Monday, August 6, 2012

Seeking the bread of life

There was a man who lived in the mountains. He knew nothing about those who lived in the city. He sowed wheat and ate the kernels raw.

One day he entered the city. They brought him good bread. He said, “What is this for?” They said, “Bread, to eat!” he ate, and it tasted very good. He said, “What is it made of?” They said, “Wheat.”

Later they brought him cakes kneaded in oil. He tasted them and said, “What are these made of?” They said, “Wheat.”

Finally, they brought him royal pastry made with honey and oil. He said, “And what are these made of?” They said, “Wheat.” He said, “I am the master of all of these, for I eat the essence of all of these: wheat!”

Because of that view, he knew nothing of the delights of the world; they were lost to him. So it is with one who grasps the principle and does not know all those delectable delights deriving, diverging, from that principle.[1]

That charming story is from the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition that emphasizes the direct experience of God's presence. I wonder to what extent our spiritual journeys resemble the mountain man who ate the raw wheat kernels and never enjoyed the delectable delights that derive and diverge from raw wheat. We know the ideas of Christianity but never experience the life-changing reality of God's presence.

For example, Christians generally approach this morning’s first reading (Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15) in one of two ways: with a literal supernaturalism or a historical rationalism. Literal supernaturalism accepts the story and all of its details at face value. Moses led six hundred thousand Israelite males and their families, an enormous number of people that would have constituted about half of Egypt’s population at the time, out of bondage and on a forty year journey to the Promised Land. Having left the Egyptian granaries behind, the people soon grumbled with hunger. So God sent manna – bread from heaven – to feed them. This bread tasted sweet like honey. It spoiled if kept for more than a day – except on Friday, when the people were to gather enough for two days so they did not have to work on the Sabbath. This interpretation of the story seems far removed from our experience in which large numbers of people, in spite of fervent prayers, die of hunger and God performs few if any similarly spectacular supernatural interventions to liberate, heal, or sustain God's people.

On the other hand, historical rationalism provides an equally unsatisfying interpretation. This approach correctly recognizes that the biblical report of the exodus from Egypt functions primarily as a nation building identity narrative rather than as a factual record. Historical rationalists most commonly explain manna from heaven as a gum resin produced by flowering trees or the edible excrement of two species of insects. These interpretations, which seek to describe God's acts in ways that are consistent with our scientific worldview, reduce the holiness and care of the mysterious Other to mundane naturalism. Ultimately, the explanations of historical rationalism fail. The flowering trees produce resin for only three to six weeks; the insects live in only some of the areas through which the Israelites traveled.[2]

In other words, both the Christian who advocates literal supernaturalism and the Christian who advocates historical rationalism are like the mountain man in the story from the Kabbalah: they intellectually accept the idea of God but have never really enjoyed the delectable delights of encountering the mysterious, life-giving, and real but ineffable presence of the living God.

In Hebrew, the etymology of the word manna is the expression what is it? God is neither a magician who performs at our behest nor a disinterested observer watching creation unfold. Instead, God is an active but frustratingly indefinable presence who guides, feeds, heals, liberates, and loves to bring the world more abundant life. That presence is the true manna; that presence is what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."[3] We can encounter this presence in the light that shines through the windows of Scripture, the sacraments, and loving others.

A six-year-old boy, dirty face, barefoot with a torn T-shirt and matted hair came up behind a man in Rio de Janeiro on his way to get a cup of coffee prior to teaching a class. Gently and shyly, the boy tapped the man’s hand. Turning, the man saw no one. He took a few more steps and then again felt the tapping. This time he saw the urchin with grubby cheeks and coal-black hair.

¿Pao, señor? (Bread, sir?)

Daily, this man had such opportunities, opportunities to buy a sandwich or candy bar for one of these unfortunates. So, as he entered the café, he said, “Coffee for me and something tasty for my little friend.”

Normally, the children grab the food and disappear. This one was different. After carefully making his selection, he stepped outside to gain a vantage point from which he could see all of the café’s customers. When he spotted his benefactor, he scurried in, looked up at the man, smiled, and said, “Obrigato.” Then nervously scratching the back of his ankle with the big toe on his other foot, and nervously looking at the floor, he said, “Muito obrigato,” and was gone.[4]
Such moments, such experiences, are the bread that the Lord has given us to eat.

[1] Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1995), p. 134.
[2] John C. Slayton, “Manna,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D.N. Freedman (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1992), Vol. 4, p. 511.
[3] John 6:35.
[4] Max Lucado, No Wonder They Call Him Savior (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1986), pp. 119-120.

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