Bread of the Presence

"What is it?" the Israelites asked, when it appeared on the wilderness floor, and so they named it "manna," meaning "What?" (Ex. 16:14-31). Manna was heavenly bread miraculously provided by God to nourish the Israelites during their sentence of 40 years wandering in the wilderness. It appeared after the morning dew and melted with the sun. It was small, round, fine as frost, tasted like wafers made with honey, and could be boiled, baked, or made into cakes. Wisdom 16:20 tells us the Lord even made it taste according to each one’s preference. Apparently it was nutritionally balanced, as it kept them healthy for 40 years. The Israelites were to gather only enough to meet their need for the day, except the Sabbath, before which they were to gather enough for two days; any excess gathered would spoil.

In the tabernacle sanctuary, but outside the Holy of Holies was a gold table, set to the right, that held two stacks of six loaves of flatbread, one for each tribe of Israel. This bread was a reminder of God’s perpetual provision, and it was a communal offering rather than a sacrificial one; because the bread belonged to God, it was to be eaten by the priests every Sabbath “in the sacred place,” the sanctuary, as they replaced the previous week’s bread with fresh each week. Along with the bread, there were also offerings of wine and oil. This was to be an everlasting observance.

The name of this bread is remarkable. Some translations call it “showbread,” some the “loaves of setting forth,” from which the name “loaves of proposition” comes; but in Hebrew, it literally means bread of the face [of God], or bread of the presence. It was bread where God was present, and which was placed perpetually in His presence.

The manna and bread of the presence conveyed a single theme: God was with His people in the bread, feeding and providing for them. Both were to be an eternal covenant; a memorial pot of manna was included in the ark within the holy of holies, and the bread of the presence was also to perpetually be in the tabernacle. Symbolic of God’s enduring provision for His people, manna showed God’s sweetness to the people (Wisdom 16:21), but there was another reason He miraculously furnished it. Moses explained to them, "So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD" (Deuteronomy 8:3). Notice He did not say man "could not," though that is certainly true, because He said man "shall not" live by bread alone. God will not allow man to live only in the physical realm, and with these words, words Jesus repeated (Matthew 4:4), He was preparing us for something wondrous.

“It is to be an everlasting covenant,” the Lord commanded Moses, and thousands of years later One came who stunned the religious leaders of the time by saying, "I am the bread of life” (John 6:35) provoking a raging scandal that continues sifting God’s people today. It is in the context of the Old Testament bread that this statement must be understood, as Jesus pointed out. The bread of the earth, of wheat and bran, and even the heavenly bread of the Old Testament manna, gave physical nourishment and life, but the bread that Jesus is, gives life that is spiritual, for “the flesh profits nothing” (6:63). Perceiving how literally Jesus was speaking, many true disciples ceased to follow, turning away from the bread that would nourish them and tragically bringing to pass Jesus’ warning that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” This is a fearful statement, for it was the statement that divided the sheep from the goats, those who would continue to follow and those who ceased following, but it was not spoken as a punishment, merely a statement of fact: this life is in Christ; when one ceases to follow Him, one ceases to be connected to that life. “These words that I speak,” he said, the words proceeding from the mouth of God, by which we must live, “are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:64). Despite this assurance, “some did not believe,” and Jesus claimed that they, in fact, could not believe what the Catholic Church teaches, that Jesus is present in the Eucharistic Bread of the Presence, feeding us with Himself in scandalous humility, unless the Lord granted that they should.

In the New Testament we learn from Jesus that manna was an intimation of Himself, a whisper of His coming to assume responsibility for the souls of men (John 6). He is the life-giving Bread of whom we are instructed to eat, the sustenance of the soul. When the people inferred that He could give them spirit-bread just as their fathers ate manna in the wilderness, they asked of Him, "Give us this bread always" (John 6:34), and Jesus truly answered their prayer, fulfilling the command that this Presence Bread feed and exist forever. On the night of His Passion, He instituted the eternal Eucharist: Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples saying, "Take, eat; this is my body." Could the twelve disciples have doubted what Jesus was referring to, given their familiarity with the twelve loaves of Presence Bread provided daily in the temple?

To Satan himself, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 8:3: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." Man’s soul is sustained, not by rye or pumpernickel, but by the words of God’s mouth. Interestingly, "word" in Hebrew is literally "promise," meaning, man shall live by God’s promise(s). "I AM the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever . . ." (John 6:51; emphasis mine). These words are His promise. The fulfillment and interpretation of all Old Testament things, Jesus is present, He feeds us; we can live forever with God by becoming one with, eating, this Bread of the Presence.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage