In the evening quail came up and covered the camp.
In the morning a dew lay all about the camp,
and when the dew evaporated, there on the surface of the desert
were fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground.
On seeing it, the Israelites asked one another, “What is this [mánna]?”
for they did not know what it was.
But Moses told them,
“This is the bread [hal-leḥem] that the LORD has given you to eat.”
Last Sunday’s first reading from Exodus contained the above passage in which the Israelites first discover a strange “bread from heaven” they named manna, given by God to sustain them on their long desert journey toward Mount Sinai and then to the Promised Land. In the Gospel reading that followed, Jesus radically reinterprets the Exodus story:
Amen, amen, I say to you,
it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven;
my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.
For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven
and gives life to the world.
So they said to him,
“Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them,
“I am the bread of life;
whoever comes to me will never hunger,
and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
As he does throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus here makes clear that every detail of the story of the exodus from Egypt finds its full meaning in him. In the light of Jesus, the whole Old Testament is revealed to be a foreshadowing and prefigurement, and the story of the giving of manna is no exception. How many theological and spiritual riches are packed into these readings! Let me share a few small insights that seized me while lectoring at Mass. In fact, these insights in that moment shook me.
Here’s what I wrote in my journal after Mass:
+ + + +
The Hebrew name given to this strange bread-like food by the Israelites is itself strange — manna. In Exodus, the word itself is really a question: “What’s that?” The name given by the Israelites to the bread from heaven, the bread of angels (Psalm 78:25) does not define the bread — which would show mastery or possession of this strange food. No! The name they give relinquishes control by naming it a question. It escapes man’s comprehension, eludes our grasp. This name expresses humility, open endedness, listening, awaiting an answer from the Giver of the what’s-this-? food, for he alone knows what it is.
This reminds me of the revelation of God’s Name to Moses from the burning Bush: “I am…” (Exodus 3:14). Moses asked God his name, and God gave him a name that itself forms in the mind a question: You are who?? Certainly God could not give his name yet, as it’s only in the unfolding story of his saving deeds that his identity would be revealed. The divine Name, like the divinely-given manna, awaits the completion of itself in the creating and redeeming Word that passes from fire to stone to parchment to flesh (cf John 1:1-14). This Word is the One who tells us all things (cf John 4:29; Hebrews 1:1-2). Manna, God’s response to the human cry of hunger (Exodus 16:12), to our starving epiclesis, is to feed us. The God of the Scriptures is a feeding God (cf Psalm 136:25; Luke 1:53), and so the very gift of manna anticipates the answer to the Israelite’s question.
In John’s Gospel Jesus reveals himself as the answer to manna, and to every human question born of hunger and thirst. I think here that the deepest human desires find “sacramental” expression in the bodily pains of hunger arising from every (eucharistic) fast, whether that fast be voluntary or involuntary. All hunger hides within it a desire, a yearning for the feeding-God. And we, made in his image, are called by him to be known above all for feeding the hungry (Luke 16:20-21; Matthew 25:35). How utterly astounding that the God of manna chose, in Jesus, to give himself entirely as food that answers in itself every human desire. “Containing in itself all sweetness.” The Word-made-flesh is not merely spiritual nourishment for angels, but bodily nourishment for humanity that responds to the pining of our flesh for God (cf Psalm 84:2; 63:2).
In Jesus is also made complete (John 19:30) the revelation of the divine Name, I am. In Jesus, the story is complete, the Word has been spoken, and the secret nature of God has been uttered in a word: Jesus, the Name above every name. On the Cross (cf John 8:28) we finally see laid bare for all to see who and what God is: Θεὸς agapē estin, “God is love” (1 John 4:16). More specifically, God is crucified love that is forever life-giving. How astounding to think of the Last Supper in this way … the answer to what-is-this-? manna is given in the final revelation of a feeding God whose Body is broken and whose Blood is poured out that the starving and parched might at last be filled forever.
A last thought. Manna, as open ended question-food, is a marvelous way to render the theological word we use to express the Eucharistic change: transubstantiation.
The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.” — Catechism #1376
Transubstantiation, a true expression of paradox, is magnificently captured in manna’s, “What’s that?” This is no cheap concession of reason to illogic, but rather is reason’s surprised, bewildered, unexpected encounter — through faith — with a world-overturning Mystery that has crashed into our world in Christ. Mystery alone satisfies reason’s deepest desire to know the incomprehensible Truth-made-flesh, since human reason is itself inscribed with his image and so longs to become one with the Truth in love. The scholastic neologism “transubstantiation,” which borrows from Aristotle’s metaphysical categories, subverts Aristotle’s empirically based logic by opening it to the dead and risen Incarnate God whom Aristotle never met. And when human language and logic meet Christ, they are stretched to the breaking point that they might, like the human person they serve, become capax Dei infiniti, “capable of the infinite God.”
Next time you approach Holy Communion, be sure you’re ready to be stretched, to taste the immortal and all-holy feeding God.
Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: “This is my body” is the same who said: “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food”, and “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me”… What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well. –– St. John Chrysostom
He who eats it with faith, eats Fire and Spirit. — St. Ephraim the Syrian
As I finished this journal entry Cynthia Clawson’s version of Let All Mortal Flesh came into my head — how awesome is this Mystery of faith: