, in the cloud of the glory of God, 40 days and 40 nights; and the Lord showed Moses in detail the type of offering the people of Israel were to offer, and the pattern of the tabernacle, including the details of all its appointments, that the people of Israel were to build.

The holy meal on the mountain, when the elders of Israel beheld God and ate and drank, occurs, that is to say, in the setting of the institution of the Old Covenant between the Lord and His people, Israel, which includes divinely revealed instructions on how to build the tabernacle and how to offer the sacrificial offerings. The covenant is sealed with the blood of the sacrificial oxen thrown at the altar, and also, I think, by the meal on the mountain when the elders of Israel beheld God above a pavement of sapphire (deep blue) stone, and they ate and drank.

Now, the Sermon on the Mount could be when Jesus, like Moses of old, “reads the covenant of the Lord, i.e., His New Covenant, in the hearing of the people.” I think the Sermon on the Mount is connected to the feeding of the 5,000 in a profoundly theological way, because the Lord gives it at the beginning of His public ministry, and He begins His public ministry when He learns that JnBapt had been delivered over to King Herod and imprisoned. The Sermon on the Mount gives what appear to be the 10 commandments of the Lord’s New Covenant: the Beatitudes, which consist of nine “blesseds” and one “rejoice”.

All of these prophetic connections lead me to think that this morning’s miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 is part of the Epiphany of the Lord’s Baptism, when the heavens were opened and St John the Baptist saw the dove descending and heard the voice of the Father declaring Jesus to be His “only-begotten Son” – just as the heavens were opened to the prophet Ezekiel and he saw “visions of God.” (Ez 1:2) It is an epiphany that shows that the Old Covenant has come to an end – is that at least part of the significance of the fact that it happens right after JnBapt is beheaded? – and the New Covenant announced by the prophets, in particular the prophet Jeremiah, has begun (Jer 31:31). The Old Covenant was sealed with the blood of bulls and goats – and with this sacred meal on the mountain, when the elders of Israel beheld God and ate and drank. The New Covenant, of course, will be sealed with the blood of God Himself, slaughtered on the Cross as the Passover Lamb, when His blood will be offered on the altar – not thrown against it – with solemn dignity and beauty in the offering of the Holy Eucharist, when the people will “behold God,” and eat and drink unto life eternal in the New Tabernacle of the New Covenant, the Temple that is Christ’s crucified and risen Body.

But, even more than that: the feeding of the 5,000 manifests the glory of the Lord. I insist that the Lord’s glory is seen in this miracle, and that it does indeed appear as a devouring fire. But, it does not devour life as does the fiery, arid heat of the desert, which is a symbol of sin and its fruit, death. Rather, it devours the fire of the desert and makes it to be a life-creating, soul-restoring fire that heals and saves and gives life, just as does the death of Christ that destroys death and gives life to those in the tombs. More even than that: the feeding of the 5,000 reveals the character of this devouring fire of the glory of the Lord. It burns with the tender compassion of the Word of God who nourishes and heals, who raises from death to life, who comforts those who mourn, who satisfies those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, who purifies the heart of those who love Him so that they may “see God, and eat and drink” this “Living Bread” that comes down from heaven unto life eternal.

There is so much more I would like to point out in the beautiful Evangelical “icon” of the feeding of the 5,000 – how it shows the meaning of the pavement of sapphire stone that the elders of Israel saw under the feet of the Lord to be the mystery of the Theotokos, how she is the New Tabernacle prophetically indicated in the instructions that the Lord gives to Moses; and how the feeding of the 5,000 ties in with the Lord’s Transfiguration on Mt Tabor, which takes place soon after this miracle, and which seems to reveal the prophetic meaning of Moses going further up the mountain and into the cloud of the Lord’s glory. But for now, let me close with this note. There is this in the book of Ruth: “And at mealtime Bo'az said going to her (to Ruth), ‘Come here, and eat some bread, and dip your morsel in the wine.’ So she sat beside the reapers, and he passed to her parched grain; and she ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. (Ruth 2:14)

Bo’az was an Israelite, Ruth was a Canaanite. This meal led to their falling in love and uniting in marriage. And, they became the great grandparents in the flesh of Our Savior. (Mat 1:5)

There are other passages from the prophets and the Psalms that we could cite that could lead us to believe that we are seeing in this beautiful love story of Bo’az and Ruth a prophetic icon of the New Covenant instituted and sealed in the mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation and Holy Pascha, where Bo’az is Christ, the Heavenly Bridegroom, and Ruth is the Church, His bride, whom He woos from those from all the nations whose hearts love the Lord.

This feeding of the 5,000, and again of the 4,000, then, looks like Christ, the Heavenly Bridegroom who has come in the flesh to woo those who would receive Him, like Bo’az wooing Ruth. Now, this feeding of the 5,000, is not itself the Eucharist; but it is Eucharistic. It is what every meal that we enjoy in this life should be: a participation in this miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, and so a sacred occasion for remembering, several times each day, the tender compassion of the Lord for us, and to give thanks (eucharistia) to the Lord who nourishes us with His bounteous gifts always, and especially with the gift of His own precious body, the Living Bread that comes down from Heaven, which is eaten yet never consumed, which is divided but not disunited, which sanctifies all those who partake of it, nourishing them with His own eternal life.

Which leads us to conclude our reflection on this morning’s Gospel with a very practical application: are you remembering to say a prayer before every meal? By this simple ritual at every meal, especially if it is done mindfully, with attention and reverence,we remember daily the New Covenant that has been sealed with the Lord’s very blood, so that our daily life can become a conscious and prayerful participation in the joy of the Lord’s tender compassion for us. Saying a blessing before each meal becomes a concrete way for us to follow the Lord with intention and resolve, to “come out of the cities of the world and into the desert that Christ makes to blossom like a rose, “walking on foot”, i.e. walking in the light of His Holy commandments.

Indeed, if we eat the body and drink the blood of Him who is the Light of the world, and if we remember to make every meal an occasion for following Him into the desert to participate in the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, are we not eating the light of the New Covenant as our daily bread? Are we not drinking the love of the New Covenant as our daily drink? And, if we are so coming out of the cities of the world, following Christ into the desert, does not our Gospel this morning tell us that the Lord “beholds” us with tender compassion, and that He will heal our every sickness i.e., that He will forgive all our sins and remove all our iniquities? And, does it not tell us that we will be satisfied completely when we taste and see “how good the Lord is?

And, I think we surely can hope to become, in the healing and life-creating love of Christ’s Holy Spirit, at least a little bit like JnBapt: lights of that Light that shines in the darkness of this world, so that even in our suffering, even in our death, perhaps especially in our suffering and death, we become witnesses, martyrs, of the light of Christ, of the joy and the peace of Christ, that the darkness of this world’s evil cannot overcome. Amen.