Frank Tracy Griswold III

The 25th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Manna surrounds us:

February 20, 2004
Frank T. Griswold

With each season of the church year we are given a particular lens for looking at the patterns of our lives. Wilderness is a theme of the Lenten season, and a symbol of the in-between place in which we find ourselves from time to time: a place between endings and beginnings, between the shift in consciousness which shatters an old pattern and the emergence of a new way of perceiving and being. Lent can take us to the wilderness and remind us that our lives are made up of multiple moments of leaving and arriving, of yearning and fulfillment, of losing and finding, of dying and rising.

Set free from slavery in Egypt, the children of Israel traveled for 40 years through the wilderness in order to be made ready to enter the promised land, which was not only a place but a new way of knowing who they were as the people of God. And Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. After having been pierced with an overwhelming awareness of being the son of God, he has to struggle within himself about the consequences of his belovedness.

As the children of Israel wandered through the wilderness, they were doubtless eager to claim various resting places along the way as their destination. But just as they began to feel settled in one place, the pillar of cloud which served as their guide by day would move, and they had to strike camp and follow. Similarly, we can think we have successfully moved through a season of our lives, and mistake some temporary resting place for the journey’s end.

The children of Israel looked longingly at the old securities of Egypt, quite forgetting that those securities were purchased at the price of slavery. In that same way, when we are at an in-between place, and unsure about what might happen next, we often look to a somewhat idealized past, quite forgetting its limitations.

And, perhaps Jesus’ sense of belovedness was both an overwhelming gift and an awesome burden. During his sojourn in the wilderness perhaps he looked back to the predictable patterns of life in Nazareth that allowed him to order his days around the rhythms of his home and Joseph’s workshop. Perhaps the wilderness was for him not only a time of interior struggle with temptation, as recorded in scripture, but also with unsureness about the consequences of being declared God’s beloved son.

And in our own lives a sudden change in patterns of health, employment, relationship, or other constants that give us a sense of stability can catapult us into the wilderness. We can find ourselves stripped of all certitude and undefended in the face of an unknown future. We are shorn of our old securities and can be rendered immobile as wild beasts of fear, anxiety, anger and occasionally despair, beset us. At such moments we may ask God to rescue us. And how often God’s answer is to say: “I am with you at the very heart of your uncertainty, your fear, and your suffering.”

The sudden and unexpected appearance of manna in the wilderness, the bread from heaven which fell about the camp of the children of Israel, was not simply food for them but a sign of God’s immediate presence and companionship. Though they were not relieved of their uncertainty about the journey, they knew they were not alone.

It is when we are able to accept the fact that very little is certain in our lives, and that all is subject to change and surprise, that we are able to receive the real presence of God. We receive manna from heaven in ways as miraculous and unexpected as was the manna that fell in the wilderness.

What is true of our individual lives is true as well of our lives bound up together in the body of Christ. Therefore, we as a church are also obliged to travel into the wilderness and to discover that many of the things we may have regarded as fixed and unchangeable must be surrendered. So, like the children of Israel, we too can be tempted to create idols and false permanencies. We too sometimes look longingly to an idealized past, forgetting its limitations. We too can be overtaken by fear, anxiety, despair and anger. We too can try to protect ourselves from the uncertainty of the in-between place.

And yet through it all God is close at hand. In the wilderness of changes and chances there are signs of hope and blessing. Manna surrounds us if only we open our eyes and see. So, we journey on seeking to arrive at a new place with our hearts expanded and our knowing enlarged.

May these days of Lent remind us that each new place is just another resting place along the way; our journey goes on until we come to full maturity in Christ, which will occur beyond the borders of this life. May we remember with gladness that then the changes and chances will cease as we are filled with the fullness of him who fills all things.


Bishop Griswold


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