The miraculous story of bread descending from heaven is described in the book of Exodus. Its themes include dependence on God, a test of faith and fair treatment for all. For Christians, this heavenly food, known as ‘manna’, came to be seen as a symbol of the Eucharist.
After their escape from Egypt, the Israelites made their way through the desert to the Promised Land. As time went on, however, they ran short on food and began to starve. So they began to complain to Moses, saying that they wished they were back in Egypt, where at least there was plenty to eat.
To stop their complaints, God promised to provide them with meat and bread. One evening, the wind blew a large flock of quails into their camp, enabling them to gather the birds for food (cf Numbers 11:4-15, 31-32). And the next morning, the desert was covered with white grains, each as delicate as frost.
When the Israelites saw them, they wondered what they were. Moses said that this was the bread that the Lord had promised. He commanded them to gather the grain as food, but to take only as much as they needed. The people did so, and discovered that it tasted sweet, like wafers made with honey.
Exodus says that this heavenly grain then rained down from the sky every single day. The Israelites ground it into flour and used it to make cakes. God fed the Israelites with this bread, which they called ‘manna’, for forty years. When they finally arrived in the Promised Land, however, the manna stopped falling.
Scripture later describes the manna as “bread from heaven” and “the food of angels” (Nehemiah 9:15; Psalm 105:40; 78:24-25; Wisdom 16:20-21). People have proposed all sorts of theories as to what exactly the manna was, or where it came from. The only thing we can be sure of is that God had a hand in it.
Christ himself gave new meaning to the story of the manna when he told the Jews: “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’” (John 6:49-51)
As Pope St John Paul II explained: “What was foreshadowed in Old Testament times has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He gave his followers food for the journey of faith when he entrusted to the Church the gift of the Eucharist. Jesus himself is the new spiritual food, for the Eucharist is his body and blood made present under the appearances of bread and wine.”
This stained glass scene of the miracle of the manna is found within the former Blessed Sacrament Chapel of Erdington Abbey. It was designed by A.W.N. Pugin and produced by the Hardmans firm in the mid-late 19th century. Following the Blessed Sacrament theme, the scene is part of a window that features other Old Testament stories that relate to the Eucharist, such as Melchizedek and sacrifices in the Temple.
Various interesting details are embedded within this simple Gothic Revival design. God is pictured as Christ, in the act of blessing the people. This underlines the manna’s symbolic link with the Eucharist. Clusters of grapes, symbolising the use of wine in the Mass, are also found in the background. The Israelites themselves are dressed as medieval figures, in keeping with Pugin’s overall style.
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Where to find this work of art
Erdington Abbey, Erdington
Read the relevant passage