Starving in the Desert

The Holy Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, but for the time being, we may not be able to receive it. So what do we do?

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

During the Sundays of Lent, we read some of the richest typological selections from the Bible and in the background of it all, as a sort of interpretive key, we have the Holy Eucharist.

The Third Sunday of Lent, for instance, the first reading recorded one of the miraculous feedings from the book of Exodus, the famous story of the Israelites at Meribah and Massah where Moses strikes the rock to provide water for them in the desert. One part of the text notes the groans and complaints of the Israelites, who suggest that Moses had taken them out of Egypt, where they were enslaved, and led them into the desert not to save them, but to kill them and their children (Exodus 17:3). This passage is a parallel of Exodus 16 where, prior to the miracle of the manna, the Israelites grumble against Moses, telling him they wish they could be back in slavery rather than starving in their freedom in the desert.

That Sunday’s Gospel featured the story of Jesus and the woman at the well in the Gospel of John. Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water, but then tells her that he wishes to give her (and, by extension, us) water “welling up to eternal life.” This water, more miraculous than even that given by Moses in the desert, is so rich that we will never thirst again after drinking it.

Of course, in these readings and others, particularly those of Holy Thursday, we see a building story of the centrality of the Body and Blood of Christ, which had been prefigured in the Old Covenant, and would be radically fulfilled in the New Covenant of Christ. The stories of the Exodus point forward to the New Exodus Jesus brings, where he will liberate us not from slavery to the Egyptians, but from slavery sin. Jesus, in the New Exodus, will lead us not to the earthly promised land, but to the heavenly Jerusalem. He will feed us not with manna and water from the rock, but with his own body and blood. 

The driving force of salvation history, in some ways, is toward the Eucharist. We don’t get to a heavenly Jerusalem and simply exist; the liturgy of the Eucharist is the central focus of the heavenly kingdom. And yet what has this Lent brought to many Catholics around the world? A temporary absence from the Eucharist. 

We can’t be sure how the suspension of the public availability of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass will last beyond Lent. And so, we have rather surprisingly become like the Israelites, wandering through the desert. The unprecedented nature of this virus leaves us all with more questions than answers. 

This uncertainty puts us in the perfect position to deeply enter into the spirit of Lent. This is a time where we are to unite ourselves to Christ’s suffering in the desert, where he was tempted by Satan to doubt God’s plan. Lent is also a time to spiritually enter into the experience of Israel in the desert, following God but not perhaps knowing all the answers.

When the virus has passed, and things get back to normal, maybe we will have a better appreciation for “normal.” Catholics have wandered away from the Holy Eucharist, and perhaps the temporary measures being put in place will help us to refocus on the supernatural graces of the Eucharist. I do not mean to imply that the virus is some sort of spiritual phenomenon, by which we are being reprimanded. But I do think that a lot of the spiritual life is about how we discern and respond to the situation we find ourselves in. 

Truly this is a tough time for Catholics, and indeed for everybody. Many are without work, and there is a loneliness to being stuck at home. But at the same time, perhaps it can allow us to reorient our lives and recalibrate before things return to normal. Vatican II taught that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, and for the time being, we may not be able to receive it. So what do we do?

For now, prayers of spiritual communion, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary, the Divine Mercy chaplet, and of course the reading of Sacred Scripture can provide us some sustenance on the journey until we arrive at the end of this temporary exodus and can receive the Body and Blood of the Lord.