On the Feeding of the Five Thousand

Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Today in the Gospel a crowd is following Christ out of the towns and into the desert. Now in the New Testament a “desert” is just a place that’s not settled with towns or farms. It’s not all cactus and rattlesnakes; you can picture a countryside setting of meadows and streams. Saint Matthew reports that there were five thousand men following the Lord and hearing him teach. (Well, he adds “Also women and children.” So it’s likely a crowd of something like 10,000 people of all ages.)

Matthew begins the passage by noting that Christ had just heard of the beheading of his cousin John the Forerunner, so "he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns" (Mt 14:13). Now since morning this massive crowd has been following him, bringing their sick to be healed, hiking with him, and listening to him teach. But now it’s late afternoon, and they’ve been walking and listening to Christ all day. It’s several hours’ walk back to town and folks are getting hungry. The apostles ask the Lord to send the people away to go back and buy themselves some food. But the Lord says, “They don’t have to go anywhere. You feed them.”

When the apostles protest that they haven’t got any food, just the contents of one kid’s lunchbox, then the Lord shows them how it’s done.

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In the 500s, Saint Romanos the Melodist was a deacon at the church of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople. During his life he wrote dozens of texts called kontakia. Today a kontakion is usually a short hymn about a feast or saint, often eight to ten lines in length. But originally kontakia were so much longer that they were written on a scroll, wrapped around a wooden spindle called a kontax. These were long poetic sermons, and were sung in the Church to teach the people about the feast or saint of the day. When we sing the familiar kontakion of Christmas, “Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One,” we’re singing the first verse of a musical sermon.

I’d like to read the kontakion of St Romanos for today. Here is the sermon Christians in Constantinople around 550AD heard on the Sunday of the Feeding of the Five Thousand.*

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Deliver from famine and every necessity, O Merciful One,
us who are nourished from your flesh, O Christ our God
At the intercession of the Mother of God,
count us worthy of your eternal good things,
for you, O Saviour, are
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

All the angels in heaven marvel at things of earth;
that humans, born of earth, who inhabit what is below,
are lifted up in thought and attain what is on high
as partakers in Christ crucified.
For together they all eat his body.
As they fervently approach the Bread of Life,
from it they hope for immortal salvation.
though to the senses it appears as bread,
spiritually it makes them holy, for it is
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

That the bread we take is the flesh of Emmanuel,
the Master himself is first to teach us all.
For when he went willingly to his Passion
Christ broke the bread of salvation,
and said to his apostles, as is written,
“Now draw near. Eat from this
and by eating you will gain eternal life.
For this food is my flesh,
since I whom you now see am
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.”

As many of us as have in Christ obtained the full faith all know
that when we approach with fervour the mystical bread,
and take as well the cup of salvation,
if we have a pure and sincere intent,
and all, with faith in him, partake
of Christ’s Body together with his Blood,
we hope from these to become fellow citizens with the angels.
For the most holy Body of Jesus Christ,
who suffered, is truly
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

Everyone has come to hear yet once again
how the Gospels cry out,
and to marvel at Jesus.
For he ineffably once nourished five thousand in the wilderness:
Fearsome wonder, full of amazement!
For the Saviour took five loaves, as it is written,
and from them nourished these thousands,
and all were completely filled by the ineffable Wisdom.
For they did not need a multitude of loaves,
since Christ was present, who is
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

I want now to recall how the multitude was nourished
when the Farmer and Doctor was present in the wilderness.
The countryside that was sick and grew thorns
hurried at once to meet its benefactor.
Christ saw them all and had compassion,
and first of all the Wise One gives them healing
and grants the grace of power to their weakness.
But they, having enjoyed
this treatment, knew that he was
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

The God of all things cured those in afflictions one and all,
as powerful Lord healing also the passions of their souls,
the wealthy heir taking as his co-heirs
all the poor, if they only desired it.
But, while he was preaching to them the Good News,
the measure of the day was moving to its setting
and the whole gathering was fasting,
but filled full of teachings
and knowing that, for mankind, Christ is
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

We may easily gather what the apostles were saying to Christ
and what the Saviour immediately replied.
For he, as the one who knows beforehand, foresaw the future,
while they could know none of these things.
For he is God and Creator of the universe,
while they were weak, being only creatures.
He is powerful; they are without power.
But he granted them power
by nourishing them divinely, for he is
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

For when the Redeemer’s apostles saw that the day
had hastened to its close, they hurriedly approached him.
“Teacher,” they cried, “the day has declined.
All these people are faint from hunger.
But, as you know, this is a desert place.
Send them away before evening comes,
that they may go into the villages and buy bread.
For they are not capable of fasting
like us, to whom you have granted strength, since you are
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.”

You are by nature the great Saviour of the world
and you have taught knowledge to all.
By nourishing the people with words of truth
you have guided humans to the path of salvation,
giving them knowledge of justice.
Spiritually, they have nurtured their souls
but now they need to provide for the body,
and especially the little children and their mothers.
Concerned at this, we beg you
to nourish them, Redeemer, because you are
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

“But, Lord, we see now how these people love you,
since they cherish your words above every pleasure.
But, if evening comes, they will have to go back,
for there is no way of finding bread in the desert,
and they are likely to collapse, unable to bear the lack of food.
Send them away for we are gravely worried.
Let them depart, let them buy food before evening.
You have taught your disciples and apostles
to have compassion on all, for you are
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.”

Now let us hear what the Lord said to the disciples.
“Since you are worried, give food and bread to the hungry.
They do not need to buy provisions from others.
Quickly, then, feed them all here!”
They answered him at once and said,
“The crowd gathered here is enormous,
and if we wanted to buy bread for them, O Compassionate One,
two hundred days’ wages
would not be enough for them. But you alone are by nature
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

“As we have learned, and we do not hide the truth from you, Teacher,
you will find we have nothing but five barley loaves.
Moreover none of us brought them into the desert.
A boy here in the crowd brought them with him.
We have no other food, O Lover of mankind.
For such a vast crowd, O Most Compassionate,
how can these five loaves be sufficient?
He has in addition two small fishes.
But hasten and feed them, for you are
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.”

But when Christ heard these words from his disciples,
he answered them, “You err, not knowing
that, as I am Creator of the world, I care for the world.
And now I know very well what these people need.
I see this desert and the setting sun.
It was I who fixed the course of the sun.
I am aware of the exhaustion of the multitude here.
I know what I am going to do for them.
I will cure their hunger myself, as I am
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

You sometimes think that I reason like a human being,
not knowing that I am aware of all things
before they happen. As powerful Lord I know beforehand what is hidden.
I knew before that you had no bread,
but I adapted myself to your plan when I said to you,
‘Provide nourishment for everyone here.’
With your misplaced worry you think like human beings.
Why are you worried, my disciples;
do you not know that I offer myself ungrudgingly to all, as
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

Do you not remember how my Virgin Mother asked me
at the wedding at Cana, saying, ‘My Son,
those who are giving this wedding feast have no wine here’?
And how I, persuaded by my Mother,
as God changed the nature of the waters,
gave them wine without a vine?
Therefore I have the power to nourish with bread,
at a mere nod, this whole multitude as well;
for, by nature, I am the Vine, and I am for the hungry
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

“As humans you cannot, by taking thought, now provide food.
Either feed the people, you who are so worried,
or, if you are quite incapable of feeding them, keep silent.
For I alone take thought for all, as I am the good
Creator, the God before time began.
And I provide food for all flesh,                   
while you, having seen the multitude, are worried
and do not consider the One who gives,
that, from in high, I offer myself to all, granting them
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

“What you are thinking,
what you are now saying to yourselves, I know beforehand.
As you see the people, the place, and the hour,
you are thinking, ‘Who will feed the whole multitude in the desert?’
Therefore, friends, know clearly who I am by nature.
I nourished Israel in the desert
and I gave them bread from heaven.
I brought water from a rock in a waterless place.
In addition to all this, I provided them ungrudgingly
with quail, for I am
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

Together my word and my will can save the universe,
but, so that you may know my power now as well,
make all the men and little children with the women
at once sit down in order,
and, as God, I will show the desert bearing fruit.
With me as the farmer producing the fruit at a nod,
you will be shown as workers and servants,
and I shall feed the whole multitude,
because I alone, offered to all, am
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.”

Hearing what Christ had said, the apostles hastened,
and at his order immediately made the multitude
sit down in order, as was fitting.
Grass provided them with seats and tables.
Christ then has the five loaves brought
and, having looked toward the Father, says at once,
“It is your works I am working, for I am your son.
For at the beginning, with you and the Spirit
I created the whole world, as
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.”

See how, like lords at a table, Christ’s slaves waited
for Jesus the servant and found him at once.
For the Master blessed the five loaves,
saying to them with an unseen voice,
“Increase perceptibly and multiply
and now nourish all those present here.”
At once the loaves obeyed the Lord.
They gave birth invisibly,
as Christ told them to, he who is
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

No human mind can fully reason out this wonder,
how the visible loaves flowed on invisibly.
Where did their ineffable increase occur –
in the hands of the disciples or was it on the tables?
Since I do not know the manner of the inexpressible sight,
I keep silence at the wonder, while by faith I correct
my mind, for I do not apprehend the depth of the mystery,
as I now see the twelve baskets
filled with fragments, as he alone knows,
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

So also multiply for us all the multitude of your compassion
and just as then, O Saviour, you satisfied with wisdom
and fed with power the multitude in the desert,
satisfy us all with justice.
Strengthen us in your faith, O Lord.
Nourish us all, as you are merciful,
and give us your grace and forgiveness of offences
at the intercessions of the Mother of God,
because you alone are good and full of pity as
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

We all owe you a hymn of praise, O Christ, Saviour without sin,
and we believe that you, being God before the ages,
born from the Virgin, remained what you were.
You alone know the wonder of your birth.
As for us, not knowing how the loaves gave birth,
how can we comprehend with human hearts
your birth, O Saviour, from her who know not wedlock?
Therefore we all glorify you,
for you are the God of the universe, and
    the heavenly bread of incorruption.

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

* From On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, by Saint Romanus the Melodist, translated by Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash.)