Manna: God's Boundless Generosity
by Jeanne Heiberg
Perhaps it's my enthusiastic interest in buying, cooking, and eating food that causes me to love an Advent symbol not seen often enough on Jesse trees. I delight in the symbol of manna.
Perhaps it’s my enthusiastic interest in buying, cooking, and eating food that causes me to love an Advent symbol not seen often enough on Jesse trees. I delight in the symbol of manna.
Most Advent symbols represent people. A flower and root speak of Jesus’ ancestor Jesse. Jesse’s son David is represented with stars, crowns, and scepters. The tablets of the Law represent Moses. A color-rich robe represents Joseph, Jacob’s son. The image of a fish represents Jonah. All these symbols prefigure and point to the coming of Jesus.
Manna, too, prefigures and points to the coming of Jesus because it was a free gift from God’s love. Manna was called “bread from heaven,” words that apply to the eucharist—also a free gift of love.
Manna embodies deep and wonderful meanings that are associated with both Thanksgiving and Christmas, the great celebrations of November and December. Both help us remember God’s generosity in caring for all our needs, physical and spiritual.
Thanksgiving, a harvest feast, has a strong focus on food, and manna is the miraculous food God provided for the ancient Hebrews as they traveled through the desert from slavery in Egypt to the promised land (Exodus 16:11-15). The name “manna” may have come from the Hebrew expression of what the people said when they saw it: Man-hu, “What is it?”
Manna in the Desert
There has been much speculation about what this food was. Some think it might have been lichen, lenora esculenta, found throughout the area, or a resin from the tamarisk tree. You can read about other possibilities online at Catholic Encyclopedia.
Scripture describes manna covering the ground in the morning like hoarfrost, or like small grains such as coriander or millet, found in health food stores. To some people, the taste was sweet, like flour with honey (Exodus 16:31), while to others it was like bread mixed with oil (Numbers 11:7-8). Every morning except the Sabbath, the people gathered it, possibly boiled it, and/or made it into cakes.
The Israelites were told to gather only one omer for each person—enough for one day. All that was left over must be destroyed, or it would become putrid and infested with worms. On the day before the Sabbath, however, the people were to gather enough for two days; this manna lasted without spoiling (Exodus 16).
Archeologists say that the people must have had other food. After all, they traveled with herds that gave milk and meat, and they brought supplies from other desert dwellers. However, manna, God’s special gift, had highest place in the accounts of the Israelites’ desert diet.
According to Hebrews 9:3-4, a cup of manna was placed inside the Ark of the Covenant, along with the tablets of the Law and Aaron’s rod. The manna was to be a reminder to the people not to forget the “bread of heaven,” a sign of God’s special care. According to Scripture, manna nourished the people for 40 years in the wilderness, until they came to Jericho and the end of their journey (Joshua 5:11-12).
The poets and singers of psalms continued to praise God for “raining down manna upon them for food” (Psalm 78:24-25) and for giving them the “food of angels,” the “bread of heaven” (Wisdom 16:20).
Jesus, the New Bread from Heaven
Jesus takes the story of heavenly food and expands it to include what he gives to God’s people in his teachings and in the gift of his very life. After he feeds more than 5,000 people in the wilderness and then goes off to pray, crowds track him down (see John 6). He chides them for coming after him, saying “You ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
Jesus reminds the people of the manna God gave their ancestors, saying, “It was not Moses who gave this bread from heaven…My Father gives you the true bread from heaven…” which “gives life to the world.” Note the change of tense. The Israelite manna was in the past; the new Bread of Heaven is in the present, when Jesus is speaking. It still is in the present for us today.
Thinking of food for the body, the people with Jesus in the desert say, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus announces, “I am the bread of life! Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst…I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread shall live forever and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:34-35, 51). God provided food for the body in the desert and, through Jesus, continues to give food for mind, heart, and soul in the Eucharist.
Manna and Mass
In the Hebrew manna, people were sent a wonderful gift that came with no effort or hard work on their part. It was theirs for the receiving.
Jesus, our new manna from heaven, is given to us to receive with no effort or hard work on our part. Jesus is a gift of love from God’s generosity. We celebrate this gift of Jesus coming to us at Christmas, and at every Mass, as we are nourished with Scripture and with the presence of Jesus in Communion.
Jesus expands the meaning of manna to include the Word of God when he is tempted by the devil in the desert: “Not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). He also includes the Eucharist he establishes at the Last Supper. Every Mass nourishes us with the new manna in two ways: first, in God’s Word in Scripture and, second, in Jesus’ presence in Communion.
Manna is a great symbol for an Advent tree or Jesse tree because it visualizes an important Hebrew sign that points to Jesus. He is the true “Bread from Heaven” sent to nourish God’s people—all of us—as we journey through life to reach the promised land of eternal life. Jesus is God’s most generous gift. As we prepare to celebrate his coming at Christmas, making manna chains for the Advent tree or Jesse tree will be a rewarding activity.
Mind and Mine the Meaning of Manna
Manna has wisdom to offer on many levels. I find it especially inspiring for de-cluttering the home. While writing this, I was trying to de-clutter my small apartment so that it could be painted. Pushing through piles of old books, clothes, tons of files, art items, and sentimental tokens, I realized what a materialist I am. It was hard to give away—or worse, toss—so many things. On top of that, my refrigerator went out, and I had to empty it, tossing out much and moving what was essential to a community room.
As I plowed on, determined to clear things out, I remembered manna. “Just keep what I need for now,” I told myself. “God will send what I need for tomorrow.”
Of course I wanted to be prudent. I kept important books, files, and craft supplies for future work. However, in an age when it’s easy to be overwhelmed by available material things—supermarkets, dollar stores, easy credit—I know I need to mind (and mine) the meanings of manna and gather only what I need.
Say to the Children
A long time ago, even long before the coming of Jesus, God brought the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. He led them through the desert of Sinai to the promised land, where they could live in freedom.
Life in a desert is hard. The people were hungry. They cried out for something to eat and God sent them manna, a miraculous food they found on the ground every morning. In later years, manna came to be called the “bread from heaven.” It was a sign to the people of God’s generosity and loving care for them. (Consider sharing some of the other information provided in this article.)
Manna is a good symbol to remember as we celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, times to be grateful for God’s boundless generosity—the good food and other abundant gifts God gives us, especially the gift of Jesus.
When Jesus came, he miraculously fed over 5,000 in the desert with only five loaves and a few fish. Shortly after that, he tells the people that although their ancestors ate manna in the desert, he would feed them with the True Bread from Heaven. Those who eat this food would live forever.
Jesus says to the people, “I am the bread of life. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” Jesus is speaking of the bread of Communion that we receive at Mass. We are nourished in mind, heart, and spirit by Jesus’ presence to us. We have a promise of heaven after this life, and a guarantee that Jesus will always be with us to help us now, in this life, whenever we need him.
As we prepare to celebrate the birth of God’s wonderful gift of his Son, we look at Jesus’ ancestry and the signs and symbols that point to his coming. One of these is manna, God’s gift to nourish and care for the ancient Israelites as they traveled through a food-scarce desert to a new beginning in the promised land. Now it’s a sign of Jesus, God’s boundless generosity and greatest gift to us. It’s a sign of Jesus’ own gift, in his teachings and in his presence to us in the Bread of Heaven, the new manna of the Eucharist. As we make plans to celebrate God’s gift of Jesus at Christmas, we can make manna chains to remember what Christmas is really about: the coming of Jesus into our minds and hearts.
(Make manna chains for your Advent tree or Jesse tree or Christmas tree or to hang as decoration. My inspiration for the designs shown here are the small cakes the Israelites made, and snowflakes, akin to hoarfrost, with each flake or pattern unique. Some look like communion wafers, representing Jesus coming to nourish us with the Bread of Heaven. Manna patterns may also look like small suns. Jesus, the light of the world, comes to us in Communion to shine in and through us. Jesus wants to fill us with light to shine with him.)
ACTIVITY: Manna Chains
* white cardstock
* construction and/or copy paper, white plus gold, shiny if possible (art tissue paper, coffee filters, or paper towels will also work)
* large circle and small circle patterns, 2” to 2 ½” in diameter for the large and 1 ¼” to 1 ½” in diameter for the small (small plastic cups or juice glasses often are about this size)
* hole punch
* gold cord, string, thin ribbon, embroidery floss, or thin wire to chain the manna together, as long as you want the chain to be
1. Trace large circle patterns on cardstock and cut out. Make as many as you want to create the chain.
2. Trace small circle patterns on white and gold construction and/or copy paper and cut out. Make the same number you made of the large circle.
3. Cut decorative patterns in the smaller circles, such as sun rays or snowflakes (fold the circle in half and then in half again and in half again; cut small pieces into each side, never cutting all the way through; unfold to find a unique design). Glue to larger circles.
4. Punch holes on 2 sides of each piece of manna, directly opposite each other.
5. Weave cord, string, ribbon, floss, or wire through each piece of manna, inserting through one hole, pulling it across the back of the manna, and coming back through the other hole.
6. Slide pieces of manna along the cord, string, ribbon, floss, or wire to desired spacing.
7. If necessary, place a small piece of tape along the back of the cord, string, ribbon, floss, or wire to hold pieces of manna in place.
8. Hang chains on Advent tree, Jesse tree, Christmas tree or bulletin boards, or around doorways, in windows, etc.
Manna Chain Blessing
On your prayer table, place manna chains, a Bible with the readings marked (see below), a bowl of holy water, an evergreen sprig. (Further options are candles, used with great caution, and/or an Advent wreath).
Opening Song: “Eat This Bread” (Jacques Berthier 1978, 1998, © Les Presses de Taizé, France; GIA Publications, agent; found in Come to the Table)
Prayer: Thank you, Loving God, for sending Jesus to teach us your ways and to nourish us with the Bread of Heaven that brings us life forever. Help us to appreciate your gifts and to prepare well to celebrate the greatest gift of all, Jesus. May we receive him with gratitude and grow further in your light.
Readings: Numbers 11:7-8 (gathering and eating manna); Psalm 78:24-25 (bread from heaven); Wisdom 16:20 (food of angels); John 6:27, 31-35 (food that endures); John 6:51 (Jesus, living bread)
Leader Comments: Use sections of this article to review the meaning of manna as a sign of God’s boundless generosity and love in feeding us with the Bread of Heaven, Jesus.
Blessings: Bless this manna chain, Lord. May it remind us of God’s plan for salvation in how manna foretold of Jesus’ coming. May we always be grateful for your generous gifts of food for body, mind, heart, and spirit. You give us words of life in Scripture and in the Word, Jesus, who came to teach us. He nourishes us with his presence in Holy Communion and fills us with your light.
Bless all gathered here. May we receive the gift of your Son and grow in your love this Christmas. May we receive his holy food with gratitude and let the light of your presence within us shine out into the world.
Dip evergreen sprig in holy water and bless manna chain and all present.
Closing Song: “Look Beyond” (Darryl Ducote © 1969, 1979; Damean Music; Breaking Bread, OCP)
Jeanne Heiberg is the author of Advent Arts & Christmas Crafts (Paulist Press) and Advent calendars (Creative Communications). She has taught art, writing, creative catechetics, and meditation, and has directed parish catechetical programs. Jeanne writes, paints, and gives writing workshops in upstate New York. Jeanne welcomes visitors at her blog: jeannesarts4you.blogspot.com.
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