Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Prefiguring Salvation –Manna in the Desert and the Bread From Heaven, Part I

The Master of the Hours of Margaret of Cleves,Fall of Manna
From Biblia pauperum
Dutch, c. 1405
London, British Library
MS King's 5, fol. 10

This is the first of a series of three articles regarding the interpretation of the miracle of the manna and its relationship to Jesus' statements about his flesh as the bread from heaven.  Please be sure to read all three.  Links to the second and  third essays are found at the end of this essay.

“When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there,
they themselves got into boats
and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
And when they found him across the sea they said to him,
"Rabbi, when did you get here?"
Jesus answered them and said,
"Amen, amen, I say to you,
you are looking for me not because you saw signs
but because you ate the loaves and were filled.
Do not work for food that perishes
but for the food that endures for eternal life,
which the Son of Man will give you.
For on him the Father, God, has set his seal."
So they said to him,
"What can we do to accomplish the works of God?"
Jesus answered and said to them,
"This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent."
So they said to him,
"What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?
What can you do?
Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written:
He gave them bread from heaven to eat."
So Jesus said to them,
"Amen, amen, I say to you,
it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven;
my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.
For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven
and gives life to the world."

So they said to him,
"Sir, give us this bread always."
Jesus said to them,
"I am the bread of life;
whoever comes to me will never hunger,
and whoever believes in me will never thirst."

John 6:24-35 (Gospel for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, August 5, 2018)

On the eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the church began a series of Gospel readings, extending over the next three Sundays, that tell us of the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ revelations regarding his intent to share his eternal life with humanity.1  Several times he tells them how, through his self-sacrifice and through his establishment of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, he will accomplish this.  He offers them the “true bread from heaven”, which is himself, his own flesh and blood, and does this through reference to the account of one of the miracles given by God to the Israelites during their forty years of wandering.  These miracles, found in Genesis, Chapters 16 and 17, and are manna and quail, both of which God gives them from the sky, and water from the barren rock, struck by Moses at God’s command (Exodus 17:3-7). 

In this first of the series of Gospel readings the scene for this teaching is set immediately after Jesus has miraculously fed 5,000 people with just a few loaves of bread and some fish.  People are, naturally, drawn to him, hoping to get some more, hoping to see the miracle repeated, hoping to see this newest prophet with the amazing powers.  Just hoping…..

Eager to witness a miracle they goad him by asking “What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat." (John 6:30-31) In fact, the Church has chosen the passage from Exodus which presents this exact story, as the first reading for the same Mass of the eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.  “The whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, "Would that we had died at the LORD's hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread!  But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!" (Exodus 16:2-3)

In answer Jesus promises them “true bread from heaven” Later, he will make clear that this “true bread” is his own Body and Blood, something that many of them will find hard to understand or to believe in, just as many have struggled with trying to come to terms with this right up to the present day, a struggle that can only be ended by trust in God’s Word.

The connection between the manna of the Old Testament and the Eucharist of the New Testament is an old one, going back to Jesus himself in these Gospel quotations. Many times the Gospels suggest that he mentioned the episode of the manna in preparing his disciples for the gift they would receive at the Last Supper, along with the command to “Do this in memory of me.”

The Miracle of the Manna in Christian Art

It also has, as we shall see, a long tradition in the history of Christian art.  Early Christian art often called attention to pre-figurations of Jesus’ actions that can be found in the Old Testament.  One favorite topic was the story of Jonah and the Whale.  The three days Jonah spent in the whale’s belly was equated to the time Jesus spent in the tomb before the Resurrection.  Other Old Testament scenes were also seen as pre-figurations of the life and ministry of Jesus. 

In the fourth decade of the fifth century, AD 432, the newly built church of Santa Sabina in Rome received a set of wooden doors carved with scenes from the Old and New Testaments.  These doors still survive in place today, miraculous witnesses to more than 1,500 years of prayer and devotion, but also of wars and “renovations”.  One of the most famous panels on the doors is the very first representation of the Crucifixion.  Another, less well known set of panels depicts three miracles of Jesus, including the feeding of the 5, 000 and the Miracle of Cana, while its companion depicts the Miracles of Moses, including the miracle of the Manna in the desert and the water from the rock. 
Moses in the Wilderness, Miracle of the Quail,
Miracle of the Manna, Water from the Rock
Late Antique/Early Christian, 432
Rome, Church of Sainta Sabina
Miracles of Jesus:  Curing the Blind Man,
Multiplying the Loaves & Fishes,
Changing Water to Wine at Cana
Late Antique/Early Christian, 432
Rome, Church of Santa Sabina

This proves the point that even as early as 432 this was a firm belief of the church, that the Eucharist/Body of Christ is foretold not only by the actions of important figures in the Old Testament, but also by the actions of Jesus himself in the New.  Consequently, many images of the fall and gathering of the manna in the wilderness are paired with other events, taken from both the Old and New Testaments.

 The Miracle of the Manna Paired with other Old Testament Scenes

When paired with other Old Testament images of actions or events they are understood to forecast actions or events from the life of Jesus, especially events that foretell his sufferings in the Passion and his establishment of the Eucharist.  
Moses Summons Water from the Rock and The Miracle of the Manna
From Old Testament Miniatures
French (Paris), 1244-1255
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M638, fol. 9va
Lest the viewer forget who is the real source of these miracles, a small figure of God looks down from heaven in each. The miracle of water from the rock was seen as a forecast of Baptism.
Master of James IV of Scotland, Israelites Gathering Manna
From the Spinola Hours
Flemish (Ghent), c. 1510-1520
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS Ludwig IX 8, fol. 49
Here the scene of gathering manna is paired with the meeting between Abraham and the priest-king of Salem, Melchisedek, himself seen as a foreshadowing of Jesus, as his sacrifice of bread and wine foreshadow the Eucharist too.
The Sacrifice of Isaac and the Isrealites Gathering Manna
From a Missal
German (Maria Laach), 1558
London, British Library
MS Harley 2835, fol. 145
The Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, averted by divine intervention at the last moment, alludes to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus in obedience to his Father's will, while the fall of manna is a foretaste of the Eucharist, the True Bread from heaven.

This study continues in two more articles, with the images combining the Miracle of the Manna with the events of the life of Jesus from the New Testament and with more interesting images.

1,  These readings are: 
  • Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – John 6:41-51   
  • Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – John 6:51-58                                                                  
  • Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time – John 6: 60-69

© M. Duffy, 2018

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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