Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Lord Gave Them Bread From Heaven!

The entire chapter of the Book of Exodus from which today’s First Reading is taken is a marvelous story of the relationship between God and God’s people. The children of Israel have been released from more than four centuries of slavery in Egypt. They have been led out into the desert, being led by a pillar of smoke, which became a pillar of fire at night. At this point, they’ve been stranded in the Sinai desert for what seems like forever and a day. They are frustrated, and they are hungry. So, being human, they complain to Moses, their leader: “We were better off as slaves in Egypt. We had meat and fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. We weren’t free, but we were fed! Now we have nothing to eat but this stuff, whatever it is!” It is their complaint that gives “this stuff” its name.

We read, “In the morning 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 this, the Israelites asked one another, ‘What is this?’ for they did not know what it was.” The Hebrew for “What is this?” is Ma nah? So the stuff is called manna. But there is more, just after the last words of the First Reading: Moses said, “This is the bread that the LORD has give you to eat. Each of you is to gather as much as he needs.” In other words, God asks them to take only their “daily bread”, and nothing for tomorrow or the next day.

Of course, being human, the Israelites set aside a little extra for the future, but it spoiled before they could eat it. God wanted to teach his children a lesson. God’s gift for today is a prelude and a promise of God’s goodness tomorrow. Providere, in Latin, the root word of provide and provision in English, means “to look ahead”. Or, as the saying goes, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow a mystery; today is the only day there is.”

The wonder here is that God never takes back his gifts. The children of Israel are his children, and he is not surprised, much less disappointed, when they act like children. Truth told, God is neither surprised nor disappointed when you and I behave like children, who are not yet mature enough to trust Him. In fact, that’s just what Jesus teaches us, in another gospel, “Unless you become like little children …” the saying goes. How “little” does he mean? Saint Peter gives us that answer: “Quasimodo geniti infantes” “Like newborn children” (1 Peter 2:2). Too new to even raise the question: Can I trust the source of my food?

Today’s gospel takes place after Jesus and his disciples return to the other side of the Sea of Galilee after feeding the crowd with the young boy’s five loaves and two fishes. When the crowd finally catch up with them, Jesus questions why they are looking for him. “You aren’t looking for me because you saw me perform miracles, but because you’ve been well fed. You should be looking for food that lasts forever.”

“We want to do God’s work.”
“God’s work is this: Believe in the One God sent.”

But they aren’t ready to believe that Jesus is the One God sent. They want a miracle, like the one their ancestors were given in the desert – the manna that was spoken about in the First Reading.

“But it was not Moses who gave the people bread from heaven, but God, who gives bread from heaven, and the real bread from heaven is the One who gives life to the world.” And he concludes: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry; and whoever believes in my will never be thirsty.”

In sending manna daily to the children of Israel, the Lord said “I will test them, to see whether they follow my instructions, or not.” When Jesus reveals to the crowd that he is “the bread of God which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”, he gives them a similar instruction: They are to “work for the food that endures for eternal life.” That work is believing in the One whom God sent.

For us, this means putting aside “the old self”, our former way of life, and being renewed, by putting on “the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth”, as Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians.

Once upon a time, someone came to me after hearing these readings to ask this question: “After I put on the new self, in righteousness and holiness of truth”, does that garment stay with me forever, like the baptismal garment?” The answer is back in the reading from Exodus. The manna lasted only for a day, because God wants his children to renew our trust in him day by day. Like Saint Richard of Chichester wrote, that Schwartz and Tebelac borrowed for Godspell:
Oh Dear Lord
Three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly
Love thee more dearly
Follow thee more nearly
Day by day.

Day by day, by day, by day, by day.

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