Christmas Manna and St. Francis de Sales

COMMENTARY: As in almost any subject of the spiritual life, the ‘Gentleman Saint’ does not disappoint.

Clockwise from left: An image portrays Jesus holding the Eucharist in Mallorca, Spain; children look at a Christmas crèche; a painting of St. Francis de Sales is present in the Church of St. Philip Neri in Catania, Italy.
Clockwise from left: An image portrays Jesus holding the Eucharist in Mallorca, Spain; children look at a Christmas crèche; a painting of St. Francis de Sales is present in the Church of St. Philip Neri in Catania, Italy. (photo: Heide Pinkall/Shutterstock; Shutterstock; Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock)

In the middle of the Christmas Octave this year, on Dec. 28, we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death and birth into eternal life of the great French doctor of the Church, St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622). The patron saint of journalists and an avid apostle of the sanctity of the laity, he is one of the most revered bishops, apologists, reevangelizers, spiritual writers and directors of souls in Catholic Church history.

Anticipating his quatercentenary, I’ve been rereading not only his classic works Introduction to the Devout Life, The Treatise on the Love of God and The Catholic Controversy, but also, since the beginning of the new liturgical year, TAN Book’s The Sermons of St. Francis de Sales for Advent and Christmas, all of which I’d highly recommend. I’ve been mining them in particular for his insights on the Holy Eucharist as we enter more deeply into the U.S. Church’s three-year Eucharistic Revival. As in almost any subject of the spiritual life, the “Gentleman Saint” doesn’t disappoint.

In a couple of Christmas homilies, St. Francis de Sales explores the initially surprising connection between Christmas and the manna God rained down for the Israelites in the desert. Prior to God’s giving this heavenly bread for the first time, Moses had told the grumbling children of Israel, “In the morning you shall see his glory” (Exodus 16:7), and St. Francis used it as an analogy for what the angels said to the Bethlehem shepherds in the cave at night and what the Church says to us at the Christmas vigil.

“God desired,” he preached, “an even greater and more loving gift for us who live on earth as in a desert. He came himself to bring us this gift. … Thus, in the darkness of the night, Our Lord was born and appeared to us as an infant lying in the manger.”

Christ himself was the incarnation of the glory of God in the highest. That embodied glory was adored by the heavenly host, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, wise men, and animals in Bethlehem. That enfleshed effulgence (Hebrews 1:3) remains for us to worship on the altar and in the tabernacle.

As St. Francis explains, “Manna is a figure of the incarnation of the Word. It also prefigured the Eucharist. Between the mystery of the Eucharist and that of the Incarnation there is only one difference: In the incarnation we see the incarnate God in his own Person, and in the Eucharist we see him under a more hidden and obscure form. In both instances it is the same God-Man who was born of the Virgin. Thus the manna that prefigured the Eucharist can also symbolize the Incarnation.”

Putting on display both his encyclopedic knowledge of sacred Scripture and his famous habit to imitate Jesus in describing spiritual truths through earthly analogies, he said that just as manna had three distinct tastes — honey, oil and bread (see Exodus 16:31, Numbers 11:8 and Wisdom 16:20) — so the incarnate Christ united, respectively, divinity, a human soul and a human body. He compared divinity to honey, which happens because of the work of bees coming from above; the soul to olive oil, which floats on top of other liquids; and the body to bread, the grain of which clearly grows from the earth. But just as “manna had three tastes, but there was only one manna, so although in Our Lord incarnate there are three ‘substances,’ there is nevertheless only one person.”

This connection that St. Francis makes between manna and the Incarnation — although perhaps rare for Christmas homilies — was not new.

Jesus himself, in fact, made the connection between the two when, after the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fish, he self-identified as the “True Manna from Heaven” that God the Father has given for the salvation of the world. Then he linked the Incarnation and the Eucharist when he added, “I am the Bread of Life … that comes down from heaven so that one may eat of it and not die. … And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:32-58).

So the One born in the place called in Hebrew “House of Bread” (Beth-lehem), and literally placed in an ancient animal food trough (the manger), was born as heavenly manna, as “living bread come down from heaven.”

It would take three decades for that truth to be proclaimed and centuries more for it to become more deeply understood. As St. Francis notes, however, it is an essential truth by which to understand what we celebrate at Christmas. St. Francis de Sales developed the Eucharistic dimension of Christ’s nativity and his whole life in his other, more famous, works.

In his The Catholic Controversy, which includes the pamphlets he sent throughout the region of the Chablais to bring back (successfully) to the Catholic faith those who had become Calvinists, he wrote that the Blessed Sacrament is “the abridgment of our faith,” a “holy and perfect memorial of the Gospel” and an “admirable summing up of our faith.”

He built on the point of the Eucharist as the synthesis of Christian faith and life in his Introduction to the Devout Life when he declared that the Eucharist is “sum of all spiritual exercises … the very center of our Christian religion, the heart of all devotion, the soul of piety, the ineffable mystery that embraces the whole depth of divine love, by which God, giving himself really to us, conveys all his graces and favors to men with royal magnificence.” The Eucharist, in other words, summarizes the incarnation, birth, hidden life, public ministry, passion, death, resurrection, ascension and glorification of Christ, as well as the identity, center, life and mission of the Church as Christ’s Body and Bride.

In his Treatise on the Love of God, his deepest work, he unsurprisingly calls the Eucharist “the perpetual feast of divine grace” in which we receive “our Savior’s blood in his flesh and his flesh in his blood … given into our bodily mouth.” This points to what the Church implores in the Opening Prayer of the Mass on Christmas Day and each day at the altar, as the priest mixes a drop of water into the wine in the chalice: “O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant … that we may share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” This “wondrous exchange,” this transforming union with God our Savior, is the meaning of Christmas and the celebration of the Mass. Because of the reality of Christ in the Eucharist and the work Christ seeks to accomplish in us by means of his continuous incarnate self-giving at the altar, St. Francis urges us, in Introduction to the Devout Life, to “strive to your utmost to be present every day at this Holy Celebration.”

Just as much as the Israelites each day ate the manna God rained down from heaven, St. Francis is urging us to do the same with the True Manna, which is the means by which we will enter far more deeply into the ongoing reality of Christmas, God-with-us, who is still very much with us. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, and to commemorate the great St. Francis de Sales on the 400th anniversary of the fulfillment of the advent of his life, St. Francis beckons us to Christ in the Eucharist and urges us, like we sing on Christmas, “Come, let us adore him” — and adoringly receive him.