Sunday, 3 August 2014

‘Among the calamities of war may be justly
numbered the diminution of the love of truth’

The Feeding of the Multitude … a modern Coptic icon

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

3 August 2014

The Seventh Sunday after Trinity

11 a.m.:
The Cathedral Eucharist


Isaiah 55: 1-5; Psalm 145: 8-9, 15-22; Romans 9: 1-5; Matthew 14: 13-21.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

This morning’s Gospel reading (Matthew 14: 13-21) is so familiar that – like all familiar stories – we sometimes become immune to its impact and its implications.

It is so familiar perhaps because this story, the First Feeding Miracle or the “the Feeding of the 5,000,” is the only miracle found in each of the four Gospels (Matthew 14: 13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9: 10-17; and John 6: 5-15).

In addition, there is a second feeding miracle, “The Feeding of the 4,000,” found only in this Gospel (Matthew 15: 32-39) and in Saint Mark’s Gospel (Mark 8: 1-9), but not in Saint Luke’s or Saint John’s.

In the first feeding miracle in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, Christ feeds 5,000 with five loaves and two fish (Matthew 14: 17), and in the second miracle 4,000 are fed with seven loaves and a few small fish (see Matthew 15: 34).

When the Early Church read these Gospel stories of the feeding of the multitudes, they too would have shared other familiar images that shaped how they responded.

They would have thought how Christ frequently refers to himself as bread: “the true bread from heaven” (John 6: 32), “the bread of God” (John 6: 33), “the bread of life” (John 6:35, 48), and “the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6: 51).

This morning’s reading is filled with Eucharistic symbolism: Christ takes, blesses, breaks and gives the bread, just as at the Last Supper, when he takes, blesses, breaks and gives the bread, saying: “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26: 26).

But in reading about the feeding in the wilderness, early Christians would also recall the Feeding in the Wilderness in the Exodus story.

The slaves who are liberated and flee tyranny in Egypt, cross through the waters of the Red Sea and find themselves wandering in the wilderness, relying on God miraculously for food (see Exodus 16; Deuteronomy 8: 3-16; Psalm 78: 24-25; Psalm 105: 40; Wisdom 16: 20-21).

The image of God who hears the cry of the poor, has compassion for them, and feeds the hungry is an image of God that resonates throughout the Old Testament. It sustains the exiles in Babylon, and it informs the Psalmist, who writes this morning: “The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season. You open wide your hand, and satisfy the needs of every living creature” (Psalm 145: 16-17).

These verses were so loved throughout the history of Christianity that they became the opening words of the grace in Trinity College Dublin and virtually every Cambridge and Oxford college (Oculi omnium in te sperant Domine or Oculi omnium ad te spectant, Domine).

In this morning’s Gospel, the tyrant Herod has beheaded John the Baptist, and Christ leaves, taking a boat across the water to a deserted place. Herod fears the crowds, but instead of seeking Herod they find Jesus in the deserted place on the other side of the water. And there he feeds them in the deserted place, the waste land.

We often think of deserted places and waste lands as desolate places that are life-threatening rather than life-enhancing. No wonder TS Eliot’s The Waste Land is written in the wake of the destruction and the desolation of World War I, with imagery that recalls the burial of the dead, the fire, the thunder, the water of war.

We have already embarked on a rollover of commemorations of World War I. Over the next four years, we will remember the fire and the thunder of war, and the burial of the dead, the desolation and the destruction, the sacrilegious waste of life, the dehumanisation of humanity.

World War I began on 28 July 1914 when Austria declared war on Serbia, and Ireland entered the war on 4 August when the United Kingdom declared war on Germany.

Drawing on a phrase first used by HG Wells that August, it was soon described as the war to end all wars, or in the words of Woodrow Wilson, the war to “make the world safe for democracy.”

Last Monday night, at the unveiling of the Tree of Remembrance and the opening of the “Lives Remembered” exhibition in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the author Jennifer Johnston reminded us “we have just been through the most terrible century and we must hope there is not another like it.”

But as Walter Lippmann wrote in Newsweek, “the delusion is that whatever war we are fighting is the war to end war.”

How long have we known that war never ends war, that war only brings the delusion of peace? The Roman orator and historian Tacitus, who lived at the time of the Gospel writers, condemns those who plunder, slaughter and steal and falsely call the result Empire, for “they make a wasteland, and they call it peace” (Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant).

Ever since, writer after writer has described war as the failure of politics, war as the failure of diplomacy. Despite World I, World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Six-Day War … an endless list of wars, we continue to become embroiled in war after war: the Gulf wars, the Iraq wars, the wars in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan, Libya, Afghanistan …the wars today in Ukraine, Russia, Syria and Gaza.

I have tried to use simple math to estimate the number of people killed in war in the first 14 years of this century. It is said 20 million people died in World War I, with another two million killed in the Ottoman genocides of Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians; 55 million people were killed in World War II, including the victims of the Holocaust.

In my calculations, I lost count of the victims of war in the first 14 years of this century, but we have already passed the highest estimate for World War I, and it seems we are soon going to pass the total for World War II.

And the principle casualties, time and again, are not the failed politicians, the failed diplomats, or even the poor soldiers, but civilians, children, the young and the elderly, women and men,. And truth.

‘Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth’ … John Myatt’s mural of Samuel Johnson on a wall in Bird Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Æschylus, one of the three great tragic playwrights in ancient Greece, alongside Sophocles and Euripides, is sometimes attributed with saying: “In war, truth is the first casualty” (cf Romans 9: 1). However, the saying may originate with the 18th century Anglican saint, Samuel Johnson from Lichfield, who wrote: “Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages” [The Idler, No 30, 11 November 1758].

Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Ron Derner, told a Christian lobby group in Washington a few days ago: “Some are shamelessly accusing Israeli of genocide and would put us in the dock for war crimes. But the truth is that the Israeli Defence Forces should be given the Nobel Peace Prize ... a Nobel Peace Prize for fighting with unimaginable restraint.”

Yet, night after night, on television screens and impartial news outlets, I see the wounded, injured, maimed and battered children, frightened, screaming and even mute in shock and terror, brought by inconsolate and despairing parents to hospitals deprived of adequate facilities and medicine.

Whoever argues that criticising Israel when it fails to be a sign of the covenant (cf Romans 9: 3-4) has never read the Old Testament prophets and their condemnations of Israel and its political leaders. These Old Testament prophets can hardly be labelled dismissively as anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic.

I am shameless in my accusations when I describe Gaza as a waste land and a wilderness. The crowds cannot flee in fear from the tyrant, for they are hemmed in and under siege, barraged by flares at night and bombarded by missiles by day, irrespective of whether they support Hamas or not, children or adults, fighters or civilians. Like the crowd in our Gospel reading, they are being told to go away. But there is nowhere for them to go, not even the sea.

The Psalmist tells us this morning that God is gracious and full of compassion (Psalm 145: 8). Christ has compassion for the people caught in the wilderness, between the tyrant and the sea (verse 14). He cures their sick (verse 14), he refuses to dismiss them (verse 16), he tells us, the Disciples, despite our pleading that we are unable to do anything (verse 17), to feed them (verse 16). And he feeds them, like the slaves fleeing tyranny are fed in the wilderness.

He feeds them with a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet. He tells them they are counted in rather than counted out.

And in counting them, we still only count 5,000 … when the Gospel writer tells us there were 5,000 men, as well as women and children (verse 21) … 5,000, 10,000, 20,000? God’s compassion for those who are caught in the wilderness is far greater than our calculations or imaginations.

As the Prophet Isaiah reminds us this morning, “everyone who thirsts” is met with God’s compassion, even when they are without money (Isaiah 55: 1), even when they are from nations that we do not know (verse 5).

And in the midst of the desolation created by war, wars of the past that failed to end war, and wars today that are waged without compassion and create waste lands and desolation, I continue to have faith and hope.

TS Eliot ends The Waste Land with obscure words he believed were the equivalent of “The peace of God which passes all understanding” (Philippians 4: 7). I believe, as the Psalmist says this morning, that “the Lord is loving to everyone, and his compassion is over all his works … The Lord upholds all those who fall; he lifts up those who are bowed down” (Psalm 145: 9, 15).

As you respond to the invitation to the Eucharist this morning, hear Christ’s words that “the bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6: 51).

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Lord of all power and might,
the author and giver of all good things:
Graft in our hearts the love of your name,
increase in us true religion,
nourish us with all goodness,
and of your great mercy keep us in the same;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
whose Son is the true vine and the source of life,
ever giving himself that the world may live:
May we so receive within ourselves
the power of his death and passion
that, in his saving cup,
we may share his glory and be made perfect in his love;
for he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

Hymns (New English Hymnal):

453: Stand up! – stand up for Jesus!

302: O Thou, who at thy Eucharist didst pray

305: Soul of my Saviour, sanctify my breast

476: Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim

Canon Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Eucharist on Sunday 3 August 2014.

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