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Holy Manna

Bread and wine
The Rev. Canon Dr. Andrew R. Wright

In the supplemental hymnal Wonder Love and Praise, at #761, there’s a great hymn that uses a tune from the 19th century American folk hymn tradition, Holy Manna, alongside a 20th century text by Canadian hymn writer Sylvia Dunstan that begins “All who hunger gather gladly” (You can listen to a choir singing it on YouTube). Here’s the first stanza:

“All who hunger, gather gladly;
holy manna is our bread.
Come from wilderness and wandering.
Here, in truth, we will be fed.
You that yearn for days of fullness,
all around us is our food.
Taste and see the grace eternal.
Taste and see that God is good.”

We talked about literal hunger in last week’s VOICE Online and the basic imperative that we have as Christians to respond to that need. We’ll continue to look at ways to respond to that in our diocese this week and in coming weeks. The powerful responsibility of Christians to respond to those in need is first and foremost about love – God’s love for us enacted by our showing love to others – but it is also wound up in our basic identity as those who gather at Christ’s table.

The complexity of Holy Communion in our current distanced moment has caused many of us to wonder when and how that meal of Jesus may return – and the hymn “All who hunger” is a joyful celebration of what that means, to gather for Communion from the wilderness, to be fed spiritually, to “Taste and see that God is good” once again. When we gather at that holy table, as we long to do, we encounter Christ in the sacramental meal, in the bread, in the cup. It is vital to remember, though, that Christ is always in solidarity with those at the margins, with the poor, the hungry, those who are oppressed. Jesus brings all those he loves to the table with him. When we do gather in Communion, we are encountering the least and the marginalized through Jesus himself. And so, there is an ethical component to Holy Communion – as we gather at that table, that altar, with Jesus and all those Jesus loves, so we must go forth to offer love and care for them in their daily circumstances, in their hunger, in their pain, in their poverty. Jesus is one with them; we are one with him; we are called to be one with them. The hymn’s second stanza reminds us of the radical welcome of Jesus, saying:

“All who hunger, never strangers;
seeker, be a welcome guest.
Come from restlessness and roaming.
Here, in joy, we keep the feast.
We that once were lost and scattered
in communion’s love have stood.
Taste and see the grace eternal.
Taste and see that God is good.”

In this time of physical distancing and online worship, when we cannot gather at the Lord’s Table in person for that holy meal that we long for, we can enact God’s gift of love in Jesus in this other way – by nonetheless caring for those who hunger, those who are poor, those who are ill, those who are oppressed. In a time when we cannot gather at the Communion table, we can yet seek and serve Christ in all persons, as our Baptismal Covenant reminds us. We can encounter Christ in the meals that we share with those in need. This is kind of turning our usual idea of Holy Communion upside down – but everything else is upside down right now, so that makes a certain kind of sense – it’s upside down because rather than gathering at worship, encountering Christ in the meal there, and then going forth to share and show that love in the world, we now have a call to share the daily meal with those we meet. To encounter Christ first in our fellow human beings and then bring that encounter deeper into our lives of prayer and thanksgiving as we connect with one another in our times of worship. The Spirit breathes in and we gather; the Spirit breathes out and we scatter into the world. Whether we are gathered together or in a thousand different homes and communities, the Spirit is still active among us, showing us the life of Jesus in new ways. The third stanza sings:

“All who hunger, sing together;
Jesus Christ is living bread.
Come from loneliness and longing.
Here, in peace, we have been led.
Blest are those who from this table
live their lives in gratitude.
Taste and see the grace eternal.
Taste and see that God is good.”

We will gather in person again, at the table of God, sharing the Eucharistic feast. But, in the meantime, Jesus is among us every day, every moment, in the lives of those in need. If we want to encounter Christ in the meal, all we have to do is go and share what we have already been given in love by this mighty God. And then all may taste and see that God is good.