The first reading for daily Mass on Monday (18th week of the year) was taken from the Book of Numbers. It features the Israelites grumbling about the manna in the wilderness:
Would that we had meat for food! We remember the fish we used to eat without cost in Egypt, and the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now we are famished; we see nothing before us but this manna (Numbers 11:4-5).
While it is easy to be astonished at their insolence and ingratitude, the scene presented depicts very common human tendencies; it is not unique to these people once in the desert. Their complaints are too easily our own.
Let’s look at some of the issues raised and see how it is possible for many of us today to struggle in the same way.
I. They prefer the abundance of food and creature comforts that come along with slavery in Egypt, to the freedom of children of God and the chance to journey to the Promised Land. Too easily, this is our struggle as well. Jesus points to the cross, but we prefer the pillow. Heaven is a nice thought, but it is in the future and the journey is a long one.
Too easily we prefer our own version of “melons and leeks.” Perhaps it is possessions, or power, or popularity. Never mind that the price we pay for them is a kind of bondage to the world and its demands. When the world grants its blessings, we become enslaved by the fact that we have too much to lose. We are willing to compromise our freedom, which Christ died to purchase for us, and enter into bondage to sin. We will buy into lies, commit any number of sins, or perhaps suppress the truth—all in an attempt to stay popular and well-connected. Why? Because we have become so desperate for the world’s blessings that we will make compromises that harm our integrity or hurt other people just to get those things we think we can’t live without.
We don’t like to call it bondage, though. Instead, we call it being “relevant,” “modern,” “tolerant,” and “compassionate.” Yes, as we descend into deeper darkness and bondage to sin and our passions, we are pressured to call it “enlightenment,” “choice,” and “freedom.” So, although we use other terms, it is still bondage for the many who are afraid to break free from it.
We are in bondage to Egypt, enslaved to Pharaoh. We prefer that to the freedom of the desert, with its difficult journey to a Promised Land (Heaven) that we have not yet fully seen. The pleasures of the world, its melons and leeks, are displayed to us in the present and available for immediate enjoyment.
And so the cry still goes up: “Give us melons; give us leeks; give us cucumbers and fleshpots! Away with the desert. Away with the cross. Away with the Promised Land, if it exists at all. It is too far off and too hard to get to. Melons and leeks, please. Give us meat; we are tired of manna!”
II. They are bored with the manna. While its exact composition is mysterious to us, it would seem that manna could be collected, kneaded like dough, and baked like bread. As such, it was a fairly plain substance, meant more to sustain than to be enjoyed.
Remembering the melons, leeks, and fleshpots of Egypt, they were bored with this plain manna. Never mind that it was miraculously provided every day by God, and in just the right quantity. Even miracles can seem boring after a while to our petulantly demanding desires. The Lord may show us miracles today, but too easily do we demand even more tomorrow.
We are also somewhat like little children who prefer Twinkies and cupcakes to vegetables and other more wholesome foods. Indeed, the Israelites’ boredom with and even repulsion to the miracle food from Heaven does not sound so different from the complaint of many Catholics today that “Mass is boring.”
While it is certainly true that we can work to ensure that the liturgy reflects the glory it offers, it is also true that God has a fairly stable and consistent diet for us. He exhorts us to stay faithful to the manna: the wholesome food of prayer, Scripture, the Sacraments, and stable, faithful fellowship in union with the Church.
In our fickle spirits, many of us run after the latest fads and movements. Many Catholics say, “Why can’t we be more like the mega-churches with all the latest, including a Starbucks Coffee Café, contemporary music, a rock-star-like pastor delivering sensitive, toned-down preaching with many promises and few demands, and all that jazz?”
But as an old spiritual says regarding this type of person, “Some go to church for to sing and shout, before six months, they’s all turned out!” Thus some will leave the Catholic Church and other traditional forms that feature the more routine but stable and steady manner, in favor of the hip and the latest. They often find that within six months they’re bored again.
While the Church is always in need of reform, there is a lot to be said for the slow and steady pace as she journeys through the desert relying on the less glamorous but more stable and sensible food: the manna of the Eucharist, the Word of God, the Sacred Liturgy, prayer, and fellowship.
III. Who feeds you? Beyond these liturgical preferences of many for melons and leeks over manna, there is also a manifest preference for the food of this world. There is a tragic tendency for many Catholics—even regular church-goers—to get most of their food not from the Lord, Scripture, and the Church, but from the Egypt of this world.
Most dine regularly at the banquet table of popular entertainment, and secular news media and talk radio. They seem to eat this food quite uncritically! The manna is complained about, but the melons and leeks are praised without qualification.
While Christians cannot wholly avoid all contact with the world or eschew all its food, when do the melons and leeks ever come up for criticism? When do Christians finally look closely and say, “That is not the mind of God!” When do they ever conclude that this food is inferior to what God offers? When do parents finally walk into the living room, turn off the television, and tell their children that what they have just seen and heard is not the mind of God?
Tragically, this is rare. The food of this world is eaten in amounts far surpassing the consumption of the food of God. The melons and leeks of the world are praised, while the manna of God is put on trial for not being like the food of this world.
For a Christian, of course, this is backwards. The world should be on trial based on the Word of God. Instead, even for most Catholics, the Word of God and the teachings of the Church are put on trial by the standards of the world.
So the question is this: who is it that feeds you? Is it the world or the Lord? What proportion of your food comes from the Lord and what from the world? Answer honestly! Which is more influential in your daily life and your thinking: the world or the Lord? Who is really feeding you, informing you, and influencing you? Is it the melons and leeks of this world or is it the faithful, stable, even miraculous manna of the Lord and His Church?
These are some probing questions for all of us, drawn from an ancient wilderness. God’s people, who tired of the manna, harmed themselves and others. It is easy to blame others for the mess we’re in today, but there are too many Catholics who prefer the melons and leeks of this world and have failed to summon others to the manna given by the Lord.
Have mercy on us, Lord our God. Give us a deep desire for the manna you offer. And having given it to us in abundance, help us to share it as well!