Pitre: The Bread of the Presence

How did the early Christians start to identify the Bread of the Eucharist with the Body of Christ? The answer, of course, lies in Leviticus.

In The Last Supper, Pitre asks how early Christians began to identify the bread of the Eucharistic meal with that of Christ’s body. He says: “There is no evidence that such symbolism was ever associated with the bread of the Jewish Passover or other sacrifices of the Jewish Torah” (p 146). The Last Supper, a paschal feast, usually evokes the memories of the Exodus and of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds into the wilderness on the journey to the Promised Land. The allusions usually stop there for modern Christians who don’t appreciate the full scope of the Evangelists’s allusive thought: we have to bring this all of the way to the Tabernacle.

Pitre links the bread of the Eucharist with that of the Bread of the Presence that was set up in the Temple. Leviticus describes it as such:

“You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile, on the table of pure gold before the Lord. And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the Lord. Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the Lord regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of theLord‘s food offerings, a perpetual due.”

The Table is set up in such a way that the Bread is a Tribute to God, a memorial that causes Israel to always be before the Face of Yahweh. In the same way, the Lampstand is set up behind the Table so that the Lampstand always shines its light on the Bread. It is literally called “the bread of the face” (lehem happanim, Pitre, 146). Both are symbols of the presence of God. Taking the new Bread, in memorial to Jesus, as a tribute to his death in time eternal, sets up half the Eucharist as the new presence of Jesus rather than of God, a wholly Christian development.

It is not at the Most Holy Place, but it is inside the Temple. In this sense, priests can access the Bread, but the layperson cannot. Only the priest can consume the Bread. This is confirmation that Jesus is beginning to make his disciples priests before he sanctifies them by breathing on them. This is the beginning of the restoration of Israel’s priestly ministry: in the Liturgy, all of the Christians of the world, being priests, can partake in the Bread.

The Last Supper is strategically placed after the cleansing of the Temple. Jesus visits the Temple three times, recreating the three times that a priest would visit a leprous house. On the final time, he completely cleanses it by throwing over all of the tables of the moneychangers. “In recent years, a number of scholars have suggested that Jesus’ act of cleansing the Temple should be interpreted as a prophetic sign of the destruction of the old temple cult and its restoration and replacement by a new Temple.” (Pitre, 144). After Jesus destroys the Temple, he sets up a new Table, where the disciples take the bread of the presence of Jesus and take and eat it. A new Peace Meal with God is established at the death of Christ and the symbolic death of the Old Covenant.

He cites the Early Church in response to this:

Origen writes about the Eucharist:

“The precept is given [about the Bread of the Presence, Leviticus 24:5-9] that, without ceasing, twelve loaves are placed in the sight of the Lord, so that the memory of the twelve tribes is always to be held before them. Through these things, a certain plea or supplication arises for each of the tribes…. Therefore, if you recall more intently the church’s mysteries, you will find the image of the future truth anticipated in these things written in the law.”

Origen, On Leviticus 13

The mysteries, of course, refer to the sacraments of the Church. For Origen, the mysteries of the Church are based on the model that God puts forward in the Law. To understand what the Church does, one must understand what the Law said.

More to that, Cyril of Jerusalem says:

In the Old Covenant there were the loaves of proposition [The Bread of the Presence], but they, being of the Old Covenant, have come to an end. In the New Covenant there is a heavenly bread and a cup of salvation that sanctify the soul and body. […] Therefore, do not consider them as bare bread and wine; for, according to the declaration of the Master, they are Body and Blood.

The Eucharist, the new Bread of the Presence, symbolizes something more than just bread because the Bread of the Presence symbolizes something more than just bread. It is a Tribute, a remembrance, of the present God who dwells among us.

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