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Vol. IX, October 2003

 

"Mortals Ate of the Bread of Angels" (Ps 78:25)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

The Psalms lead us again and again to the admiration of Our Lord and God, Who created heaven and earth and had sent out His angels to care for all. Psalm 78 relates a part of the history of God with His people, who "forgot what He had done, and the miracles that He had shown them" (Ps 78:11). It therefore encourages them to "set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments" (v. 7). Great among the miracles was the miraculous "bread from heaven", the "bread of the angels", as the Greek Septuagint and sacred tradition, following suit, has termed it.

1. Is It Really the "Bread of the Angels"?

a) "Mortals Ate of the Bread of Angels"

The Psalmist remembers: "They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though He struck the rock so that water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can He also give bread, or provide meat for His people?’" (vv. 18-20).

"Therefore, when the Lord heard, He was full of rage...because they had no faith in God, and did not trust His saving power" (vv. 21-22). "He let loose on them His fierce anger, wrath, indignation, and distress, a company of destroying angels" (v. 49; cf. Circular III,3). God’s mercy and compassion, however, are greater than man’s obstinacy and sin. So, "He commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; He rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. Mortals ate of the bread of angels; He sent them food in abundance" (vv. 23-25). And once more the Psalmist affirms: "He rained flesh upon them like dust...In spite of all this they still sinned; they did not believe in His wonders" (vv. 27-29,32).

b) Is It "Bread of the Powerful" or "Bread of the Angels"?

The Hebrew text of the Psalm does not say "bread of angels", but "bread of the powerful" or "bread of the great". St. Eusebius thinks this is so that none would think the angels benefit from corporeal nourishment (cf. Commentary on Psalm 77; PG 23; 918). Nevertheless, having fallen from heaven, it is understood as the bread of the angels as, in fact, another text expressly says: "Thou didst give Thy people the food of angels, and without their toil Thou didst supply them from heaven with bread ready to eat, providing every pleasure and suited to every taste" (Wis 16:20). According Cornelius à Lapide the Psalmist used the expression "powerful" for the angels "because they produced it", or at least, participated in the miracle as mediators, just as they transmitted the law to Moses (cf. Act 7:53).

"The word, ‘abbir’ (mighty), as a designation for angels is found but once in the Holy Bible, ‘Man ate the bread of the mighty’ (Ps 78:25)...[It] emphasized the strength, the might, the power of the heavenly spirits...The same concept of angels as mighty beings is brought out by the parallelism in...Ps 103:20" (W.G. Heidt, OSB, Angelology of the Old Testament. Washington, 1949; part I,1 p. 1-2).

c) It Is the "Bread of the Angels"

The Jews, answering Jesus, referred once to the miraculous manna in the desert and said, "Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven...I am the Bread of life’" (Jn 6:30-32,35). Herewith, Jesus interpreted the manna of the Old Testament as an image of Himself, present in the Holy Eucharist. And from then onward, it is so understood and is called the "bread of the angels".

St. Thomas Aquinas quotes this Psalm according to the Septuagint version as the "bread of the angels" (Summa Theo. III,80,2 obj.1) and speaks of it in his famous hymn (Lauda Sion) through which the expression "bread of the angels" became a firm part of the Liturgy: "Ecce panis angelorum, factus cibus viatorum—Lo! the angel’s food is given, To the pilgrim who has striven". The Imitation of Christ remarks astonished, that the priest "should consecrate and handle the Sacrament of Christ, and receive for food ‘the bread of angels’ (Ps 78:25)" (IV,5,1). Today, the Catechism of the Catholic Church raises the question, "What is this Sacrament [of the Holy Eucharist] called?" Among others, the answer is: "...We also call it: the bread of the angels, bread from heaven" (CCC, 1331).

2. God Reminds Us of This Miracle

God desires greatly that man recognize his happiness to be the union with God. He tries very hard to teach His people the right way. Therefore, He reminds them of the miracle of the manna realized over the course of so many years in the desert, so that they might become firm in their faith in Him. Do we give today the fitting response in faith to the "bread of the angels" of the New Testament? Do we stop sinning (cf. Lk 18:8)? What does this tell us?

a) God Is a Good Father

The first truth which the miracle of the manna reveals is certainly God’s fatherly care for man. He, the "Father, Who is in heaven" (Mt 6:1), gave the manna, this "bread from heaven". It is a proof of the assiduous care of God: He accompanies His sons wherever they are. He is preoccupied with us as Jacob is with his sons. He provides the necessary means for our journey as did Tobit for his son’s journey. The miracle of the manna in the desert should be a proof for men that God is really good: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!" (Lk 11:13).

b) God’s Goodness Gives the "Bread of Life"

The goodness of the Father is manifested by more than His gift of the Holy Spirit. For the manna in the desert was not only bread for their material sustenance, but also a pre-figuration of Christ (along with many other signs of the OT, e.g., the blood of the lamb, the water from the rock, the bronze serpent, etc.). As such, it was also intended to nourish the spiritual life and their faith in God. In the New Testament, God wanted to give the "bread of life", the manna of the soul and spiritual life, in the mission of His Son. He is "the fatted calf" for the feast of reconciliation (Lk 15:23,27,30) and the proper Lamb for the heavenly marriage feast (cf. Mt 22:2-4; Rev 19:7-9).

Saint Augustine explains: The angels see the Divine Word and are happy through the vision, thus "taking it in" like we do when we eat the bread. "But that man may…[enjoy the same happiness and]…eat the bread of the angels, the Lord of the angels became man" (Sermo 126; PL 38, p. 701). "As man could not ascend to this bread, the bread itself descends to man...and Wisdom nourishes us with heavenly Bread" (Sermo 149; PL 39, p. 2035).

3. "Mortals Ate of the Bread of Angels"

a) Man Eats It to Grow in Grace

The gift of the daily Manna did not bring forth faith in the Chosen People. Eventually, they failed to trust God and sinned. Therefore, we men do not just eat from the bread of the angels, but first "must prepare ourselves for such a great moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience...(1 Cor 11:27-29). Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion" (CCC, 1385). For those, however, who are prepared, it brings strength. For as "bodily food is changed into the substance of the person who eats it...spiritual food changes man into itself...He [St. Augustine] heard, as it were, the voice of Christ saying to him, ‘you will not change Me into yourself as you would the food of your flesh; but you will be changed into Me’ (Confessions 7,10)" (Summa Theo. III,73,3 ad 2). To eat the bread of the angels, then, does not mean to receive it for ourselves, but to offer ourselves to Him.

b) Each One Partakes of It According to His Nature

God gives according to one’s needs and nature: to the holy angels, for their beatitude; to men, for their strength on the way they have still to go. The angels enjoy God in the beatific vision, but we believe in Him with trust and love. St. Thomas Aquinas explains this: "There are two ways of feeding on Christ spiritually. First, under His own appearance, and thus the angels live on Christ Himself spiritually by being united to Him in clear vision and enjoyment of perfect charity: this is the bread we look for in heaven...The other way of feeding on Christ spiritually is under the sacramental species, in that a person believes in Christ with the desire of receiving this Sacrament" (Summa Theo. III,80,2). "Man and angel share the fellowship within the Mystical Body, men by faith, angels by manifest vision" (Ibid., ad 2; cf. Imitation of Christ IV,11,2 and 5).

c) Man and Angel Eat the Same Bread

This leads us to the most beautiful statement: God is the one denarius, which each one receives (cf. Mt 20:1ff.). Man and angel eat the same bread and live by the same strength. As they have the same God as their Father, so they also enjoy the same beatitude. They eat from the same table, as it were: "the holy angels do feast with us" (Imitation of Christ, IV,11.3), for "already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God" (CCC 336).

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

The expression "bread of the angels" for the grace of God, especially in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, reminds us of the gratuity of God’s grace and of our corresponding due humility and respect. It invites us to call upon the angel’s help so that we might treat Christ in this BREAD worthily! It teaches us that Holy Communion is also "a foretaste of the fullness of joy promised by Christ (cf. Jn 15:11); it is, in some way, the anticipation of heaven, the ‘pledge of the future glory’" (John Paul II, On the Eucharist, 18).

The lack of faith in the Chosen People, however, alerts us! That we know and believe Him, Whom we receive, presupposes that we meditate on Him, and that to love Him, Whom we receive, we have to adore Him (cf. J. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 2000, II,4).

Fr. Titus Kieninger ORC