The beginning of the Book of Revelation contains a series of promises for those Christians who are victorious over sin by persevering in the faith. One of the most enigmatic is Revelation 2:17:
Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the victor I shall give some of the hidden manna; I shall also give a white amulet upon which is inscribed a new name, which no one knows except the one who receives it.
As Catholics we are attuned to recognized manna as a reference to the Eucharist, especially in a New Testament context. But what is the hidden manna? (You’re probably also wondering what that white amulet or stone symbolizes but that is whole other topic.)
First, a bit of Old Testament context: we remember the manna was the mysterious bread that rained down from the sky to feed the Israelites while they wandered in the desert. There was nothing ‘hidden’ about this manna: the Israelites didn’t exactly have to hunt around for it. Normally, this manna was also consumed immediately.
But some manna was saved and this became the ‘hidden’ manna, as Exodus 16:32-34 explains:
Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded. Keep a full omer of it for your future generations, so that they may see the food I gave you to eat in the wilderness when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Moses then told Aaron, “Take a jar and put a full omer of manna in it. Then place it before the Lord to keep it for your future generations.” As the Lord had commanded Moses, Aaron placed it in front of the covenant to keep it.
Hebrews 9:4 provides additional key details on this memorial manna: the jar that contained it was made of gold. This jar was located in the tabernacle in the Holy of Holies in the temple. Also with it were the ark of the covenant, Aaron’s budding staff, and the tables of the Ten Commandments.
In light of the New Testament, each of these sacred relics foreshadows Christ. The cross is the dead wood from which new life sprang. The ark of the covenant is a type of Mary. (This is especially clear from the end of Revelation 11 and the beginning of 12.) And Christ is not only the Word of God made flesh but He is depicted in Scripture as the very enfleshment of the Ten Commandments. (See Pope Benedict XVI’s Holy Saturday homily for 2009 and also his discussion of the Sermon on the Mount as a new Torah in Jesus of Nazareth.)
Of course Christ Himself is the temple, as He declared in John 2. Hebrews elaborates on this imagery. First, Hebrews 9 says that Christ has passed through to the tabernacle to offer a sacrifice on our behalf. The next chapter intensifies the imagery:
Therefore, brothers, since through the blood of Jesus we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, that is, his flesh.
Now, Jesus’ body is identified with the structure of the temple. Thus, He is not only the priest and the sacrifice, but also the temple itself. The identification is a dynamic one. In Christ the temple is transformed: its innermost sanctuary is unveiled to us, according to Hebrews. In this description we have a strong echo of Matthew’s account of the crucifixion where the piercing of Christ’s side occurs simultaneously with the tearing of the veil over the Holy of Holies.
The reference to the hidden manna is embedded in a bouquet of images that point to Christ. That the manna is hidden in the temple reinforces the connection between the manna and the Eucharist, the body of Christ sacrificed for us.
But the hidden manna also underscores a fundamental truth: something that is hidden invites us to search for it. We search for hidden treasures, hidden meanings, and hidden worlds around us.
Applied to the Eucharist, this truth manifests itself as a paradox. In the Eucharist, Christ is fully present to us in a manner that visible and tangible. We taste and see the Eucharist. And yet, in the Eucharist, Christ is nonetheless hidden. We do not see his face. We cannot feel the healing touch of his hand. In the Eucharist, we rest in the presence of God yet we are also bid to seek Him ever more. This is the lesson of the hidden manna.