Reflection 8/2: What is it?
Dear Beloved Community of St. John’s,
So, manna—what is it? Actually, that is both a real and a trick question. The word manna means literally “what is it?” And so, again, what is manna, for real? What substance comprises manna? We really don’t know. It is said that it might have been locusts—an insect that does indeed provide nutritional value. Others have surmised that manna was the crystalized secretions left behind by aphids. Scientists and biblical scholars, considering the geography of the Exodus journey, have no satisfactory answer as to what manna might have been.
The ancient Israelites are on a journey through the wilderness. They are hungry, and they complain incessantly. God hears them and provides manna from heaven. However, initially the now-liberated, wandering Jews don’t know what to make of God’s bounty on their Exodus pilgrimage. Also, manna, as such, doesn’t provide the food value humans need from vegetables and fruits. In other words, manna is both abundant and deficient. The ancients knew this. That is why manna became a spiritual abundance. The facts about manna were incidental.
The oral traditions of Exodus are perhaps three thousand years old. Exodus was written down about 2500 years ago. The authors of the Bible were not particularly troubled by the specific question of, “what is it?” Answering that question was beside the point because God’s bread of life would not yield itself to being pinned down. Rather, the bread of heaven and defies a reasonable explanation. The answer to the question “what is it?” is that manna is whatever humankind most needs, in our sense of self, community, and relationship with God. In a basic way, manna is God’s gracious gift in response to our real need and our inability to survive without God’s intervention.
Manna is our food for the journey. Manna is what we need here on earth. Manna points to the reality that God is present and with us, particularly in our neediness. Manna, as we presently experience it, will suffice in some form or another, until we dine at that heavenly banquet. Then we will not need manna, because we will live is God’s grace, mercy, and abundance–so much finer than anything we’ve known and imagined here on earth.