Conrad Pepler O.P. 18th Sunday of the Year
Exodus C16 vv 2.4, 12.15; Ephesians C4 vv 17, 20-24; John C6 vv 24-35.
"Man-hu?" the Israelites asked. "Manna, what is that?" and that question comes echoing down the centuries to the crowd gathered round our Lord by the Sea of Galilee and on from there. And now the question deepens with mystery. "What is this bread from heaven?"
This is a question we are meant to ask over and over again without receiving a full answer till faith gives place to vision. To begin with it is difficult to discover what this desert food really was like. We often think of it. especially in view of the reference to the hoar-frost, as a white substance much the same as hosts that are generally used for mass in this country. But Fr P. Zerafa in the Catholic Commentary concludes that it was "a viscous substance exuded by some trees, especially the tamarisk. at the sting of an insect. It falls to the ground in clear and soft yellow-brown drops that harden in the cool of the night and dissolve in day time heat . . . still a favourite food of wa nd ering tribes." So it may not even have been white. We may not know what it was, but we do know what it did — it fed the hungry and disgruntled Israelites all those years in the desert.
These other hungry people, in the Gospel, were also rather disgruntled. They had hoped to retain for their own benefit one who gave them bread for nothing, but he had eluded them and they had to chase across to the other side of the Lake. They had not asked the question, "What is it?": they thought they knew. It was just ordinary food, just bread. They did not know where it came from, but they thought they knew what it was. They did not even have to ask what the Manna in the desert was. It was "bread from heaven"; hut, like the loaves which they had just received so miraculously from our Lord's hands, it was ordinary bread—"food that perishes." Our Lord tries to explain but their demand "Lord give us this bread always" shows that they are still as literal-minded as before. They have not yet reached the point of asking "What is it, what is this bread from heaven of which you speak?" As regards this long discourse. which may have been put together by John from twoor three discourses there has always been a discussion "Of what is it that he speaks?" From the time of the Fathers of the Church some have interpreted the bread in an exlusively "spiritual" sense — the Word. the Word made flesh — while for others Jesus is talking ultimately about the Eucharist.
It is well that the question remains open. In our own day, in particular, we are ill at ease, as there are unanswered questions dangling in the air around our heads. We must bring them down to earth, find an answer to them, and so lay them to rest so that we can proceed to further conquest. further assurances, further certainties. Thus if we decide that the Israelites' Manna was these sticky drops from the trees and the quail came flying in on their annual migration from Africa to the North. then the question is answered. "No problem," as modern jargon has it. We are happier without unsolved problems and mysteries.
Supposing, then, we conclude that our Lord is talking about the Eucharist throughout this discourse we may seem to solve that problem to our own satisfaction, but we may be in danger of reducing the mystery of the Eucharist itself and so denuding it of some of its efficacy in our own daily lives. Having accepted the fact on faith that the Eucharistic bread is the body of Christ, and acknowledging that it should be our daily bread as the manna for the Israelites (overlooking the fact that they had no manna on the Sabbath). I begin to see it as the only approach to our Lord. Before the Eucharistic bread the question "What is it?" is answerably "It is the Lord."
And with a literal mind I can easily feel deprived if unable to receive Holy Communion for even one day. Obviously the non-believer answers the question, "What is it?" to his own satisfaction by "A wafer of flour and water." But the believer must try to avoid the danger of settling the question with the Real Presence as though from then onwards there is no problem. no mystery.
For it is a matter of faith', and as the Epistle to the Hebrews has it "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." It is not a divine gift to quieten the mind and answer all questions. On the contrary it is a gift of wonder, as the Israelites wondered at the sight of manna in the desert. This is where the theologian comes in, not to solve problems and answer all questions. not to provide the vision, but to stir the desire for vision. The theologian sets out to show that truth is one, without being able to answer the final question "What is God? What is the Trinity? What is the word?" but seeking to keep the human reason open. It is in this area that such things as "transubstantiation" appear, supporting the conviction that this is Christ's body though not seen.
And this is what Paul is writing to the Ephesians about, the living faith, the acceptance of the Truth that is in Jesus. The pagans have set their minds at rest, thinking there are no problems — "darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them." The Ephesians did not so learn Christ, but were taught that the truth is in Jesus. Our Lord's audience at Capernaum had not the faith so that they constantly seized the literal meaning in the answer to their queries. But the Ephesians should be renewed in the spirit of their minds putting on the new nature. created after the likeness of God. The faith teaches us always to seek. never to be satisfied; this is the hunger for truth, hunger for the Word, hunger for the bread of life. which maintains the contemplative always on the way.