Around many tables this afternoon, probably at the table where you’ll be sitting, a moment will come when each person will be asked to reflect and recount the things for which she or he is thankful.
Some people do this all year round, a friend of mine thinks of three specific things he’s grateful for before he lets his feet hit the floor in the morning. I know a few people who keep gratitude journals, jotting down events, or people, or moments during the day. The journals let them look back and remember these treasured moments in the following weeks and months, which makes them feel grateful again–because they’ve probably forgotten those little fleeting gifts in the interim.
It seems that for us humans, it’s often much easier to remember negative things than positive things. Look at the ancient Hebrews–I don’t mean to pick on them as exemplary in this area, because they certainly aren’t–the Bible is made up of common life examples, situations in which any person would do the exact same thing. As God’s people are wandering around in the desert, they complain to Moses–do you remember those stories? They’ve just seen God’s protection of them at the Red Sea, cutting off the Egyptians from pursuing them, and with the image of the great waves crashing over the heads of their enemies still burned into the backs of their minds, they turn to Moses and say, “Are we there yet?! We’re going to DIE out here!! This is absolutely HOPELESS. We should go back to Egypt. Let’s take a poll–who wants to go back to Egypt??” It sounds a little like the back of my mom’s minivan on the way to summer vacation.
Do you remember what happens next? Our Gospel lesson alludes to it; God provides food for them in the wilderness by raining down manna on them. The manna is something that can be baked into bread which the Hebrews gather up every morning when they wake up–it falls and rests on the ground overnight, like dew, the Bible says; maybe something like the frost we experienced on our lawns this morning. The word “manna” in Hebrew translates as, “What is it?” Its substance is mysterious, we don’t know exactly what it is, even today. But in another way, we, as well as the Hebrew people, know exactly what it is–it’s a blessing, it’s a witness to God’s love and care. So the Hebrew people gather up these little scraps that remind them how much God loves them and cares for them.
What is our gratitude except Manna? The journals my friends keep are proverbial baskets full of manna, pages and pages of reminders of God’s goodness and love toward us. Our greatest gift which God sends from heaven as a symbol and reminder of his love is Jesus Christ, his only Son, God incarnate. In today’s Gospel lesson, some people ask Jesus, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?” (v.30) Do you recognize the skepticism? Maybe first-century people aren’t so different from people today. “How can you prove that God exists?” “How do you know that Jesus is God?”
Jesus responds to his interlocutors that it was God who was behind the manna their ancestors ate, as they well know; and besides, God has provided for them the true bread which is standing right in front of them. They’ve already seen signs–their ancestors witness to them about the manna provided in the wilderness. The actual eyes beholding Jesus in first-century Capernum didn’t see the manna falling, or ingest it into their own bodies, but their very existence was evidence that their ancestors hadn’t starved in the wilderness, but that they’d been sustained by something–by manna, the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren were told. And so, these children generations later knew and trusted that the manna had fallen and had been a tangible testament to God’s care for His people.
It’s the same for us. We haven’t seen Jesus in the way that the people in our Gospel lesson today did; we haven’t seen Jesus the way that Paul did on the way to Damascus or Jesus’ disciples did after his resurrection. But we know Jesus came, and lived, and died, and rose again because we have our ancestors’ witness to those events. We stand on the shoulders of our great-grandparents in the faith, trusting their testimony about the God made human in Jesus Christ. Further, because we exist as Christians and children of God, we ourselves are witnesses, we are a testament to God’s love and power.
Our great-grandfather-in-the-Faith, G.K. Chesterton said, “The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts or toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?” (Orthodoxy)