Five loaves of bread feeds thousands! — 8th Sunday of Matthew

A sermon on the Gospel reading for the Eighth Sunday of Matthew (Matthew 14:14-22).
Five thousand men, plus women and children,
eat out of five loaves of bread and are filled...
(Mt 14:13-21, Mk 6:30-44, Lk 9:10-17, Jn 6:1-14)

Father Epiphanios Theodoropoulos of blessed memory, one of a number of gifted priests who lived in our time, once told the following story. There was, he said, this atheist teacher in a school, and she was telling the students:

"Children, you know, when the Gospel says that Christ filled five thousand men with five loaves and two fish, it doesn’t mean real loaves or fish, but it means His words; that is, His words were so beautiful, they filled their hearts...”

She spoke this way, thinking that she had passed the message of atheism to the children. Then this youngster gets up (from crazy people and from children you learn the truth—in this case of course it was divine illumination) - [this youngster, I was saying, gets up] and stabs her [with this question]:

“At the end, though, teacher, the Gospel says that the disciples took up twelve baskets full of leftovers. How were the baskets filled: with words?” 

This knocked out the teacher.1

Reality or Self-Suggestion?

There are many who claim that there are no miracles, that no supernatural events take place. They would have us believe that all the miraculous and unexplainable healings happening are the result of self suggestion. A doctor, referring to a miracle that had recently taken place, was heard saying that it wasn’t the work of God, but the result of man’s power of self suggestion, which released the healing powers one had within. What of it?

Well, you see, from time to time we read statements made by doctors and others, that studies support the claim that those patients who have a strong desire to live and have a positive outlook on life do better. In fact, it has been shown that faith improves the success of an operation or illness and helps in the recovery better and more quickly. Don’t these studies in a way support the theory of self suggestion?

Self-Suggestion cannot be the Answer

We are not arguing that there might be cases of certain bodily organs malfunctioning, of or cases of psychological disturbance, where self suggestion may play a certain role, though a minor one, and in very rare cases at that. This is proved as follows: While countless people are suffering—and all of them want to be cured—only an insignificant percentage of them are cured. Therefore, self suggestion does not play a lead role in such cases, and it is definitely not the “cause” of healings.

On the other hand there are other kinds of bodily injuries, which pertain to parts of the body, the bones, for example, where one leg is shorter than the other. In such cases self suggestion has absolutely no place. No matter how much self suggestion one might muster, one cannot ever not be lame. Now if we examine the miracles performed by the Lord and the Saints, we’ll see that in the overwhelming majority, they are about healings of organic defects, such as the healing of blindness from birth or that of being paralyzed for 38 years.

Actually, in great many instances there are miracles which cannot possibly have anything to do with self suggestion. Can we say, for example that there is self suggestion in a dead person? Or in a storm? Or in fish? I remember, when I was about eight years old, I once came back from a movie and, influenced by its subject of a hypnotist, I tried to hypnotize my cat. In fact I used the English word as I heard it in the movie: “Sleep! Sleep!” The cat actually blinked its eyes sleepishly a couple of times, but then got bored of the game and took off...

Saint Arsenios the Cappadocian was a source of miraculous healings. No one even knew what a doctor was in his village. Whenever they were ill, they would go to Fr. Arsenios and he would heal them through God's grace.

Are Miracles Nothing but Coincidence?

The deniers of Christ and of miracles will retort, “Well, maybe you didn’t have the powerful personality of Christ and the Saints, who could magnetize and influence the sensations of their viewers, listeners, sick people, and, why not, even animals. And as far as the miracles on nature is concerned there is much... coincidence!”

So they will say that it “just happened” that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, during the ebb tide, while the Egyptians were caught in the subsequent high tide and were drowned! A tide caused by what, you may ask? By... the eruption of the volcano of Thera! But if such is the “coincidence”, anyone who calls it anything other than a miracle won’t believe anything at all.

I would like to refer to a more recent miracle, which some would like to explain away as coincidence. Fr. [now Saint] Paisios writes in his book on St. Arsenios the Cappadocia:

“In [the church of] St. Chrysostom there was an ayiasma [holy water], which was springing abundantly from a hole in a rock and was falling as a cascade from high up down to the Zemantis river. At certain times it would withdraw and disappear altogether. As the people were eating, a woman got up to take some water. At that very moment the water pulled back. The woman then ran to Hatzifentis [Saint Arsenios] and told him about it. Hatzifentis took the Gospel book and went to the hole in the rock, knelt, read a little—and the water returned immediately. ...Someone said that it was the natural ‘high tide and ebb tide’ phenomenon. The servant of God Hatzifentis however,” comments Father Paisios, “was praying to his Boss—God—and He would bring him the water whenever he wanted, without waiting”.2

We may therefore conclude that no one can deny that the natural element is present during the performance of miracles. The miracles themselves, however, intervene and go beyond matter (naturally, the five loaves are not sufficient to feed so many people) as well as beyond time (like the coming of the water outside its regular time). Of course these things make sense to those who want to believe. For the rest, what the ancients said applies: “You won’t convince me, even if you do!”

Even “natural” phenomena are extraordinary

Blessed Elder Iakovos of Evia and the multiplication of the offering bread and the pasta. From the book, The Garden of the Holy Spirit: Elder Iakovos of Evia, slightly edited.

One thing we may not realize, and take for granted, is that what we call “natural phenomena” are actually marvelous, extraordinary events and conditions. Here is an example of what I mean: These past few weeks the scientific community has been receiving pictures from Voyager II, the space ship launched, when? in the sixties? which has already left our solar system and travels into “deep” space. One detailed picture after another, like they have never been seen before, reveals the emptiness in space of any form of life: ice cold places, or surfaces whipped by storms blowing 300 mph! Barren lunar regions, silent, dull, dead—if they were ever alive! Now science may tell you that in so many zillions of years, when our own sun will cool off, our earth will become colder and colder, until it too will turn into an ice-cold planet. Perhaps. But in the meantime let’s ponder and reflect upon this miracle—Earth—where life teems, and its beauty is admired by the astronauts from their space capsules.

Think of the precise composition of oxygen and other gases in the atmosphere that our planet provides for countless organisms to live, which the planets Venus, Mars and Jupiter do not provide. And that the planet Earth is at just at the right distance from the sun, neither too close, like Venus (in which case because of the high temperatures no life would be sustained), nor too far, like Pluto (in which case because of the cold, again no life could be sustained). Aren’t all these combinations of laws and proportions and distances miraculous? Or do they seem normal and natural because we have gotten used to the miracle of nature?

Look what happens to a seed planted. With the right conditions, with the warmth of the soil, with the light of the sun, with the oxygen of the air, and with some water, the earth is turned into color and beauty and life! Ultimately, look at us humans: We take food and turn it into intelligence, emotions, poetry, faith and love. Isn’t that a miracle?

We, Christian believers, will say that these right conditions are the result, not of blind forces (a thought that should offend the intelligence of every reasonably thinking human being), but of an intelligent, most wise, omnipotent and loving Creator and Sustainer. Everything comes under His divine power and care—even insignificant things such as the number of hairs on our head that “are counted” (Matthew 10:30, Luke 12:7).

We should not base our Faith on Miracles

Now I know there are some of you who will say, “I have never experienced a miracle; I have never seen a miracle. If we are surrounded by miracles why wouldn’t such an extraordinary event happen in my life?” I’m glad that it has not. Or, better yet, as the Lord says,

“Blessed are those who have not seen and believe”. (John 20:29)

There are those Christians who run continuously from one miraculous icon to the next, and from myrrh-flowing crosses to scent-exuding relics, but one thing is certain: We should not base our faith on miracles. Such faith is superficial, impressionable, temporary and anemic. The sincere believer doesn’t need to see miracles to believe or to sustain his faith.

They say that once Fr. Joel Yiannakopoulos, another holy priest of our days, was traveling towards Kalamata. A train he was riding happened to make a stop in a village where there was a “tearing icon”. As it usually happens, people ran to see the miracle, and the train cleared out. Only Fr. Joel didn’t move from his seat. One of the passengers confronted him: “And you, pappouli, don’t you believe?” Fr. Joel answered him with presence of mind: “I believe, that’s why miracles don’t impress me. It is you that do not believe, and run to see the miracle to believe!”3

The Miracle of Miracles

“We entrust to You, loving Master, our whole life and hope, and we ask, pray, and entreat: make us worthy to partake of your heavenly and awesome Mysteries from this Holy and spiritual Table with a clear conscience; for the remission of sins, forgiveness of transgressions, communion of the Holy Spirit, inheritance of the Kingdom of heaven, boldness before You, and not in judgment or condemnation.”4

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ: There is actually a great miracle we have all experienced! A miracle far superior to the multiplication of the five loaves and the two fish. The miracle of miracles, of which the miracle of the five loaves was only a prefigurement and a symbol. The miracle of the multiplication of the five loaves is only an image of the far greater miracle—the feeding of countless millions of people from that One Loaf of Life. I’m referring to none other than the heavenly Bread that comes down from Heaven. The Bread that transforms us and renders us divine! The holy Eucharist.

As we ready ourselves to approach the Bread of Life, let us hear one more time the words of the prayer recited by the priest immediately before reciting the Lord’s prayer, in which we ask for “our daily bread”, which is the bread of sustenance, the substantial and necessary bread, the true bread of maintenance and sustainment, the bread that sustains the true life. Let us ponder upon the benefits received from the communion of this Bread and Wine. Can you find anything in life, not greater and more marvelous than it, but that even approaches the spiritual benefit and the blessings received from it?

Fr. E.H./96

Heading photo by T.H.

  1. From the book, Counsels for Life. Translation slightly edited, emphasis added.
  2. Saint Arsenios the Cappadocian, by Saint Paisios of Mount Athos, p. 88. Translation slightly edited.
  3. Source unknown
  4. From the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. Prayed audibly by the priest before the Lord's prayer. See

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