I vividly remember the pictures in my grade school Bible History of Israelites catching the manna floating down from heaven. I don’t remember any pictures, though, of them grabbing, killing and cleaning the quail which “came up and covered the camp.” Such a scene probably was regarded as too disturbing for young minds. As it does in today’s gospel pericope, the manna always took center stage. Manna has become the classic symbol of Yahweh’s care for Yahweh’s people.
John’s Jesus employs the manna image, showing that, by the end of the first Christian century, the Eucharistic bread has been singled out as the bread which “comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Scholars remind us that our idea of the Eucharist would be quite different if our Christian Scriptures didn’t contain John’s gospel. Paul, Mark, Matthew and Luke concentrate more on the meal than the menu. They certainly wouldn’t have understood our practice of “Eucharistic devotions.”
A few of my students through the years have been disturbed when they learned manna’s “non-faith dimensions.” Our sacred authors poetically refer to it as something raining down from heaven, and even call it bread. Yet today’s Exodus passage provides a description of it which most readers ignore. “In the morning dew lay all about the camp. When the dew evaporated, there on the surface of the desert were fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground.... Moses told them, ‘This is the bread which Yahweh has given you to eat.”
The text itself tells us that manna literally wasn’t “bread come down from heaven.” People familiar with the Sinai remind us that manna’s still out there today. It’s the overnight secretion of insects on the area’s bushes, vegetation, and rocks. Not the most appetizing fare. But in a pinch, scraping it off and eating it will keep a starving person alive until something better comes along.
In other words, Yahweh cared for the Chosen People by having someone show them how to employ the survival tactics native Bedouin used to keep body and soul together while they crossed that barren stretch of land. (The “quail” probably are migratory birds whose yearly arrival in large numbers supplied them with meat for at least a short period of time.)
No wonder some of the Israelites “grumbled.” It took a certain amount of faith in Yahweh to see God’s care for them in the natural phenomena which the wilderness provided.
That’s why today’s Ephesians reading might be the most important of the three. The author reminds his community, “You must lay aside your former way of life and the old self... And acquire a fresh, spiritual way of thinking. You must put on that new person created in God’s image...”
People of faith live in the same world as people without faith. Our faith simply is the filter through which we look at that world. Like all filters, it highlights some things and obscures others.
John’s Jesus presumes we’ll go through life looking at the Eucharistic bread and wine as a sign of Jesus’ care for his people, guaranteeing we’ll never again hunger or thirst for what really counts in life. Of course, to be cared for by Jesus in that way, we must have a deeper hunger and thirst than many around us; the same hunger and thirst the historical Jesus experienced and the risen Jesus wants us to be concerned about.