We have all had the experience of receiving a gift from someone, and wishing that we had more of their presence and less of their present. Gifts are important when they express something that is already happening in the friendship. But when a gift is given out of a sense of duty, there is something lacking.
There are other times when we might be the giver of the gift. We are always a bit disappointed when the receiver is so totally focussed on the thing we have given, that they show no gratitude, and later may not even remember who gave the gift. Perhaps the receiver is unable to see that the gift is but a sign of the much greater gift that I am offering, that is my love and my gratitude.
We expect this response from small children. They might be so overwhelmed by the gift they have received, that they are totally oblivious to the person who gave the gift. A child has to be taught and reminded by parents to say thank you to the giver.
Consider too the wrapping of a gift. The beauty (or sloppiness) of the wrapping is often a good indicator of the care with which the gift has been chosen and given. When a stack of wrapped presents sit under the Christmas tree, the best-wrapped present stirs the greatest curiosity. At best, the wrapping will be an honest indicator of the thoughtfulness and appropriateness of the gift that waits within.
Which brings us to today’s readings. You might take a moment now to read them at this link.
They begin rather startlingly: “The whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron”. (Exodus 16:2) There are always grumbling people in our families and in our communies – and often the grumblers are given the most hearing. Look at the Press reports in the last few days outlining the ‘rebuild Christchurch’ plan launched during the week. It seems that the response of the people of the city has been overwhelmingly positive, but media coverage sought out the people who were not happy. I don’t blame the media here as much as I do the ‘human’ appetite for the negative slant on a story.
Our advantage in reading the Exodus story of Moses leading the people from slavery in Egypt, through the desert, to the land of promise, is that we know the full story. Three thousand years later we can see that the Israelites were much better off in their new land flowing with ‘milk and honey’. But at the time, in the struggle of their desert journey, the people are unable to see forward. All they can think is that they were better off as prisoners back in Egypt. So they grumble: “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!” (Ex 16:3-4)
It seems that God refused to tolerate grumbling. God immediately responds to satisfy their hunger by giving food from heaven: the manna that lay over the ground each morning. The people did not know what this food was until Moses explained: “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” (Ex:16:15)
This Old Testament physical feeding of the people, quietens the grumblers – but only for a while. Before long they are thirsty, then tired and impatient. No doubt some gave up on the journey and settled in the desert. Others might have decided to return to captivity in Egypt.
But the heroes of the story are those who kept on keeping onwards to the land of promise. They knew that the bread from heaven, the water from the rock (Ex 17:6), the gift of the law (10 commandments, Deuteronomy 5), and the parting of the Red Sea (Ex 14) were just a foretaste of something that God would do for them in their new land.
Their worship of God both in the desert, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, anticipated the coming of the Messiah. It was understandably expected that this Messiah would be a political redeemer bringing from Roman captivity. This is what they saw in Moses as he led the people from Egyptian slavery. The future Messiah would surely be a “new Moses.”
They expected that the saviour would bring them gifts from God. They could never have imagined that God would be so generous as to give not just a well-wrapped gift, (perhaps simple political liberation) – but, in Jesus, to give the fullness of himself to all people of all future ages.
This is the gift we have in the Mass. The first Christians grew to know that Jesus was more fully present with them in the Eucharist, than he had been before his death and resurrection. For the first three hundred years after Pentecost Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire and many Christians were put to death simply because they were found at Mass. Yet these worshippers, our ancestors in faith, continued to gather for the Mass since they knew (as one martyr proclaimed), “without the Mass we die!”
We don’t have to look back two thousand years to see this kind of Catholic commitment to the Mass. Our ancestors in the Hurunui, the Chathams, and around the world centred their lives on the Mass. They knew that in every Mass, in Cathedrals and in country churches, God gifts himself. They knew that the wrapping of this gift, that is the rituals and texts of the Mass, were important. The form of the Mass did not follow fashion, but sought (in every age) to be an effective vehicle of Divine Life.
In the Mass we do not seek primarily to express ourselves to God, but to allow God to express himself to us. It is this ONE divine voice that speaks life and hope when our secular NZ environment grumbles with politically-correct opinions and projects.
The Christian is the one who has made a choice not to be motivated by grumbling and negativity. At times we all get caught up in this seductive downward spiral. But every celebration of the Mass reorients us back to Jesus who is the ultimate voice of hope.
Some will look longingly back to the desert. Others will decide the journey is to hard or too long. All of us might slip into these traps at times. Our regular Sunday gathering for the Mass directs us beyond our struggles to God.
“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 6:35)