Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14-16
Psalm 147.12-13, 14-15, 19-20 Resp. 12a
1 Corinthians 10.16-17
Manna is a kind of food that appeared on the ground each morning from the time that the Israelites left Egypt until the day that they ate the fruit of the promised land. Manna was free food: the only work was going out each morning to gather it up. Manna was abundant food: it fed 2 million people for forty years. Later generations of Israelites looked back on the time in the desert as a blessed time, depending entirely on providence for survival.
There were three lessons concerning manna. First, no one was to gather more than they needed. Each person was allotted one omer of manna a day, a little less than a gallon. When they went out to gather the manna, some people gathered a lot and others gathered a little, but everyone ended up with one omer per person. Whether this is the result of a miracle or if it means that those with too much shared with those who did not have enough, the lesson for us is the same: we should not take more of this world’s resources than we need. If we have too much, we should share with those who do not have enough to satisfy their needs.
The second lesson of the manna is that it must not be kept overnight. The Israelites had to trust that the manna would be out on the ground again the next morning. Those who tried to keep the manna overnight found that in the morning it was full of worms and smelled terrible. From this rule we should learn not to hoard the riches of this world. True, we are not wandering in the desert with manna appearing on the ground each day. It is very reasonable to save money: to save enough in case of a surprise car repair, to save enough in case you lose your job, but do not hoard money.
Some people collect money and property as if they only wanted to see how much they could have, as if they were competing in a game with the other rich people of this world. I do not refer only to millionaires and billionaires. Consider the very idea of collecting something. It is so acceptable in this culture to say, “I collect hippopotami”, but we Christians should look in horror at the idea of spending time and money, whether on ceramic doodads or unnecessary power tools. We are travelers in this world; pack lightly!
The third lesson of the manna is that on Friday the Israelites gathered enough for two days so that they would not go out on the Sabbath. This is a lesson we ought to take to heart. There is so little respect today for resting on the Lord’s Day. Six days a week have been given us to work; we must rest on the seventh day.
But how should we rest on Sundays? The usual forms of rest in our culture (ball games, shopping, and restaurants) involve someone else serving us. Should we sit home then and watch TV? A proper understanding of Sunday rest begins with what we all must do on Sundays: go to Mass. The point of Sunday is to worship God. Anything else we do is peripheral.
There is an old joke about a man who asked his pastor whether it was okay to smoke while he prayed. His pastor said, “Absolutely not! When you pray you should be completely devoted to prayer.” So the man went to another priest, but he changed his question, “Would it be okay to pray while I smoke?”
We Christians do not begin with a rule, because every rule has loopholes. We begin with the Holy Spirit. Our Sundays should be about praising God. Mass is not something to be fit in around a busy schedule. Mass comes first, everything else can be planned afterward. Those who work on Sunday should insist on having time to go to Mass, and they should take another day to praise God by resting.
Together, the three lessons of the manna teach us that we were not made for survival. The point of our lives cannot be getting through to tomorrow at any cost. We certainly were not made to succeed as the world sees success, with piles of money and stuff. Survival is secondary to praising God. As Moses puts it, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
The lessons of the manna were so important, so foundational to the Jewish religion that Moses took one omer of manna and placed it in the Ark of the Covenant, a box covered in gold. The Ark was placed at the center of worship. The Jewish Temple was merely a house for the Ark, and the Ark was a container for the manna. So really, the manna was at the center of Jewish worship, this special bread which God had given to his people.
Do you see where I am going with this? This temple, this church, is really just a house for that box right there. That box is the Ark of the Covenant, which is also called the tabernacle. Within the tabernacle, we place a portion of the bread. It is not ordinary bread that we put in the tabernacle. Indeed, it is not really bread at all. The bread is a symbol, which is to say, we see bread, we taste bread, but the meaning of the bread is something more. What is the something more? It is Jesus Christ, his Body, his Blood, his Soul, and his Divinity.
The bread is a sacrament, which is to say, it does not only symbolize this, but it in reality is Jesus Christ: Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. When we receive the symbol of bread, we actually receive Jesus Christ. When we see bread and kneel down in worship, we are actually worshipping Jesus Christ. This is a mystery. It is not clear to us how something can have the accidents of bread, the sight, the smell, the taste of bread, the atoms and molecules of bread, but in reality be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. It is not clear to us, but that is not important. Jesus did not give us this sacrament and say, “Take and understand; this is my body.” No, he said “Take and eat; this is my body.”
We must believe that the bread is, as the Church tells us, as Jesus told the Church, actually his Body. We must believe that the wine is, as the Church tells us, as Jesus told the Church, actually his Blood. This belief is not a nice addition to our faith. We place the Eucharist at the very center of our worship, because it defines who we are.
Faith in the Eucharist is where we must begin. All other work in the Church is pointless unless we begin with the Eucharist. It is pointless to protest abortion unless the Eucharist is at the center of our work. It is pointless to give food to the hungry unless this food given to us by God is satisfying our hunger. We as a Church are not a gathering of people who like doing good things. We are a gathering of people around the Eucharist. The good things come later.
Christianity without the Eucharist would be like Judaism without manna, just a lot of laws. From the Eucharist we receive our mission from God and the spiritual energy to complete that mission. If we receive the Eucharist with faith in the mystery, and we receive it acknowledging that we want to serve God above all else, confessing every sin we have committed, rejecting any plans to commit sin in the future, then we will be transformed.
Jesus Christ came to earth to give his life for us and to us. He gave his life for us on the Cross. He gives his life to us in the Eucharist. When we receive the Eucharist, we hold the life of God in our hands. We eat the life of God. We become what we eat. Eventually we do not live anymore ourselves, but Christ lives in us. That is what the Eucharist is about.