From Commentary on St. Matthew, XIV.10 (ca. 356)
He bids his apostles feed them. Did he not know they had nothing to give? Did he not know, he who saw the secrets of men’s hearts, how much the apostles had for themselves? But all this had a symbolic purpose, now to be unfolded. For it had not yet been given to the apostles to prepare and to minister the heavenly bread, the food of eternal life. Their reply opened the way to an ordered exposition of spiritual teaching. For they answered that they had only five loaves and two fishes; for till now they had been nourished from the five loaves that is, from the five books of the law; and by the two fishes, that is, by the preaching of the prophets and of John. For in the works of the law, as from bread, there was life; and the preaching of John and the prophets refreshed as with water the true hope of human life. It was these therefore, since they were nurtured in them, that the apostles at first carried with them; from them the preaching of the gospel is shown to have been foretold, and rising from these sources, its own perfection grows in ever increasing richness.
And so, taking the loaves and fishes, the Lord looked up to heaven, then blessed and broke them, giving thanks to the Father that, after the law and the prophets, he is himself become the Evangelical Bread. And when he had commanded the people to sit down on the grass, not to lie prone on the earth, but to sit upheld by the law, each one spread his own good works, like the grass of the earth, under him. The bread is also given to the apostles, because it is through them the gifts of the divine grace are to be given. Then the people ate of the five loaves and the two fishes, after all who had sat down were satisfied, there remained over enough to fill twelve baskets: that is, the hunger of the multitude is satisfied by the Word of God coming to them from the teaching of the law and the prophets; and the abundance of the divine goodness, kept it in reserve for the people of the Gentiles, has overflowed from the source of eternal food, even for the filling of the twelve apostles. …
The wonder of this deed surpasses human understanding. And while often things are done which the mind can grasp but words cannot explain, in these things even the acuteness of the mind to perceive is at a loss; astonished at the very thought of the complexity of this unseen action. For taking in his hands the five loaves, the Lord looks up to heaven, and acknowledges his glory from whom he himself was: not that he needed to look upon the Father with the eyes of his body, but that those who stood about him might know from whom he had received such power. He then gives the bread to his disciples. The five loaves are not multiplied into many loaves; but from the portions broken off succeed other portions, which pass unnoticed from the hands breaking them. The substance progressively increases, whether at the place that served for tables, or in the hands of those taking it, or in the mouth of those who ate it, I know not.
Wonder not that the fountains run, that there are grapes in the vines, and that wine comes forth from the grapes; and that all the resources this world come to us in a certain yearly and unwearied motion; for this so great yield of loaves proclaims the Maker of all this, by whom the quantity of the substance he has touched is so increased. Under this visible work we have an invisible making; and the Lord of heaven’s mysteries works the miracle of this mystery before us. And the power of him who makes surpasses all nature; and the nature of that power far exceeds our understanding of what he does; and all that remains is the mystery of his power.
St. Hilary of Poitiers (ca. 310-ca.367) was Bishop of Poitiers and an influential theologian, who wrote important works defending the Christological doctrine of the Council of Nicaea against its Arian opponents and was exiled for his faithfulness to orthodox teaching. His Commentary on St. Matthew dates from his early ministry and is the earliest complete surviving Latin commentary on a Biblical book. This translation is adapted from that of M. F. Toal in The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers. Chicago: Regnery, 1956, 119-121. Hilary’s feast day is January 13.