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Manna is a Hermeneutic

February 21, 2010 15 comments

In the sixteenth chapter of Exodus, God gives manna to the Israelites who, upon seeing the frost-like substance covering the ground, ask “what is this?” (Ex. 16:15) This question, transliterated “man hu” becomes the name for this sustaining substance.  Its very name is the question that gives rise to hermeneutics; it is the question that hermeneutics asks.

Odo Marquard has a pithy essay titled “The Question, To What Question is Hermeneutics the Answer?” in Farewell to Matters of Principle: Philosophical Studies.  In this piece Marquard poses hermeneutics both as questioning and as the interpretive movement which attempts to answer questions. He offers several “questions” as the provocations of hermeneutics.  These include 1) finitude 2) derivativeness and 3) transitoriness.  Manna, a substance that turns the action of questioning into a noun (and a relationship), adroitly illuminates these hermeneutical provocations.  For the sake of brevity, let me say that Marquard poses hermeneutics as the human attempt to deal with our contingency.

Manna has everything to do with contingency.  It emphasizes our finitude: the Israelites receive it from the graciousness of God’s divine plenitude in their situation of lack, need, and hunger.  It shows us our derivativeness: the Israelites might have liked to return to the fleshpots of their former masters where—ironically and retrospectively—they felt more in control of their lives than during their desert sojourn, but they had to interpret their existence as a nation based on what appeared within their horizon of experience.  It emphasizes our transitoriness: the Israelites could gather up the manna only for one day (except before the Sabbath day), any surplus kept to the following day would become rotten and wormy.  And such it the fate of interpretation: (meta)narratives that become so self-satisfied with their universality and Truth that they forget to renew themselves daily in their own context will become rotten and wormy.

Hermeneutics will always be an attempt to place ourselves in a bearable relationship to our own contingency.  Manna, as a hermeneutic, shows us that our contingency is very real, it cannot be reduced or overcome, but our contingency exists in a dynamic relationship with God’s grace.

There is perhaps one more aspect of manna that commends it as a hermeneutic: it is placed in the ark of the covenant with the Law.  The Law and the stuff of interpretation, placed “before the LORD in safekeeping for your descendants.” (Ex. 16:33)  A constant sign unto the generations that as we remember that we have the presence of the LORD—as the Law, the Word, the Bread of Life –we must always ask, “man hu, what is this?”

Counterfeit Bread

January 19, 2010 9 comments

What sort of bread is the Eucharist?  This is the kind of question we are discouraged from asking by an over emphasis on the “accidental” character of the Eucharistic species.  But I often find that when I lose my way in Eucharistic wondering and wandering I find my way back through the material elements, not the philosophical distinctions (trails of breadcrumbs I’ve been leaving since I was a boy, some leading to my grandmother’s kitchen, some to the altar…)  So when I hear the dry popping sound of the fraction rite I raise my eyebrows over closed eyes and I suspect that someone is foisting a counterfeit bread. 

(I must say that I am thinking of the general ritual practice of Roman Catholics in the United States and I leave out of my consideration the more ancient and more tasty custom of using leavened bread as practiced, for example, by our Orthodox brothers and sisters.  Further, the Catholic use of the unleavened loaf has good theological legs; it just doesn’t have to be so bad.)

I will resist here, the temptation to make a purely gastronomical point rather than a theological one but I must insist that, when it comes to bread, the two are connected.  Despite the best efforts of liturgical rubricians, sacramental bread cannot be separated from daily bread.  No matter how quotidian a meager loaf in Christian hands appears, it cannot be extricated from a history of effects that ties it back to John 6.  The Lord’s prayer reminds us that “daily” bread is epiousios and even these morsels are saturated with meaning.  So what is the result of offering the ritual bread of Eucharistic celebration which is so far removed from, well, actual bread?

The result is that we are counterfeiting our symbols.  Symbols are supposed to “throw-together” things that are not, on the surface, alike.  Bread is polyvalent, and its entire semantic range is meant to be thrown together with the body of Christ.  This is not the case.  The host is a victim of a serious reduction: the breadliness of bread is legislated down to a bare minimum.  I’m loath to point this out, but here’s the liturgical principle: the more rarified, the more sacred; the more dissimilar something is to everyday objects the more suited it is to liturgical use.  Liturgical norms titrate these counterfeits, certify them as authentic, and mandate them (guarding against coeliacs and cultures without wheat).  The real danger of the counterfeit is that it gives us a lesser value of bread.  It rends bread from its totality of involvements. 

 Cash.  Cash stands in the place of value and obligation.  Am I against the market economy? Not completely.  What I am against is the cash value of the Eucharist, not in dollars and cents, but as the currency of Sunday obligation.  The Eucharist becomes the receipt of an obligation fulfilled and the pre-packaged, not-for-resale, single serving of a spiritual product that my hour’s time purchases.  Am I exaggerating?   God, I hope so.  But when we no longer realize the ethical imperative of the Eucharist which forms us as a community and calls us to action, the Eucharist becomes transactional.  If it is food at all, it is fast food at best.

Posted by Noel Terranova

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