“Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!” (Ex. 16:3)
I laugh every time I read this line from the book of Exodus. For some reason, the combination of nostalgia and self-pity strikes me as being funny. The Israelites had grown accustomed to the conveniences of urban life. Now that they were out in the wilderness, they were probably more afraid than deprived. They longed for the good old days when a wide variety of food was readily available from numerous merchants. Even before God sent the manna and quail, there would have been food available for forage, but they were afraid. In their fear and self-pity, they fell into a deep nostalgic funk over all they had lost when they gained their freedom.
Nostalgia can be fun. It’s entertaining to think about the good old days. I love old music. Old movies fascinate me; I love looking at the old cars and clothing in black-and-white films. There are even some old-fashioned foods that are interesting; if I mentioned pound cake or pot roast or root beer floats, your minds might wander away from attending to this homily. Nostalgia can be fun, but nostalgia in relationships is a bit trickier.
If those of you who are married take a few moments to remember how deeply and madly you first fell in love, those memories can strengthen your present relationship. If, on the other hand, you said to your spouse, “I remember when you were young and thin,” the effect of those memories might not be so affirming. At the very least, such a statement would make you a potential target for similar criticism.
It’s popular in Catholicism to think about certain periods in the Church’s past as being golden ages of Catholic culture, but such ideas are more fantasy than reality. Admittedly, the present age of the Church is far from ideal; church attendance continues to decline. Looking backwards, however, is not an adequate response to the challenges we face today.
During the sojourn in the desert, the Israelites were faced with the task of encountering and obeying God in new surroundings and circumstances. The manna and quail were short-lived gifts from God. The manna soured at the end of each day; when the Israelites arrived at the Land of Promise, the manna completely ceased to appear. The Israelites had to adapt to the changing circumstances.
The crowds in the Gospel had a similar experience with Jesus in the desert. They received food for one meal and were left with the task of learning and following Jesus’ teachings. We face a task identical to theirs; our task is to encounter and obey God in the daily events of our lives. The Letter to the Ephesians offers a helpful perspective on this task. The Letter says, “put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.” (Eph. 4:22-24) Learning Jesus’ teachings and following him requires that we let go of whatever keeps us from God and that we accept a renewed life by God’s Grace.
Take a few moments to identify what needs to be renewed in your life. Look also at the “deceitful desires” that lead you away from God.
Relationships exist in the present or they don’t really exist at all; this is true of our relationships with one another and it is true of our relationship with God. Either our relationship with God is grounded in our present attempts to know and follow God’s will or our relationship with God is just a memory of past events.
It’s easy to be attracted to the fleshpots of the past. Unfortunately, when we turn around to face the past, it often leads us to turn away from God. Discerning where God is leading us today is a more difficult task than waxing nostalgic about the past. Unless we give our full attention to where God is leading us today, however, we are not doing the works of God. (Jn. 6:28)