My friend Fr. Justin Falciani, Rector of Christ Church in Somers Point, told me this week that his oldest parishioner had just passed away. She was 111 years old; she was 68 years older than me, which is not something I can wrap my head around real well. It also reminded me of the advice given by the oldest woman in Scotland, Jessie Gallen, who died a couple years ago. This was her secret to a long life: “My secret to a long life has been staying away from men. They’re just more trouble than they’re worth.”
Usually this kind of advice comes in the form of things to eat or drink or things not to eat or drink, but Jessie had other ideas. Jesus gave us what looks like, at first glance, some nutritional advice: “Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert yet they died.”
“I mean, of course those people died—in fact, they had died about 1,000 years (before Jesus said that)! And since no one even a millennium earlier had ever said manna would keep you alive forever if you kept eating the stuff, noting the fact that those ancestors ate and died seems about as profound a thing to say as “Your great-great-grandfather ate his fruits and vegetables his whole life and then he died.”
Well, that’s the way it works.
And so perhaps there’s a little confusion, the need for some context. “Perhaps one way to get through this apparently confusing tangle is to recognize that over time, “manna” became a symbol for far more than the flaky, bread-like stuff the Israelites received in the desert. Manna became a symbol for the presence of God and the Word of God and the gifts of God generally—for all things that contribute to our salvation, in short. And even as a physical substance, the original manna was a true source of wonder and delight, a key sign that God was with his people, sustaining life in a place that was otherwise shot through with death.
“But now in John 6 Jesus seems to be saying that for all its wonder—and despite all the metaphorical significance that accrued to manna over time—it pales in comparison to the true spiritual sustenance God is ultimately providing for his people through the Christ of God, whose sacrificed flesh will well up inside God’s people as a source of Eternal Life that not even physical death can snuff out.
“Jesus will say something very similar to Martha on the occasion of Lazarus’ death a bit later in this gospel in John 11. So perhaps the reason Jesus brings up manna in this context is along the lines of “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” The original manna was great. It was a true life saver. It signaled the presence of God among his people in a place of death. But it was, in the end, a temporary fix. It was part of the story of salvation, not the whole story and not the climax of that story. If anything, it could only point toward the greater Bread from heaven that was yet to come.”
All of the “bread” Gospel lessons we’ve heard over the last several weeks won’t reach their natural end until the 26th, and even the Gospel for September 2nd has to do with eating. The Church has given us an opportunity, I think, to dwell upon what sustains us, what gives us life. Having Scripture and Holy Tradition speak to us this way is like asking Jessie Gallen how she lived so long; as G.K. Chesterton said, “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.”
Scripture and tradition tell us that food is incredibly import and a natural pleasure, which comes as a surprise only to the Stoics. Sometimes food comes literally and immediately from God, like the manna in the wilderness, and all the rest of the time still comes from God, just slower. This food satisfies our bodies, makes bodily life possible.
And despite all of that, our forefathers ate the manna and died. And so we are reminded today that the true human hunger is the hunger for relationship, relationship with each other and with God. Jesus is the food that satisfies our true hunger; He is the one who gives us true life, who will never cast us out, who will raise us up on the last day.