Trinity VII.  July 30, 2017.  St. Stephen’s, Athens.  (Father Athanaelos’s 18th anniversary of ordination)

St. Mark viii, verse 3 – …if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way….

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Today as always we read the lessons the Church assigns to this particular Sunday, but in addition, of our own choice as it were, we are observing the rector’s anniversary of ordination to the priesthood.  Several of us were there years ago in New Bern, North Carolina, and it was a happy day.  If you are a visitor here today, you have stumbled upon a local celebration.  Welcome and enjoy.  You need not go away fasting to your own house in danger of fainting on the way:  you may instead go to Dearing Street and have lunch with an exceptionally pleasant group of people.  In any case, the coincidence of today’s gospel lesson and the observance of an ordination anniversary is fortunate.  The two fit unusually well, as I was happy to discover when Father Athanaelos asked me to preach today.  I do not have to stretch at all to connect the fixed lesson with the happenstance of the anniversary.  Our gospel lesson is Saint Mark’s account of the multiplication of bread to feed four thousand disciples in the wilderness.  If you think that should be five thousand, you’re half right:  Mark and Matthew both tell us about our Lord feeding five thousand men on one occasion and four thousand on another.  My text today sets the scene for this miraculous feeding.  Our Lord has ‘compassion on the multitude’ that have listened to his teaching for three days (viii.2).  He says, ‘[I]f I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way:  for divers of them came from far.’ (3)

It is impossible for us to read this lesson without seeing in it a foreshadowing and anticipation of the Eucharist and Holy Communion.  By God’s compassionate will Christ gives bread to his disciples to feed his people in the wilderness.  The continuation of this work of feeding is, of course, the distinctive and chief act of priests.  Priests do many things.  Priests preach – but so do deacons and even so may learned and licensed lay people.  Priests counsel – but so do psychiatrists and lawyers and wise friends and older relatives.  Priests care for the sick, but so do doctors and nurses and the parents of sniffly children.  Priests visit the shut-in, but so do social workers and friends and kind neighbors.  Priests do many, many things, but the one thing they do that no one except a priest may or can do is celebrate the Eucharist to feed the people of God with the bread from heaven in the wilderness of this world.  Or to put it in four words:  only priests say Mass.  And this we do to extend the compassion of Christ to all places and to all generations.  Much of what priests do can be done by others.  This thing only priests do.

Compassion is perhaps the greatest attribute of our Lord in the gospels.  He sees two blind men by the way, who cry out, ‘Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David….So Jesus had compassion on them, and touched their eyes’, and healed them (Matthew xx.30f., 34).  A few chapters earlier in Mark, when he heals a man possessed by a demon he says, ‘Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee….’ (Mark v.19)  When he heals a leper in the first chapter of Mark, he was ‘moved with compassion’ (i.41).  Saint Luke tells us that the Good Samaritan and the father of the Prodigal Son, who are symbols for Christ, both ‘had compassion’ (x.33, xv.20).  In Matthew when our Lord ‘saw the multitude, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.’ (ix.36)   And compassion is the central reason for our Lord’s Incarnation:  he came down from heaven for us men and for our salvation because of his compassion for us, ‘poor banished children of Eve, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.’ (Salve, Regina)

In today’s lesson our Lord’s compassion is manifested by the gift of miraculous bread.  When we read this lesson, we are reading about ourselves and what we are doing at this very moment.  Our Lord feeds us with the bread of his Body, the Bread of his great compassion and love, and he does so lest we faint by the way, for divers of us come from far.  We come from here and there, from scattered lives, from a multitude of sorrows and difficulties, from a variety of sins and temptations, many of us only having found our way to this place by very roundabout paths.  We are not very strong; we are sore pressed.  We are quite capable of fainting by the way with all that life throws at us and all that we bring upon ourselves by our folly and by our neglect of the call of our compassionate Lord.

But all of that is comparatively unimportant.  God knows you well:  better than you know yourself.  Unto him all hearts are open, all desires known, and from him no secrets are hid.  He knows us as we kneel before his altar, the table of his Banquet.  He knows the way we have come and the hunger we have.  And he would not have us walk on our pilgrimage through this world ‘having nothing to eat’.  Rather he says, ‘I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now been with me,…and have nothing to eat’.  We have nothing but what he gives us, so he must give us more or we will have nothing more and will starve.

This Eucharistic feeding is the work of Christ, but it continues among us because of the ministry of our priests.  Somebody else can do all the rest, but nobody else can do this.  By what our priests do today at the altar, in obedience and remembrance – by this the Kingdom of God comes among us, even here and now in this world, even if obscurely and in a manner that the world does not see; even if half the time in a manner that we ourselves hardly see.  By the word and hand of the priest eternity breaks into time, and Christ our God to earth descendeth from the realms of endless day.  He whom heaven and earth cannot contain is by the priest circumscribed and accommodated to our world and is given to you and me in a little whiteness and in a little sweet wine.

All this mystery is God’s work for you, that you might not faint by the way, though you come from far and have far to go.  In the words of Charles Wesley’s great Eucharistic hymn, ‘Victim Divine, thy grace we claim’:

We need not now go up to heaven

To bring the long-sought Saviour down;

Thou art to all already given,

Thou dost e’en now thy banquet crown:

To every faithful soul appear,

And show thy real Presence here.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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