This morning’s use of the Canticle of Wisdom as the reading for morning prayer in Give Us This Day (alas not used in the Lectionary) put me in mind of its significance as one of the default communion psalms and canticles.
In our catholic tradition slightly more than half (78) of the 150 psalms (or portions thereof) may be sung at communion, and about thirty percent (22) of the seventy-five biblical canticles. Of these, the “usual suspects” are in the line-up: “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge” (Psalm 16), “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23), “I will bless the Lord at all times” (Psalm 34), “God is our refuge and strength” (Psalm 46), “O God, you are my God, I seek you” (Psalm 16), “Happy are those whose way is blameless” (Psalm 119, 37 portions). Of the canticles, Mary’s song of praise (Luke 1: 46–55) is sung at least ten times a year; and the song of praise from Revelation (4:11, 5:9–12), at least eleven.
There is one “surprise” in the list of “default” communion canticles, Wisdom 16: 20–21, 26; 17:1, used seven times a year.
20 Instead of these things you gave your people food of angels,
and without their toil you supplied them from heaven with bread ready to eat,
providing every pleasure and suited to every taste.
21 For your sustenance manifested your sweetness towards your children;
and the bread, ministering to the desire of the one who took it,
was changed to suit everyone’s liking.
22 Snow and ice withstood fire without melting,
so that they might know that the crops of their enemies
were being destroyed by the fire that blazed in the hail
and flashed in the showers of rain;
23 whereas the fire, in order that the righteous might be fed,
even forgot its native power.
24 For creation, serving you who made it,
exerts itself to punish the unrighteous,
and in kindness relaxes on behalf of those who trust in you.
25 Therefore at that time also, changed into all forms,
it served your all-nourishing bounty,
according to the desire of those who had need,
26 so that your children, whom you loved, O Lord, might learn
that it is not the production of crops that feeds humankind
but that your word sustains those who trust in you.
17:1 Great are your judgements and hard to describe;
therefore uninstructed souls have gone astray.
This passage is a meditation on what God did for the Israelites in Exodus 16 and Numbers 11. God fed his people with manna, the food of angels, the bread from heaven, which covered the ground like snow and ice but did not melt in the sun (the fire of vv. 22 and 23). The Egyptians were the enemies, the uninstructed souls (17:1), whom God pursued with a pillar of fire even through rain and sea.
We, the new Israelites, believe that the eucharistic Bread and Wine is ready to eat, providing every pleasure and suited to every taste. They manifest God’s sweetness towards us, his children; through them God ministers to the desire of the one who eat and drink them, changing them to suit everyone’s liking. Skillfully playing the stringed instrument of creation (“exerts” and “relaxes,” v. 24), God changes bread and wine into all forms: They serve God’s all-nourishing bounty, according to our desires and needs, so that we, whom God loves, might learn that it is not the production of crops that feeds humankind (“not by bread alone”) but that God’s word sustains those who trust in him. As a Passionist missionary once preached as part of a Forty Hours Devotion, if we dare God to meet our deepest needs and desires, God shapes the Eucharist to our tastes, pleasures, desires, likings, needs. There is nothing we need or desire that the Eucharist cannot satisfy.
For older Catholics this theology is not really a “surprise.” We grew up singing Wisdom 16:20 at Benediction: V/. Panem de caelo praestitisti eis. R/. Omne delectamentum in se habentem (V/. You gave them bread from heaven. R/. Containing within itself all sweetness).