Over the past few years, I have found myself drawn time and again to the provision of manna and quail during the Israelite Exodus out of Egypt – a powerful parable which leads us to ask how the sacrament of Manna invites us to a new understanding of what “enough” is, in an economic context which has modelled scarcity, disparity and unjust distribution of wealth.
The story invites us to consider how a community of people, finding themselves in a barren land devoid of the conditions for life to thrive, learn what it means to not only believe that there is enough; but to demonstrate it. Six weeks into their exodus from Egypt, there’s an all too common grumble on their lips: “If only…” “If only we’d stayed in Egypt, why did you bring us here to make us die of hunger and thirst? “ Moses intercedes on their behalf and the Lord rains down supplies. But the provision doesn’t come without a proviso – Take only what you need. No more; no less.
Isn’t this profound? Each family gathers as much as they need and when they measure it out in the assembly, those who gathered much do not have too much; and those who gathered a little did not have too little. The story is so evocative that it’s told and retold by the prophets, becoming a refrain throughout the history of Israel, “Remember that time when the Lord provided bread from heaven? Remember that time when we lived and ate our daily bread together – never again having to ask for it, for 40 years until the moment our feet touched the soil of Canaan? Remember when everyone had enough. Every day. No more than enough; and no less than enough. Remember, remember…”
The refrain is picked up again in the Gospels, as John weaves the parallels together. The crowd cries, “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘HE GAVE THEM BREAD OUT OF HEAVEN TO EAT.’ What have you got?” And Jesus responds, “I… I am the true bread”. The telling comes full circle as here, embodied in our midst, is the one who offers himself to us as the bread of life. Jesus takes up this tremendous metaphor and offers his first I Am found in John’s Gospel: “I am the bread of life.” Here he is then, the daily bread come to earth, as it is in heaven. The all-sufficient. The one who leaves us satiated and quenched.
But lest we disembody Jesus’ statement in this moment, let us remember when it takes place. The disciples and Jesus have just returned back to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, after the feeding of the five thousand. That bizarre anecdote, in which a boy’s offering of five loaves and two fish, satisfies the hunger of a crowd of over 5000. It’s easy to lose the weight of this story in light of the acclamation Jesus makes after. “I am the bread of life”, he teaches. His words would have landed in the fertile imaginations of a people who have just received enough, and more. What is manna – sufficiency – compared to the gathering of 12 extra baskets – abundance?!
Just a few months later, this same Teacher finds himself at the feast of the Passover celebrating the Exodus from Egypt and of bread from heaven, sufficient unto each, that sustained a nation for 40 years. In the middle of the meal he calls the attention of those gathered and raising the bread, recalls to their minds that hot day on the mountainside and the 5000 men seated waiting in groups of 50. Then taking the loaf, so similar to the ones offered by the small boy, breaks it and says, “This is my body; broken for you. As often as you do this, do it as a remembrance of me.”
As often as you do this. As often. My imagination is ignited as I think of this basic dietary item, present at every meal. Could the Teacher have chosen a more fitting item to recall ourselves one to another with such regularity?
I know how the teaching proceeds. The bread of life – essential for life eternal; trivial to the physical. A metaphor for the spiritual realm, a covenant for the ethereal. Wholly concerned with the hereafter: discarnate and incorporeal. Try as I might, I cannot reconcile this with the stories that got us here. Six hundred thousand grumbling, hangry, people in the middle of no-man’s land, gathering up the tangible, corporeal substance of bread from who knows where, each as much as they needed and finding themselves in a micro-economy of absolute sufficiency. Or five thousand lethargic, hot, hangry, people on a hillside listening to an itinerate preacher, sharing together the little they had between them and finding themselves in a micro-economy of bounty.
We degrade this sacrament when we insist upon viewing it as a solely symbolic meal. We degrade the remembrance when we break the bread during the sacred moment and yet hoard our bread when our brothers are going hungry. We degrade the remembrance when we share the cup, and neglect to offer even a glass of water to the least of these. Dare I say it, we commit the sin of Sodomy, when we gorge ourselves on real bread while our neighbours starve. Woe to us who seek to absolve ourselves by holding the remembrance of what the Lord demonstrated to us in giving his body for us, above the practice of doing likewise.
So where does that leave me? I know only that a reading of the I Am of the Bread of Life as disembodied and immaterial leaves me feeling like I’m missing half the story. I know that I resonate with the Israelite community in the desolate nothing, with the lethargic crowds on that sultry hilltop, and with the jostling disciples scrambling around the table in those weeks following the Messiah’s resurrection. I know that the Communion that is offered by my, at times, watered-down faith tradition, detached from the physicality of real bread and real wine, from real hunger and real thirst, leaves me wanting. And I know, that the invitation to partake of the staples of our diet in recurring and regular remembrance of our Messiah, is offered not just to us as individuals but to us as a community. When we are instructed to break the bread and extend it to our neighbour, our offering is devoid of any dynamism if it is merely spirit devoid of substance. Finally, I know, if I approach the table of communion without recognizing and responding to the body of Christ in my midst, I desecrate that holy remembrance.
Beginning on Thanksgiving and ending on Christmas Eve, part of our Advent journey is the Anderson-tradition of “Eucharisteo”. Each day we give thanks; an active remembering of the grace we have received, receive and will receive. But it’s more than just giving thanks. In doing so we affirm the sacrament of communion as a binding narrative for all our relationships. On the mountain before the 5000 and again in a small room with his closest community, Jesus enacts the four sovereign verbs of the Eucharist: he takes, gives thanks, breaks, and shares. So as we prepare ourselves “for that which we are about to receive”, we are reminded daily not to desecrate this family meal by neglecting the four decisive verbs of our sacramental existence: to take, to give thanks, to break and to share. Communion is not only to be remembered; but practiced.
This is how I want to take communion. In homes and before fires, on beaches before waves, on mountains before open skies, in fields before sunsets. Around tables and around friends. In crowded rooms filled with laughter and in quiet corners filled with tears. And even in churches.
This is how I want to take communion. With loaves of bread that fill me, not wafer thin crackers that remind me I am empty. With glasses of remembrance, not sips of observance. I want it to be abundant, not scarce. I want it to fill my being, not dissolve on my tongue before I can even taste its goodness. I want it to satisfy my thirst, not wet my tongue leaving me desiring more. I want it to be sacramental, not sentimental. I want it in sacred spaces and profane, but not in abstracted places. I want it to be intimate and accessible, not isolated and exclusionary.
This is how I want it to be when I remember. This is how I want it to be when I sit with that sacrifice. This is how I want to know those words. This conspiring; this breathing-together. This community; this gift-together. This communion; this sharing-together. This covenant; this coming-together.