Thursday, July 30, 2009

Making Sense of Sunday: 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B), August 2, 2009

This series, Making Sense of Sunday, is meant to be an aid both to lectors and the people in the pews. I cover both the First Reading and the Second Reading, usually giving more attention to the Second Reading, since it's usually omitted from the homily and only rarely topically related to the First Reading and the Gospel.

First Reading: Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15
In Exodus 15, the Israelites sing a triumphant song to the Lord Who has just defeated Pharaoh's entire army by drowning them in the Red Sea. The chapter ends, though, with grumbling: the company of Israel had walked through the desert of Shur for three days without finding water, and when they finally did find water, it was too bitter to drink. The Israelites called that place Marah (meaning, "bitter").

So faced with bitter water, the Israelites complained to Moses, "What are we to drink?" The Lord instructed Moses to throw a certain type of wood into the water to make it drinkable. Could this be a sign pointing to the wood of the cross by which death (often represented by water) is transformed from being bitter to being our final passage into the sweetness of eternity?

After Marah, they travel to Elim, "where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees." (Exodus 15:27) From there, they set off through the desert of Sin (what a name, eh?) which is between Elim and Sinai. (cf. Exodus 16:1) They have not yet reached Mt. Sinai and received the Commandments; they reach it in Exodus 19.

I have included the whole of chapter 16; verses omitted from the liturgical reading are in italics and placed between { and }.

{ [1] Having set out from Elim, the whole Israelite community came into the desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt. }

[2] The whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.
[3] The Israelites said to them,
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!”

[Ps. 78:23-25; 105:40[4] Then the LORD said to Moses,
Wis. 16:20]“I will now rain down bread from heaven for you.
Each day the people are to go out and gather their daily portion;
thus will I test them,
to see whether they follow my instructions or not.

{ [5] On the sixth day, however, when they prepare what they bring in, let it be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”

[6] So Moses and Aaron told all the Israelites, At evening you will know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt;
[7] and in the morning you will see the glory of the LORD, as he heeds your grumbling against him. But what are we that you should grumble against us?
[8] When the LORD gives you flesh to eat in the evening,” continued Moses, “and in the morning your fill of bread, as he heeds the grumbling you utter against him, what then are we? Your grumbling is not against us, but against the LORD.”

[9] Then Moses said to Aaron, “Tell the whole Israelite community: Present yourselves before the LORD, for he has heard your grumbling.”
[10] When Aaron announced this to the whole Israelite community, they turned toward the desert, and lo, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud!
[11] The LORD spoke to Moses and said, }

[12] “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites.
Tell them: In the evening twilight you shall eat flesh,
and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread,
so that you may know that I, the LORD, am your God.”

[13] In the evening quail came up and covered the camp.
In the morning a dew lay all about the camp,
[14] and when the dew evaporated, there on the surface of the desert
were fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground.
[15] On seeing it, the Israelites asked one another, “What is this?”
for they did not know what it was.
But Moses told them,
“This is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.”

{ [16] “Now, this is what the LORD has commanded. So gather it that everyone has enough to eat, an omer for each person, as many of you as there are, each man providing for those of his own tent.”
[17] The Israelites did so. Some gathered a large and some a small amount.
[18] But when they measured it out by the omer, he who had gathered a large amount did not have too much, and he who had gathered a small amount did not have too little. They so gathered that everyone had enough to eat.

[CCC 2836-2837][19] Moses also told them, “Let no one keep any of it over until tomorrow morning.”
[20] But they would not listen to him. When some kept a part of it over until the following morning, it became wormy and rotten. Therefore Moses was displeased with them.

[21] Morning after morning they gathered it, till each had enough to eat; but when the sun grew hot, the manna melted away.
[22] On the sixth day they gathered twice as much food, two omers for each person. When all the leaders of the community came and reported this to Moses,
[23] he told them, “That is what the LORD prescribed. Tomorrow is a day of complete rest, the sabbath, sacred to the LORD. You may either bake or boil the manna, as you please; but whatever is left put away and keep for the morrow.”
[24] When they put it away for the morrow, as Moses commanded, it did not become rotten or wormy.

[25] Moses then said, “Eat it today, for today is the sabbath of the LORD. On this day you will not find any of it on the ground.
[26] On the other six days you can gather it, but on the seventh day, the sabbath, none of it will be there.”
[27] Still, on the seventh day some of the people went out to gather it, although they did not find any.
[28] Then the LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and laws?
[29] Take note! The LORD has given you the sabbath. That is why on the sixth day he gives you food for two days. On the seventh day everyone is to stay home and no one is to go out.”
[30] After that the people rested on the seventh day.

[31] The Israelites called this food manna. It was like coriander seed, but white, and it tasted like wafers made with honey.

[32] Moses said, “This is what the LORD has commanded. Keep an omerful of manna for your descendants, that they may see what food I gave you to eat in the desert when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
[33] Moses then told Aaron, “Take an urn and put an omer of manna in it. Then place it before the LORD
in safekeeping for your descendants.”

[Heb. 9:4][34] So Aaron placed it in front of the commandments
for safekeeping, as the LORD had commanded Moses.

[35] The Israelites ate this manna for forty years, until they came to settled land;
[Jos. 5:12]they ate manna until they reached the borders of Canaan.

[36] (An omer is one tenth of an ephah.) }
  • The Israelites' lack of satisfaction with Moses and with God (vv. 2-3, 12)
  • The Israelites' inability to obey (vv. 4, 20, 27-28)
  • God testing and providing for His people (vv. 4-8, 12-14, 29, 35)
  • The manna as "bread from heaven" (vv. 4, 14-15)
  • The sabbath rest (vv. 23-30)
The first verse helps situate the narrative in time. The first month of the Hebrew calendar, Nisan, was the month when they celebrated the first Passover and left Egypt. The incident with the manna is taking place on the 15th day of the second month, exactly one full month since they began to leave Egypt. This grumbling occurs on a Saturday (Sabbath), and the quail appear that evening, and the manna begins to appear on Sunday morning. The manna appears for six days, but not on the following Saturday, the Sabbath.

This is the first time the Israelites are hearing of this "Sabbath" idea: this is before the Law has been given, before Israel has heard of the commandment of keeping holy the Sabbath. The Bible does not go into great detail about how Israel worshiped God before they went into Egypt.

The Israelites are not happy with God or Moses: they long for the days when they were back in Egypt, where despite being slaves, they could eat and drink better than now. This problem plagues (no pun intended) the Israelites throughout their Exodus. After taking the Israelites out of Egypt, God spends 40 years getting Egypt out of the Israelites. God sends the quail and the manna to show Israel that it is He, the Lord, who is God, who brought them out of Egypt (for which many of them still long).

The part of Exodus 16 read at Mass this Sunday focuses on God sending the manna (Hebrew man hu, meaning "what is this?", v. 15) as bread from Heaven. This is a prefiguring of the Eucharist, of the very flesh and blood of Christ, as Jesus makes clear in the Gospel reading from John 6. The manna in the desert was the Israelites' "daily bread." God introduced them to the concept of the Sabbath by letting them take twice as much on Friday and not sending any manna to them on Saturday. By a miracle, the leftovers from Friday would not go bad, unlike the leftovers from the other days.

The remainder of the chapter deals with their inability to follow instructions: some of them try keeping some manna for another day, but it rots; others waste time on Saturday going out in search of manna, despite being told that it would not appear. First Moses is displeased, then God is displeased. It will take the Israelites a long time before they come to trust God and believe in His words to them... and this, after all the miracles and signs He accomplished for them!

The last verses of the chapter do not immediately follow the action described in the rest of the chapter. Verses 32-33 may refer to carrying of a jar during the Israelites' march to Sinai, but they are most likely in direct connection with verse 34, which relates an event that happened at Mt. Sinai, once the tablets of the commandments had been created and the Ark had been constructed. Verse 35 records how long the manna came to them. These verses are found here simply because this is the part of Exodus which records their experiences with the manna. (For more on the apparent anachronism of verses 31-35, read this brief post.)

In case you don't know how much an ephah or an omer is, an omer is about two quarts (half a gallon). That's how much manna each Israelite ate daily, and that's the amount which was reserved (also miraculously!) in the jar.

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:17, 20-24
Last week, we heard St. Paul calling the Ephesians (both Jews and Gentiles) to maintain unity and peace among themselves. The faith is one, he told them. In the verses between last week's reading and this week's, he writes that God has distributed grace to us "according to the measure of Christ's gift." The members of this one Church are one body, despite holding different offices and having different functions: "And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ..." (vv. 7, 11-13)

Then he reminds them that the whole body is being built up in love so that it may grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. The verses we hear at Mass are an admonition to the Gentiles in Ephesus.

Brothers and sisters:

[CCC 2219; Col. 3:12-14][17] I declare and testify in the Lord
that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do,
in the futility of their minds;
[Rom. 1:18-32]{ [18] darkened in understanding,
alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance,
because of their hardness of heart,
[19] they have become callous
and have handed themselves over to licentiousness
for the practice of every kind of impurity to excess. }

[20] That is not how you learned Christ,
[21] assuming that you have heard of him and were taught in him,
as truth is in Jesus,
[Col. 3:9-10][22] that you should put away the old self
of your former way of life,
corrupted through deceitful desires,
[23] and be renewed in the spirit of your minds,
[CCC 1473; Rom. 13:14; Gal. 2:20; 3:27][24] and put on the new self,
created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.
  • Corrupt way of life of the Gentiles (vv. 17-19, 22)
  • "Learning" Christ (vv. 20-21)
  • Renewal from the old self to the new self through Christ (vv. 22-24)
This reading (with the two omitted verses supplied) is the juxtaposition of two ways of life: the former way of life before/without Christ (vv. 17-19) and the new way of life after/with Christ (vv. 20-24). Because the Gentiles do not know God — although evidence for His existence is made known to them through nature, cf. Rom. 1:18-32 — they have hardened their hearts and become wicked and devoted to all kinds of impurity. St. Paul contrasts that ignorance with "learn[ing] Christ" who is truth: hearing of him and being taught in him. From this knowledge (gnosis in Greek) of Christ flows the renewal of our minds.

What is this "old self" that can be "put away"? What is this "new self" that can be put on? This is, perhaps, a reference to the rite of Baptism. The book of Revelation speaks of the saints washing their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. The Church eventually incorporated into her rite of Baptism the clothing of the newly baptized Christian in a white garment. If this was already the practice in St. Paul's day, that may be to what he is referring. This white robe, our "wedding garment," if you will (cf. Matt. 22:11-12), is a sign of being made a new creation in Christ. Our old self is nailed to the cross with Christ (cf. Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:19-20; 5:24; 6:14) and our new self is living in Christ, with Christ, and for Christ.

Paul speaks twice of "taking off" the old self and "putting on" the new self: here and in Colossians 3:9-10, where he says: "Stop lying to one another, since you have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator." Once again, he connects the old self with former sinful practices (lying among other things: "immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry ... anger, fury, malice, slander, and obscene language out of your mouths," cf. Col. 3:5-8), and he connects the new self to renewal and knowledge and conformity to Christ.

The verses that follow this week's Second Reading echo those of Colossians 3:5-8: "Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil. The thief must no longer steal, but rather labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with one in need. No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear." (Eph. 4:25-29) This message is continued next Sunday, with verse 30.

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