In the First Reading, the Israelites, who are marching through the desert, are hungry and angry. God should have killed us in Egypt, they say; then at least we would have died with food in our bellies.
In response, God feeds them with bread from heaven. Bread falls from the sky during the night, and in the morning they can pick their bread up off the ground. It seems to have been specially wonderful bread, too. Scripture says that it was small, and white, and mildly sweet, like honey with coriander (Ex.16:31), and it was greatly sustaining, too. Tolkien’s Elven bread lembas, so prized for its taste and nourishment, must have been modeled on manna.
This is a story to shake your head over. In my world, if you want bread, you have to go to the store for what you need, and you have to pay for what you get there, too. And if you grumble against God angrily, you get a guilty conscience; you don’t get bread falling from the sky. With or without stores and money, we get no Elven bread at all.
Why are these Israelites so lucky? Why doesn’t God make bread fall from heaven for us too?
Here is what the story makes clear. God is a God of history. He intervenes in human affairs in particular ways at particular times to provide for his people what will do them good at that time. Only those grumbling Israelites got to eat manna. And even they got to eat it only for a while. When they crossed the Jordan River, the manna stopped. All they got then was the parched corn from the previous harvest.
These thoughts can prompt a painful yearning. Who would not want to be among those who got to taste that honey-sweet manna? Who would not want to have been one of those hand-fed by the Lord?
And, yet in God’s love, every yearning has its fulfillment. We too are fed with the bread from heaven; and, in the Eucharist, we taste the goodness of the Lord, which is sweeter than wine or honey (Ps.19:10). We too are hand-fed by the Lord.
Although God is a God of history, for each one of us it is true that there is nothing we shall want.