This sermon was delivered on the Eighth Sunday of Matthew (14:14-22), August 11, 2019, at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Shrine Church in Flushing, New York.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We are nearing the end of summer. The days are still long and hot, but we know that they are ever so slightly shrinking. The hot, oppressive sun from above, humidity on every side, and rising radiant heat of New York concrete have prepared us to appreciate the first crisp, cool autumn breeze.
Unlike these long, hot days, however, the appointed readings from Matthew’s gospel during the summer have been relatively short, and they bear with them a refreshing “coolness”, if you will. Τhey do not confound us, like some of Christ’s harder sayings, requiring effort to reap the fruit of understanding. Rather, they are mostly brief, refreshing, matter-of-fact accounts of Jesus healing people, or performing some kind of miracle that, while amazing, seems straightforward.
And so it is today, with the account of Jesus’ feeding the five thousand. It is a well-known story that lives with us almost constantly, as we will see momentarily. Yet in Matthew’s gospel, only a handful of sentences are devoted to it. In fact, given what happened in the story, we might even be somewhat taken aback that Matthew makes note of it almost nonchalantly. What’s more is that a few chapters later, a similar situation with another multiplication of loaves takes place, and the reactions of all involved seem rather subdued!
This may not be so strange, however. In a way, we have all witnessed this same miracle ourselves—over and over again—but how many of us think twice about it, or walk away dumbfounded in amazement? There are two particular ways in which the event from today’s Gospel reading is manifested in the liturgical life of our Church.
The first we will consider is the small service or rite that we call artoklasia. Artoklasia literally means “the breaking of bread”. It is a brief rite in which loaves of bread—and with them wheat, wine, and oil—are set out on a table. The priest says a number of petitions, including prayers for the well-being of the parish and greater community, and, as has become customary, for the health and salvation of the faithful who celebrate the current feast with particular ardor. The bread is then broken and distributed among the faithful.
Originally, the artoklasia’s proper place was at the end of vespers when an all-night vigil was taking place in a monastery. It was placed there so that the monks or nuns could have a small, blessed morsel of bread and wine to maintain them through the night, as they prepared to chant and pray non-stop for hours in anticipation of the main meal: the Eucharist. While this still happens in monasteries, in our parishes it has, rather unfortunately, devolved somewhat into a popular custom that can sometimes even overshadow the Eucharist as the focal point of our gatherings.
In any case, this rite is centered around the event in today’s Gospel reading, as we hear in the blessing prayer of the artoklasia:
Lord, Jesus Christ, our God, You blessed the five loaves in the wilderness and from them five thousand men were filled. Bless now these loaves, the wheat, the wine and oil and multiply them in this holy church, this city, in the homes of those who celebrate today, and in Your whole world. And sanctify Your faithful servants who partake of them.
And so, you see, on a frequent basis, we invoke this miracle of Christ into our lives. To those who receive these blessings in faith—not as superstition or as popular obligation—the grace of the Lord is truly multiplied in their lives.
But, as I said, there is another and much more powerful way in which we live this miracle of the Lord over and over again. I am referring, of course, to the Divine Liturgy.
Are we not a large crowd that has come to gather around Jesus? Did we not fast from late last night, skipping breakfast to come hear his word? Do we not, in turn, long to be fed before the journey home? Did he not assure us “this bread is my body”, and invite and instruct us to offer this meal in remembrance of him? And does he not—no matter how many hundreds of you come forward to eat—send you away miraculously satisfied by a single morsel? You may not realize it, but it is from a mere two or three cubic inches of bread that hundreds of you are fed. What’s more, there is plenty left over that we clergy have to consume after the service! Is it then hard to believe that Christ might be able to feed five thousand men and their families from five full loaves of bread, when he was also present there with them, as he is with us today?
Jesus’ feeding of thousands from a relatively meager supply showed his absolute power despite humble circumstances—just as the infinite God took on flesh in the womb of a virgin; just as the all-powerful God hung naked and slain on the Cross; just as the most beautiful one allowed Death to swallow him like a worm, only to be expelled when it could not stomach his hidden majesty; just as illiterate fishermen converted nations by the Holy Spirit; just as Christ humbles himself continually to dwell in us in mere morsels of bread and sips of wine. He communes with us in a way that engages and satisfies and nurtures our entire being—soul and body, those beautiful and free and irreplaceable gifts he has given us and redeemed for us.
Brothers and sisters, can we see how this miracle of feeding the five thousand prefigured the Eucharist? And might we now more fully appreciate our routine act of artoklasia—of breaking bread? And will we not sway in delight at the psalmists words: “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man that hopes in him” and, in another place “rich men have turned poor and gone hungry, but they who seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing”, and, in yet another place “the poor shall eat and be satisfied, and those who seek the Lord shall praise him, and their hearts shall live for ever”?
Did you come here craving Christ?
You have tasted.
Do you sense that the Lord is good?
Did you come hungry?
You have eaten from his hand.
Are you satisfied?
Do you truly seek the Lord?
Then praise him for these gifts—
for you will lack no good thing,
and your hearts shall live for ever.
LET IT BE SO.