May 10, 2018 (Edward J. Barr – Guest Contributor) – Most Catholics recognize the manna provided by Yahweh to the Israelites in the desert (Exod. 16) is a prefiqurement of the Eucharist. Catholic faith can only be fully understood if viewed in the context of the faith and practices of God’s chosen people. The gift of manna from heaven in Exodus offers a well-known and accepted prefiqurement of the Eucharist from the Old Testament. The similarities of this type of unleavened “bread from heaven” offered to sustain God’s people during the Exodus provides an easy connection for Catholics to understand. Yet a lesser known bread from the Old Testament provides equal if not more connections to the Eucharist. The “bread of the presence” provides insight and understanding of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic celebration. This bread was an integral part of Jewish worship, being part of the liturgy on the Sabbath and feast days, and was given a place on honor in the Tabernacle. By carefully exploring the Mosaic liturgical practices Catholics can recognize the Bread of the Presence as a prefiqurement of the Eucharist.
The bread of the presence appears several times in the Torah (Exod. 25:30, Lev. 24: 5-7). The Israelites were instructed to include the bread of the presence in the Tabernacle, the portable dwelling place of God, along with the Ark of the Covenant and the Golden Lampstand (Exod. 25:30). The Mosaic law (Lev. 24) provides specific instruction concerning the making of the bread, as well as its use in Jewish liturgy. It was stipulated that the bread was to be placed on the golden table (akin to an altar), and used only by the Levites (Mosaic priests) in offering a sacrifice to God on the Sabbath and feast days. The bread was to be presented to the Lord as a sign of the everlasting covenant between God and his people. It portrayed a sign of God’s presence with His chosen people. The term “show” or “shew” bread (Exod. 25:30, 35:13, and 39:36) describes the revelation of the face of God to the Israelites. The table where the bread was place included flagons and bowls for pouring libations (Exod. 25). The bread of the presence was included as part of the perpetual, un-bloody sacrifice offered to God Almighty. It possessed a key role in Jewish worship and the similarities between the bread of the presence and the institution of the Eucharist would have been immediately evident to the Apostles at the Last Supper, when Jesus held up His body (Luke 22:19).
The Last Supper provides a key in the transition from Old Covenant to New Covenant worship. Jesus’ actions and language demonstrate the similarities and developments from the Old Testament to the New Testament with regard to rightly worship. Instead of the twelve cakes of the bread of presence for the twelve tribes of Israel, Jesus selects twelve apostles to represent the twelve tribes. Instead of bread and wine revealing the spiritual presence of God to the Israelites, bread and wine reveal the glorified and Incarnate God to His people. Instead of the bread offered and eaten by the high priests of Israel, Jesus in his priestly role offers Himself to be eaten by His apostles. The “new” bread of the presence continues to be eaten at the table of the Lord, made available to all people in the new and everlasting covenant (Luke 22:19).
The Bread of the Presence reaches fulfillment in the Eucharistic celebration. The bread transitions from a ceremonial bread that showed the Israelites God’s presence to a bread that truly is God. Several comparisons of the bread of the presence to the Eucharist display liturgical connections. The bread of the presence was kept in the sacred Tabernacle, as Jesus in the Eucharist reverently resides in tabernacles in Catholic churches. Jewish men were required to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the high feast days of ancient Israel. During the liturgy, the priest would turn to the pilgrims and lift up the bread to show the people God’s presence among them. This elevation was designed to lift up their hearts and spirits to God in heaven. Similarly, at Mass the priest holds up the bread to show the people God, the glorified body of Christ truly with them in the Eucharist. In the Mass, Jesus transforms the bread of the presence to the bread of life, and ties the mystery of the Eucharist to his resurrected body (Matt. 26:26-28) while bringing Himself to His pilgrim people.
The liturgical focus of the bread of the presence signifies its importance to the Israelites in a way that foreshadows the Eucharist. This “supernatural” bread of divine instruction, revealed to the people their God within communal worship. The Israelites yearned for a new Moses, a new Temple, a new Covenant, and a new promised land. All of this was fulfilled in Christ, who stated he came not to abolish, but to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17). Part of this was the fulfillment of the bread of the presence in the institution of the Eucharist. In Jesus’ day a Levitical priest presided over a table, he took the bread from a tabernacle, and used the bread and wine to offer thanksgiving to God. He offered prayers to God, then turned to the people and lifted high the bread to show the people that God was with them. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass perfects those Levitical practices, substituting the bread of the presence with the glorified Body of Christ that is truly present in the Eucharist. The correlation between Old Testament Jewish worship and the Mass clearly demonstrates that the Bread of the Presence is a prefiqurement of the Eucharist.
Edward J Barr is an attorney, a Marine, an intelligence officer, and a part-time university faculty member. He is a guest contributor to Roma Locuta Est.