August 05, 2012
The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but” against the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’“
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 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 be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
Reading from Swedenborg
[Spiritually understood,] the the Lord’s body or flesh, like the bread, is the good that love does, and the Lord’s blood, like the wine, is the good that faith does, while eating is internalizing and union. The angels who are with us when we are observing the Holy Supper understand it in this way and in no other. They in fact take everything spiritually; which is why some holy touch of love and some holy touch of faith flows in for us from angels—through heaven from the Lord, therefore—bringing about union.
We can see from this that when we take the bread that is the body, we are united to the Lord through the good done out of love for him from him; and that when we take the wine that is the blood we are united to the Lord through the good done out of faith in him from him.
Be it known, though, that the union with the Lord through the sacrament of the Supper is effected only for those who are devoted to the good of love and faith in the Lord from the Lord. For them there is union through the Holy Supper; for others there is presence but not union.
(The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Teachings 212–213)
For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. John 6:33
It is astonishing, when you stop to think about it, how much we take for granted, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. There is the fact that matter is made out of energy, that what we experience as solid is mostly “empty” space. There is the wondrous reliability of what we refer to as “gravity”—which etymologically simply means “heaviness”—a force that refuses to be accounted for in the language of quantum mechanics. Perhaps above all, there is the miracle of our human bodies, with matter constantly passing through them and with extraordinarily precise chemical balances being maintained during this life-and-death process.
This last wonder is the one we celebrate when we take Communion, if we do so in the spirit of our text— recognizing that we are alive at this moment because the Lord is giving us our daily bread not only this day, but this moment, this instant. If that giving were to cease even for an instant, it would be like pulling the plug of a lamp. We would “go out,” and we would have no power whatever to turn ourselves back on. I suspect that the same thing would happen if our metabolic processes suddenly shut down.
The Lord feeds our souls in two ways—from the inside and from the outside, so to speak. In more technical theological language, there is a direct inflow of life into the very core of our being, and there are indirect inflows through our spiritual and material environments. Just as our bodies need food and drink to digest and incorporate, our minds and hearts need input from others to process and assimilate. Think of writing down some of your thoughts, and then trying to sort out what is “really yours” and what you learned from others. On the one hand, it seems as though everything is learned “from the outside,” and yet there is a way in which what you write does not belong to the people who taught you. You are the one who is selecting from that immense mass of knowledge and arranging it in some intelligible sequence. No one else would do it in exactly the same way.
This is what gives each of us a distinct, unique value and place in the fabric of human community. Each of us is in that sense irreplaceable. To be sure, others can fill in for us, but their own uniqueness is compromised by their having to do something a little other than what they do best. So in that lovely image from Last Judgment 12:
Heaven’s perfection increases as the number of its inhabitants increases. This follows from its form, which determines the patterns in which people associate and the ways communication flows there.
This is the most perfect form of all, and in the most perfect form, the more constituents there are, the more people there are who are involved in a shared motion toward oneness, and the more intimate and unanimous is the union. The agreement and consequent union increase with numbers because each individual there comes in as a congenial intermediary between two or more others, and whatever comes in strengthens and unites.
This is little like being able to take a low-resolution digital photograph and add pixel after pixel, making it constantly clearer and crisper. To enlarge the analogy as far as possible, we can see it as the underlying design of the process that has been going on ever since the Big Bang, beginning with the differentiation of the simplest atoms and continuing to the completion of the atomic table, the formation of distinctive molecules, increasingly complex compounds, chemical interactions between them, until at some point there was a physical assemblage complex enough to be directly responsive to life. From then on, we find life taking increasingly complex and distinctive forms until it has reached its present state.
While all this is going on, though, there is something else happening—the increasingly complex whole is being held together in some coherent form. Apparently, the laws of physics apply equally to every atom in the whole. Things separate, yes, and the distances become literally astronomical, but it remains a single universe. Life forms increase in number and variety, but they form an ecologically coherent system. Every new pixel has its place and contributes to the coherence of the whole— “strengthens and unites.”
Something quite fascinating happens, though, when we apply these principles to our process as physical beings. It works beautifully for about the first third of our years. We grow bigger, stronger, and faster. At some point, however, the growth slows, then it stops, and then a physical decline sets in. The first law of entropy takes over. The curve can be plotted, and its destination is clear and inevitable. The time comes when we can no longer ingest and process and assimilate at all.
Our bodies do not disconnect from their surroundings, not at all, except to the extent that we use artificial means to disconnect them—artificial means such as embalming and encasing in caskets. Left to themselves, they gradually “undifferentiate” themselves, a process we can accelerate by the deliberate decomposition of cremation.
Our inner selves do not necessarily follow this curve. We certainly do not become less distinctive individuals. It sometimes seems, in fact, that we become more and more “set in our ways,” whether for better or for worse. It is fairly obvious that some of us identify so strongly with our bodies that we do everything possible to deny the decline, devoting more and more of our resources to maintaining the illusion of youth—Botox, wrinkle cream, plastic surgery, hairpieces, red convertibles—anything but the rocking chair.
It is, of course, a losing battle, and it is a pointless one—worse than pointless, in fact, for while our bodies are absolutely necessary for our functioning in this world, to put it bluntly, they are really a drag. Our theology puts it this way:
[The Lord’s life] flows in by stages, and in its course, or at each new stage, it becomes more general and therefore coarser and hazier, and it becomes slower and therefore more viscous and colder. (Secrets of Heaven 7270:3)
At some level, we must know this, since every day we have the experience of our bodies not being able to keep up with our intentions, our tongues not being able to keep up with our thoughts. This has been the case all along: it just becomes more obvious as our bodies slow down in our later years.
What, then, should we do? There are religious approaches that see the body as the enemy of the soul and advocate “mortifying the flesh,” apparently impatient with the slow pace at which the flesh irresistibly mortifies itself. The main objection to this from a Gospel perspective (and it is surely a significant objection) is that this bears little relationship to the second great commandment, to love the neighbor. In fact, it looks much more like an obsession with oneself.
No, for all their limitations, our bodies are our primary and precious means of interacting with the people we love, and they should be treasured and cared for with that end in mind. Object relations theory provides an excellent image for the needed transition. It describes a series of transitions in which we “objectify” some aspect of our being that we have previously identified with. In childhood, for example, we at some point become able to objectify our impulses. Then and only then can we deal with them consciously. As long as we identify with our bodies, we cannot stand back from them to see what they are good for and what they are not. We are as obsessed with them as are those who mortify them. They claim our attention so completely that there is little if any left for the neighbor.
So the aging process presses us to recognize that our bodies are not who we are but are things, quite marvelous things, that we have. It is quite fascinating and certainly suggestive that while people who have had near-death experiences often speak of their reluctance to return to their bodies and have no fear of death, they find new meaning in life here and now and show no inclination to hasten their own departure. Those who live in the here and now give their lives meaning.
There is, then, good reason that in central sacrament of the church, the Holy Supper, we do something both absolutely commonplace and absolutely essential. We feed and refresh our bodies. This is caring for our primary means of communication with the people we love.
We do this by accepting food and drink freely given, symbolizing that care. We do it “in communion,” together, symbolizing the reason for that care. When we do so by coming forward, we may take this as a symbol of the fact that some initiative seems to be required of us. When we remain in the pew, we may take this as a symbol that the Lord is constantly coming to us where we are, wherever we are. We come forward, then, “as if of our selves.” We remain seated in acknowledgment that it is in fact wholly “from the Lord.” Our bodies cannot do both at once: our souls can. Amen.
Lord, let me continue to drink from the streams of
your salvation, until I lose the thirst for the passing
things of earth; through Christ our Lord.
- Ann Griffiths (1776-1805)
Rev. Dr. George F. Dole