On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we have just completed Herbert’s beautiful ascent back into bliss, a bliss which is all the more real because it has passed through and transmuted sorrow. We made this ascent by following Herbert’s steps upward in the single line:
Softness and peace and joy and love and bliss
Now, in the first phrase that follows on that line, Herbert sums it all up in the single image ‘Exalted Manna’. This is a particularly rich and densely packed moment in his poem and is Herbert’s way of saying that the whole ascent we have just completed was in fact enabled and given by Christ himself. The first point of reference for this image is of course the story in Exodus of how God gave the children of Israel the manna, the bread from heaven, to sustain them on their journey through the Wilderness. But Herbert quite rightly interprets this image through the teaching of Christ himself, in John’s Gospel chapter 6, where Jesus identifies himself with that manna, or rather shows that the bread from Heaven in the Old Testament was a sign or foreshadowing of God’s final gift of the true Bread from heaven, Jesus Christ himself:
32 Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.33 For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.34 Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread.35 And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst…40 And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.
So Christ is the true Manna, and he who came down is also the one who is raised up; first on the cross (John 3:14), and then in the resurrection and ascension, the one who, through his death and resurrection and will raise up all who trust themselves to him.
This link, made by Christ himself between the manna in the wilderness and his gift of himself to the world, and more specifically the gift of his body and blood in the Eucharist (John 6:51-57), is the reason why the church chose to make communion wafers thin and white as a visual reference back to manna, and is also the reason why the priest elevates the consecrated wafer and shows it to the people as they make Eucharist together. All these things were in my mind as I came to make my poetic response to Herbert’s phrase Exalted Manna, but as you will see ,the deepest connection for me, indeed one of my deepest connections with Herbert, is that like him I am a priest who has the awe-inspiring experience of raising up that consecrated host knowing that all the time it is Christ himself who holds and raises us.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.
I love to lift you in the Eucharist,
For you descended to the depth for me,
You stooped beneath the whole weight of the world,
And held it as the nails drove through each wrist,
You Held us all through your long agony,
Held all the taunts and curses that we hurled
Held all our hurts deep in your heart for healing
And when we lifted you onto your cross
You lifted all of us up to the Father
And made your outspread arms a sign, revealing
God’s all-sustaining love, that bears our loss,
Becomes our daily bread, calls as to gather
Each love, as manna in the wilderness.
So lift me as I lift you, lift and bless.