10 March 2008

Choosing Manna and Water from the Rock, Numbers 21:4-9

Tomorrow's first reading is a challenging one for us. Christians may forget that the serpent was a powerful symbol of both death and life, poison and healing, resurrection and eternity, as well as sin and sinful death prevalent in Middle East religious cults. They may also forget that Satan was not unequivocably evil in Jewish thought, but instead always served God, or was constrained in some way by the purposes and will of God. And of course, we are apt to ask ourselves why it is a golden calf is condemned but a brazen serpent is acceptable. But, as thorny as some of these issues are, they are not where the challenge of this reading lays for us, I don't think. And, as central and significant as the image of the coming passion of Christ is with its parallel to the raising up of the serpent on the staff, with life coming from death, and the defeat of sinful death especially, I don't think this is where the challenge of today's first reading lays for us either.

Instead, I think the challenge lies in the area of the idea of pilgrimage, of life journeys, of impatience with and ingratitude for the day by day nourishment God provides. It has to do with accepting the perks of being God's chosen people, but rejecting the more tedious, mundane bits of day to day life in complete dependence upon God. It has to do with looking for God's mercy when we are desperate, but becoming bored with it on an everyday basis. It has to do with allowing God's love to be sufficient for us, recognizing the miracles that accompany us on our DAILY journeying, and not rejecting (or ignoring) the food God provides us as "worthless" or "tasteless" or "empty."

The first lection is the story of a people eating manna God provides daily, and drinking water which comes from supernatural sources, and growing bored with these and forgetful of how truly miraculous they are. The journey is tiring. The food is neither varied nor can it be stored up. It must be gathered daily or it corrupts and can no longer nourish. It is truly "daily bread" and must be received in that way. Israel ceases to recall the reasons she should be grateful and does what she and we often do all so well in such cases, she grumbles and whines! Things look better to her on the other side of the Red/Reed sea; the grass is greener in Egypt it seems. In fact, slavery looks better to Israel than the freedom which God has brought them to and whose fulfillment he promises in the future. Slavery was hard work, but freedom is also not without its tedium, responsibilities, and difficulties --- not least the day to day, moment by moment praxis of dependence upon the power and mercy of God, which, miraculous as it is, demands one remain completely mindful, open, and grateful.

We often extol how faithful God is from moment to moment. In fact, we note that should he forget us or his covenant at any point, we will simply cease to be. And yet, in our own lives we forget we are participants in a covenant which requires ongoing, moment by moment faithfulness. We tend instead to try to get by on "saved up grace" or skate along on yesterday's prayer, Sunday's liturgy and readings, last year's retreat, the sacraments and catechetical education we received as adolescents or young adults. Some few may make it to daily Mass, and that is surely an improvement, but how many read spirituality and/or theology regularly in ways which nourish them afresh? How many do lectio? How many pray office, or stop for quiet prayer once a day? How many of us are really concerned with making our entire lives into a prayer, or, in the words of Scripture, "praying always"? Few of us are really as faithful to these sources of miraculous nourishment as we could be, I think, and this is true whatever our state of life or vocation.

Today's first reading gives us an immediate image of the passion by recalling the serpent raised on a staff, and calls to mind the healing that can come from something deadly. On our way to Holy Week and Easter, that is surely significant. The challenge, at least as I read this lection however, is not located here but in recognizing how similar we are to the Israelites and their forgetfulness, blindness, and ingratitude. In a culture which offers us entertainment, diversion, and novelty in every conceivable form we are apt to choose these things over the more difficult and even tedious manna and water which God asks us to live on, no matter how miraculous it is! I think the challenge of today's first reading is in demanding we examine our own lives for signs of ingratitude, forgetfulness, impatience, boredom, and a desire for security, independence from God, and the entertainment and novelty which distracts us from the difficult praxis of choosing and valuing the daily bread offered us by God, whatever form that food takes.