“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17)
I began this series of posts on the Eucharist with an understanding that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophet Moses and is leading his people in a new Exodus – a journey to the Promised Land of heaven. I focused on the story of the Passover Lamb, and how Christ is the fulfillment and our true Passover Lamb, and how that foreshadows our understanding of Eucharist. I then focused on the story of the manna here and here, the bread from heaven and how that is also a foreshadowing of the Catholic understanding of Eucharist.
There is one other perhaps less known aspect of the Exodus story that also foreshadows the Catholic understanding of Eucharist, and that is the Bread of the Presence. In older Biblical translations this was often known as the “shewbread,” or “showbread.”
In Exodus 24 Moses seals with blood the covenant the people of Israel make with God at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 24:1-8). Then he and seventy elders from Israel went up onto the mountain – “and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.” (Exodus 24:10-11). They received a vision of heaven, and participated in a heavenly banquet.
Moses is then called by God to come farther up the mountain. There he receives the instructions from God on how Israel is to worship him, and how to build the tent of the meeting, the sanctuary, the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy of Holies. God shows Moses these realities, and on earth they are to be copies of his vision of heaven (Exodus 25:9,40). The earthly Tabernacle becomes a visible sign of the heavenly place of God. To be placed inside the Tabernacle will be the Ark of the Covenant, the golden lampstand, and the table for the Bread of the Presence. A specific table is to be constructed with great detail, and its purpose is to hold libations and the Bread of the Presence, accompanied by incense which indicates this is an offering, a sacrifice to God:
“And you shall make a table of acacia wood; two cubits shall be its length, a cubit its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. You shall overlay it with pure gold, and make a molding of gold around it. And you shall make around it a frame a handbreadth wide, and a molding of gold around the frame. And you shall make for it four rings of gold, and fasten the rings to the four corners at its four legs. Close to the frame the rings shall lie, as holders for the poles to carry the table. You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold, and the table shall be carried with these. And you shall make its plates and dishes for incense, and its flagons and bowls with which to pour libations; of pure gold you shall make them. And you shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before me always.” (Exodus 25:23-30).
Anyone who think that God does not care about the details of worship should read the book of Exodus, and remember that God does not change.
Numbers 15:5-7 and 28:7 indicate that the “drink offering” is wine. The Bread of the Presence consisted of 12 cakes, one for each of the tribes of Israel. It was a memorial offering that was prepared weekly on the Sabbath, and was to be eaten by Aaron and the priests:
“And you shall take fine flour, and bake twelve cakes of it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each cake. And you shall set them in two rows, six in a row, upon the table of pure gold. And you shall put pure frankincense with each row, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion to be offered by fire to the Lord. Every sabbath day Aaron shall set it in order before the Lord continually on behalf of the people of Israel as a covenant for ever. 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 the offerings by fire to the Lord, a perpetual due.” (Leviticus 24:5-9)
The Bread of the Presence therefore becomes both a meal and sacrifice, which will be fulfilled in the new Exodus of the Messiah in the Mass, which is both a meal and a sacrifice. At the Last Supper, Jesus chose to identify his body not with the Passover Lamb, but with the bread and the wine. His sacrifice on the cross will signify the end of bloody sacrifices as his single sacrifice fulfills them (Hebrews 10:8-10). But he establishes the New Covenant as a memorial offering of his body and blood under the appearance of bread and wine.
This is why the book of Hebrews identifies Christ with Melchizedek. Melchizedek is scarcely mentioned in the Old Testament as he’s only mentioned briefly in the book of Genesis. He is the first priest identified in the Bible, and he blesses Abraham, and his offering is one of bread and wine (Genesis 14:18-19). There is one other mention of him in the Old Testament – Psalm 110:4 “You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”
But despite only the brief mention of Melchizedek in the Old Testament, the book of Hebrews quotes this Psalm multiple times (Hebrews 5:6,10, 6:20), and then Hebrews Chapter 7 goes into great detail how Christ is the fulfillment of this mysterious priest known as the king of Salem, which is believed to be Jerusalem.
“For this Melchiz′edek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him; and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest for ever.” (Hebrews 7:1-3)
“Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levit′ical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchiz′edek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.” (Hebrews 7:11-12)
“This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchiz′edek, who has become a priest, not according to a legal requirement concerning bodily descent but by the power of an indestructible life. For it is witnessed of him, “Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchiz′edek.” On the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God…..This makes Jesus the surety of a better covenant. The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:15-19, 22-25)
These sacrifices and rituals of the Old Covenant not only showed the Israelites how to worship God, they also were signs or shadows of the future truth of the new Covenant of the Messiah. The Bread of the Presence and the wine that were a perpetual offering to God pointed to the time when a new priest would rise up in the order of Melchizedek and unite his offering of himself to the bread and wine of the New Covenant, the Holy Eucharist. And our Eucharist is a foreshadowing of the heavenly banquet to come. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb! (Revelation 19:9)