My best friend from childhood just spent a long weekend at our house which was nourishing in many ways. To top it off, while she was here, she baked us homemade, fresh bread. Is there any greater luxury than warm bread out of the oven? I’m not sure.
Being a Eucharistic people, I think bread always smacks of something bigger than what lies before us, no matter the form it takes. The Judeo-Christian tradition relies heavily on bread to commemorate an event, ritual or liturgy. In each sense, the practice of bread-breaking is life-giving, providing food for our journey. One bit of wisdom that has resonated with me for a long time is from Gandhi who shared:
“There are people so hungry, that God can only appear to them in the form of bread.”
I think this appearance of God in the form of bread is essentially what is being shared in both the Old Testament reading today and the New Testament, alike. First, the Israelites are wandering about in the desert, eating flakey, bread dust, and missing the comforts of home: namely food (meats, cucumbers, garlic, melon…everything).
God promises the Israelites that “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way, I will test them, whether they will follow my instructions or not” (Exodus 16:4).
And so, God sends a “fine flaky substance, as fine as the frost on the ground” (16:13). The Israelites call it “manna,” which essentially means, “What is this?” They don’t recognize it, they aren’t enamored by it, but they are fed by this mysterious bread.
Similarly Matthew’s Gospel presents the story of the loaves and fishes where the disciples alert Jesus to the lack of food for the tremendous crowd and advise sending them home lest they grow hungry and cannot provide enough to eat. They assure him of their perceived lack of bread, when the Bread of Life is standing before them. We can distance ourselves now from such misunderstanding, separated by hundreds of years and scholarly translations, yet I know I have been prone to this same ignorance in my life, as I think about the excuses I have made for fear of not having “enough.” “No, let’s not invite them; it would be a little cramped.” “I don’t have anything to give that woman on the corner right now.” “I’m not sure I have enough talent to take on that role.”
We are fixated on enough–which as it turns out, is essentially what manna is, and what the loaves and fishes turn out to be.
In the final words of her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day says: “There was always bread.” She says this of her own perpetual experience of feeding the hungry in New York City’s Catholic Worker house. She may as well have said it for the Israelites and the crowd passing leftover baskets of loaves and fish in Jesus’s time because it’s as true today as it was then. This teacher we have in the person of Jesus is instructing us not with the philosophy scarcity, measurements carefully kept, but he is repeating a generous philosophy of abundance, gifts of self, actions which by their very nature invite and produce abundance for ourselves and those in our midst.