Today’s Gospel from Matthew 14 tells us about Christ feeding the multitudes – 5000 men plus the women and children, – and we know that there must have been more women than men, ‘cause they catch on quicker after all. The Fathers teach that the formula is always the same, Christ gives thanks to His Father – representing the Anaphora prayers; breaks the bread – representing His body, the Eucharist; gives it to His disciples to distribute – representing the Priests distributing communion at the Chalice at each Liturgy – and the people are filled – unto eternal life!
You don’t generally hear the prayer that the Priest says at the Altar as he breaks the lamb into the 4 main pieces for communion, as the communion hymns are already underway, but it is:
“Divided and distributed is the Lamb of God: Who is divided, yet not disunited; Who is ever eaten, yet never consumed; but sanctifying those who partake thereof.” After all had eaten from the 5 loaves and 2 fish in today’s gospel account, there are taken up 12 baskets full, one for each of the 12 apostles; and these baskets have been passed down from the apostles into the hands of the bishops and priests in every generation and remain ever full – ever eaten yet never consumed!
We gather together at the Divine Liturgy to partake of the greatest miracle of all, the miracle of the undivided body and blood of Christ God, ever eaten yet never consumed. There is nothing whatsoever we could ever possibly accomplish that would be more important than what we are about to receive here at the chalice. Life itself and not just life but everlasting life that continues to grow, bringing us ever increasingly into the abundance that is God’s kingdom. The fathers call this the “Medicine of Immortality.”
This miracle of the feeding of thousands with the bread from Christ is told by all 4 of the Gospel writers, and in John chapter 6 Christ explains the true significance. Yes, this was one of the signs of the Messiah, and we talked last week about how all that Christ did was to fulfill and complete all that had been written of the Him, of the Messiah in the Law of Moses, the Psalms and the Prophets. But more than that, Christ explains the Eucharist in very clear and unambiguous terms. John Chapter 6 starts with the feeding of the 5000 but ends with Christ scandalizing the Jews by saying, (John 6:48,51- 56) “I am the bread of life…I am the living bread which comes down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, which I give for the life of the world. The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves saying, ‘How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in You. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him.” Is that clear enough for you? I don’t find a lot of wiggle room in this passage, although there are certain branches of the “bible believing” evangelical non-sacramental world that seem to have this passage written in invisible ink in their versions of the bible. Just to be completely clear Christ then finishes with (John 6:57,58) “As the living Father sent Me and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven – not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever,”
We need to be coming to the cup at every opportunity, this is life! If there is anything standing between us going to receive communion, we should waste no time in coming for confession and receiving forgiveness. Never stay away from the chalice twice in a row unless specifically instructed to do so by your Priest, but come to confession and deal with the reason you never came the first time. Do not let your grudges, and unforgiveness deprive you of life. The most serious penalty that can be imposed upon an Orthodox Christian is to be cut off from communion – to be ex-communicated. Why would you deliberately choose to ex-communicate yourself, cut yourself off from the body of Christ, from your brothers and sisters, from the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, from this most precious gift of God’s saving and life transforming grace?
The Divine Liturgy is leading us in thanksgiving and worship to receive the body and blood and be united with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The prayers assume that we are here to be communicants, to partake, not to listen and be spectators. We are being united with the entire Church, the Bride of Christ, both those here, and with the millions of those who have completed their earthly journey and are cheering us on from heaven to be vigilant and join them. Millions more of those who are all around the world today are sharing in the cup with us. We are joining in communion with the entire Church visible and the invisible bodiless powers and saints.
We ask the Lord to “Send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here offered and Make this bread the precious Body of Your Christ, and that which is in this cup the precious Blood of Your Christ. Making the change by Your Holy Spirit. That they may be to those who partake for the purification of soul, for the remission of sins, for the communion of Your Holy Spirit, for the fulfilment of the Kingdom of Heaven, for boldness towards You, and not for judgement or condemnation.” This is life, this is what is of eternal and ultimate importance and dwarfs all other activities in our lives. All of the holy fathers and mothers of the Church throughout all the ages have valued the receiving of the body and blood of Christ as the most important and life changing activity we can participate in. Saints Basil, Chrysostom, Metaphrastes, Simeon, all talk about the purifying fire, the deifying grace and the transforming action of communion in their pre-communion prayers. St. Mary of Egypt is living for years in the desert on the never diminishing loaves she takes across the Jordan with her. She levitates when she prays, knows the priest Zossima and all about him even though she has never met him before, and walks across the River Jordan on the surface of the water to receive that which of utmost importance to her, holy communion.
Of course we need to prepare, this is always the most important activity we will do all week. Nothing else that we humans can participate in comes close to this. We need to “make peace with those who have grieved us. Only then may we dare to eat the Mystical Food.” We should begin to shift our focus on Saturday evening. Coming to Great Vespers is the best way to start, but even when you can’t, try not to get into party mode with the rest of our society. Keep yourself from movies, TV, or even books with violence or bad morals. Read or watch something spiritually healthy or visit with good friends. Fast from at least midnight unless you have a health concern. (Our younger children are obviously exempt). In the morning, focus on the great miracle you are about to participate in and prepare by praying or listening to the pre-communion prayers given us by the Church to prepare us to receive this great mystery. Our preparations and awe will instill in our children that this is a most special and sacred event and they should be given age appropriate instructions that they too may begin to appreciate this great blessing. When the gifts are out and communion is being served it is the very presence of Christ. We should remain standing just as we do during the Lord’s Prayer and the saying of the Creed.
It is good habit to regularly bring gifts to Church, a love offering to God. When we go out to a friends for dinner we usually bring a bottle of wine or desert or some flowers, or at least ask what we can bring. It is the same when we come to the Liturgy, bring some flowers to beautify the temple or food cards to help the poor. Donate some Orthodox books to give out to new inquirers or an icon of a saint you are fond of to adorn the church. Purchase some candles and light them as prayers for others. Bring some canned goods for the food bank, some olive oil to fill the vigil lamps, Prosphora or communion wine. An extra donation above your regular giving for a special project or need. Bringing something as an offering of thanksgiving will always be a blessing and will help us to cultivate an attitude of thanksgiving. It is a great privilege to come to worship our Creator and the Source of all life. This is the most important work we can do, not just for ourselves, but for the entire world. St. Seraphim of Sarov is famous for saying, “Save yourself and 1000 around you will be saved.” We come to participate with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ Who gave Himself up “for the life of the world.” May He ever lead us into all that He has prepared for each one of us, through uniting with Him and the entire Church of all eternity, through partaking in His very Body and Blood. Glory to Jesus Christ!