“…people anxiously hope for just two things: bread and circuses” writes Juvenal in his tenth Satire, immortalizing thus a phrase that has been known ever since: panem et circenses. By these two, every nation and each man’s conscience can be tamed, manipulated, and enslaved.
Bread and spectacles. And what can be more spectacular that the miraculous multiplication of bread as we find it in today’s Gospel? What other moment in history offers the promise of ending all problems in human history, indeed ending human history itself, by the promise of an effortless and endless supply of material goods?
This is the story that the Gospel presents to us today. How are we to read it? That is, how are we to understand it?
It has often been understood, under the influence of the age’s spirit, as a program for the Church’s philanthropic mission. “Feed the poor and give the people bread”—that, they say, should the Church be all about, and by that should Her mission be judged. Thus the Gospel becomes a manifesto for social justice and Jesus’ “miracles”, above all a miracle like the one we read about in today’s passage, a way to interpret the Kingdom of God as a Kingdom on earth. Thus the Church should not busy Herself with obscure formulations of dogmas, with theology, but with philanthropy. The Church should not squander Her treasures on heaven, but on earth.
Yet, reading today’s Gospel in this way, my dear brothers and sisters, creates a problem. The problem is precisely the criticism that the Roman poet articulates in his phrase “bread and spectacles”. Are we to make of the Church an institution which would evangelize the world by offering bread and the spectacle of miracles? Are we to succumb so easily to the temptation that our Lord resisted? Wasn’t it, after all, the Spirit of this World that said in the desert: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread” (Mt. 4:3)? Are we to believe that “there is no crime, and therefore no sin, but only hungry men”?
To these questions we have only the Lord’s answer: “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Mt. 4:4) It is not, therefore, a living that man is of need, but a word by which to live for. That it would be sufficient to take care of man’s material needs has been the fundamental error of almost every political system, an error that has undermined every attempt to “improve” humanity, to “make the world a better place,” as long as these attempts refuse to take into consideration that “word that comes from the mouth of God.”
And there is only one word that eternally proceeds from the mouth of God, the Word “that become flesh and dwelled among us” (John 1:14). It is by this Word that man shall live for and this Word that man should live on, for the Word of God is also bread: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh” (John 6:51).
This is the only miracle—the only spectacle—that the Church has to offer to our curious eyes and this is the only bread that the Church has to provide for our hunger: the miracle of the bread on the Holy Altar. This must be an utter disappointment to those who expected from the Church to end poverty and to solve all of humanity’s problems. This bread must look as an unfathomable poverty to those who judge things by the standards of this world. For us, however, it is this word and this bread that sustains the world. The bread that, as the Liturgy reminds us, “is broken and distributed, broken but not divided; it is forever eaten yet is never consumed”.
Indeed, today’s passage of the Holy Gospel reminds us of the Eucharist when it describes the Lord as taking the five loaves in His hands, “looked up to heaven, gave thanks and broke the loaves” (Mt 14:19). This is an unmistakably Eucharistic gesture. It was by the breaking of the bread that the two disciples recognized the Lord at Emmaus. The miracle of the multiplication of the five loaves, then, foreshadows the miracle of the Eucharist, the “multiplication” of Christ Himself throughout the centuries. And as five loaves fed five thousand men, so the faith of a few men has fed thousands of thousands throughout the world.
 The Grand Inquisitor through the mouth of Ivan Karamazov, from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larisssa Volokhonsky, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), p. 253.
A Homily Preached at the Church of SS Constantine and Helen
Cambridge, MA (July 29, 2012)
by Very Rev. Archimandrite Panteleimon Manoussakis, Ph.D.
Fr.Dr.John Panteleimon Manoussakis was born in Athens, Greece, and educated in the United States (Ph.D., Boston College). He was ordained into the diaconate in 1995 and into the priesthood in 2011, receiving the distinction of an Archimandrite. He is an Edward Bennett Williams Fellow, an Assistant Professor in Holy Cross College, Worcester, Massachusetts, and a Honorary Fellow of the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University.