The Israelites in the wilderness knew a great deal. They knew what it was to be a slave, and they knew what it was to be free. They knew what it was to eat lamb standing up with sandals on their feet and their hearts beating hard inside their chests. They knew what it was to walk through a sea on dry ground while the water rose up like walls. They knew what it was to see themselves saved, and they knew what it was to watch men die.
They also knew what it was to walk. And walk. And walk. They knew the feel of sand between their toes, the itch of fresh sunburn on bald scalps. They knew the sound the wind makes just before a storm and the clean, metallic taste of water streaming from a rock. They knew joy and fear, they knew hunger and frustration, they knew the barren, bleached sky of noonday and the brilliant dance of stars at night.
What they did not know was manna. They knew bread of all shapes and sizes – bread for mealtime, bread for the sacrifice, bread for the Sabbath, even bread with no yeast. But until that first morning when the soft seeds of manna appeared on the ground, they did not know this bread. Later, years later, when their journey was ended, Moses reminded them of this, that, in the words of one translation, this manna was something they had not known and which their fathers had not known, given to them by God in order to make them know that not by bread alone do humans stay-alive.*
For the Israelites, the appearance of manna was something entirely new. We know the manna is coming, because we know the story. We know that when the Israelites are complaining about the pangs in their belly and bemoaning the lost flesh-pots of Egypt, God will send them manna from heaven to cover the ground like frost. We know that this manna can be crushed up to make flour for bread. We know that the manna lasts only one day, except on the Sabbath, when it miraculously lasts two.
We know all of this, but to the Israelites, all of this was new. Who knows what they had been expecting. Maybe they thought that God would provide a random barley field in the desert. Maybe they thought that each morning God would send a flock of slow, fat birds over their camps. Maybe they thought that in this wonderful wilderness, God would make bread or cheese or lambs grow on trees. But God did none of these things. While the Israelites may have been looking for magical pop-up gardens and herds of slow-witted and slower-footed animals, God was preparing something.. …else. Something new, something no one had ever seen before, because God had never made it before. Bread from heaven. Manna from the mind of God, little seeds of divine imagination right there on the ground, given to God’s people so that they would now know – know that their food, and their drink, and their bodies, and their hearts, and their love and their longings and their very lives came only from God’s own hand.
Later, much later, in the heart of the Promised Land, a son of those wandering Israelites tells a crowd of curious onlookers and faithful followers that God is not finished with holy surprises. There are more in store, more things that they had not known which were about to be made known. I am the bread of life, he says. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. And to the Israelites, all of this was, again, new. They knew bread, of course – the bread of the sacrifice and the bread of the Sabbath, the flat, cracked bread of the Passover. And now they even knew the bread of the exile and the manna made in heaven. But this bread – living bread, flesh that offers them eternal life? This is bread that they did not know.
And so they ask Jesus – what in the Lord God’s little green earth are you talking about? How can you give us your flesh to eat in any way that isn’t incredibly disgusting and, frankly, pretty un-kosher? We know bread, we even know some miraculous bread, and your flesh is not it. So what, pray tell, are you going on about?
But Jesus, as he so often does, chooses to answer not the how of their questions but the why. Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, you have no life in you. The one who eats this bread will live forever. In other words, I don’t know what you were expecting, but I am what you’ve got. You may have been expecting bread that would grow your children tall and strong so that they could overcome the might of any Roman soldier, but I am not that bread. You may have been expecting bread that would make your wives bear twins and more twins so that your people would swarm this land and squeeze out your occupiers, but I am not that bread. You may have been expecting bread that would give you long years and great wisdom so that you could outlast anyone else who lays claim to this land, but I am not that bread.
I am this bread, and this bread is something…else. Something new, something no one has ever seen before, because God has never made it before. Bread that is the very Son of God, God’s own self, made flesh, right here on the ground. Bread that is offered and broken so that you will now know – know that your food, and your drink, and your bodies, and your hearts, and your salvation come from God’s own hand.
So today, I’m struck by the question – why do I think I’m so special? Why do we think that I know what this bread is all about? Today, on this great feast of Corpus Christi, why do I we sometimes imagine that I we understand all of this – that I know everything there is to know about this bread? Why do I speak about the real presence of Christ in this bread as if it’s something w I e could map out in a Venn diagram? Christ, bread, the middle part. Why do I expect that we know all that there is to know?
And we do, don’t we? It’s all too easy for us to come to this altar rail thinking that we know what’s coming. A little wafer, dry, without much flavor, sometimes round, sometimes, when it’s broken off from the priest host, oblong and angular – a rhombus of holiness. We know what it feels like in our hands, we know what it tastes like on our tongues. We even know what it feels like in our hearts. We know that we will feel comfort, or awe. We know that we will feel relief, or strength. We know that we will feel strangely warmed or righteously stirred. It’s easy to think we will know the thing that is going to happen to us when we kneel here, to know what God is going to do for us here.
But the great and glorious fact is that we do not know. We do not know what God is up to in this moment, in this church, at this altar, within this bread. And if Holy Scripture shows us anything, it is that we should expect to be surprised. We should expect that God is going to give us something holy and new, something wholly unanticipated. We might come expecting peace and instead find a restlessness that leads us to seek our rest deeper within the heart of God. We might come expecting to have a deeply personal experience of the risen Christ and instead find ourselves drawn to serve Christ’s body in the neighbor who kneels beside us at the rail. We might come seeking nothing and yet find ourselves filled with a sense of God’s nearness.
We do not know what we will find here, but we can know that whatever we find will be absolutely real – not something easy that will flop down on our plate like a bird already browned in butter, but something that provides just what we need, for just the time we need it. We can know that here will find something that requires something of us – a response, a gentle kneading and shaping of the heart. We can know that here God provides not something that meets all of our expectations so that we can close the book on our journeys, but something that demands openness, an open mouth, an open heart, a life open to the workings of Christ.
You and I know a great deal. We know that this bread is offered for us. We know that this bread is given to us by God’s own hand to feed us in ways only God can truly imagine. And we know that Christ is present in this bread in a magnificent, unfathomable way. What we do not know is the height and depth and breadth of the love that lives within this bread. What we do not know is everything that this love has in store for us. What we do not know is wonderful.
*Translation paraphrased from Everett Fox
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
29 May 2016, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia