Advent is calling, beckoning Catholics to retrench, reconsider, re-evaluate. The economic downturn has revealed an enormous tragic flaw in personal and public policy, and one only has to listen for the wailing and gnashing of teeth to pinpoint its location.
Oppressed by Egyptian taskmasters, the Lord heard the cries of His weary people and sent a deliverer. They left Egypt for the desert with spoils of gold and silver, but barely out of sight of their slavery, complaints ensued. The dry desert lack revealed a more insidious bondage.
On the surface, their fear seems legitimate — one can hardly live without food and water — and God answered their accusations of neglect by refreshing them with daily water from a rock and manna from the sky. Not a word of thanksgiving is recorded.
Instead the “angels’ food,” inspired more “intense craving,” a polite way of communicating their lust for the variety and plenty enjoyed while slaves in Egypt.
“’Who will give us meat to eat?’ they said. ‘Think of the fish we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic! But now we are withering away; there is nothing wherever we look except this manna!’” The disgusted Israelites regarded the simple, daily, miraculous manna as monotonous and unsatisfying, revealing a stunted capacity to digest spiritual sustenance.
Using every discomfort as an excuse to find fault and claim deprivation and neglect, the murmuring of the people and their offenses were regarded against God Himself, personally, and His own leadership and provision for them.
St. Jerome kindly explains the complaining by way of the fatigue of the journey, a fatigue we surely all share when feeling the extended pinch of slashed budgets and incomes, but the Lord patiently offers them a lesson by granting their desire:
“[S]ince you have wept in [God’s] hearing, saying: ‘Who will give us meat to eat? How happy we were in Egypt!’ Very well, Yahweh will give you meat to eat. You will eat it not for one day, or two, or five, or ten or twenty, but for a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and sickens you, since you have rejected Yahweh who is among you…” (Num. 11: 19-20).
Psalm 78 offers a chilling interpretation of our spiritual ancestors’ experience, relating that they sinned against God by testing Him in their hearts and asking for food “for their desires.” He gave them what they fancied and did not deprive them of what they craved, but while the satisfaction was in their mouths, it was judgment that they swallowed.
It was not hunger or thirst that insulted God, just as it is not our own legitimate desires or needs that qualify as sin. We lie to ourselves when we indulge the belief that it was better for us when we were more prosperous, that we will die of lack in this economic desert.
Oblivious to the real poverty in huge portions of the earth and complaining constantly of lack of spice, we are the fool whose house is too small to hold his constant accumulation of stuff, stuff that requires a bigger house when the old is adequate (Luke 12:13-21); stuff that suffocates us to death in debt and cares.
In these times of economic downturn, emotional pressure mounts to collect “things” in an attempt to anesthetize ourselves from the reality of our spiritual condition, dependence, and we can hardly cease from bottom-feeding for something else to assuage the anxiety.
The Father has graciously provided what we need (Matt. 6:31-34). It is we who reject his provision in favor of immediate, but temporary, satiation. We limit God, refusing to wait on His counsel, demanding what we crave in the desert, all the time accusing Him of lack of care (Ps. 106:13-15).
We must discipline ourselves in times of perceived deprivation, for God may grant our request, as He did the Israelites’, but as it runs out our noses we are quickly disgusted by what previously delighted us: the Christmas bling gives way to the burden of glaring credit card payments in the face of an unforeseen and devastating job loss.
When we persist in rejecting God’s provision for us, either in the timing or the substance, do we suspect judgment: leanness of soul, days consumed in futility, years in fear (Ps. 106:13-15; 78:33), and finally, the forfeit of the freedom we were on our way to meet (Ps. 95)?
I think not. I think, instead, our corpses fall as blindly as the Israelites’ into “graves of the craving” (Num. 11:34), and we never see the Promised Land or the wonders of the infant Savior.
Advent suggests we embrace our dependence and change how we deal with Christmas pressures. Jesus is coming! What shall we offer Him? “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps. 116:12).
Simplicity is a priceless gift of Advent, one in which Jesus offers Himself in the Cup of the Eucharist and asks us to call on Him for help to resist capitulating to obsessive consumerism, to determine to be content with what He has provided, and thereby receive what truly satisfies this Christmas.