The Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: An Interview with Author Brant Pitre
The whole section on the Bread of the Presence is riveting, but when I read that the golden table and the Bread of the Presence would be displayed to the people, it matched so perfectly the experience of the Holy Eucharist being elevated at Mass—and especially at Benediction—that I experienced a thrill of recognition and a sense of how Eternal is this notion of "Real Presence," and even of "bread before time" in relation to the Logos. In discussing the manna from heaven you do a good job of responding to modern conjecture about this heavenly food "occurring in nature" but you also bring up ancient rabbinical writing suggesting the manna has always existed, since before Eden. Can you briefly explain what that means, in light of John 1 and John 6?
Yes. Among the Jewish rabbis, there was an ancient tradition that the manna was not only given to Israel during the time of the exodus; it was also reserved for the righteous in heaven since the beginning of creation. The reason this is important is that Jesus uses this Jewish belief about the eternal manna to set the stage for revealing the fact that he himself has existed since the beginning, that he has "come down from heaven" (Jn. 6:38). In other words, he is no ordinary man, but the divine, preexistent Son of God. As he says elsewhere: "Before Abraham was, I AM" (Jn. 8:58).
In this sense, Jesus does not reject Jewish tradition in order to reveal his divine identity; he draws upon it and transforms it to reveal that in him, so to speak, 'something greater than the heavenly manna is here'. The eternal Word that is made flesh in the Incarnation has not only existed since the beginning (like the manna), but before the world was made (Jn. 1:1-14).
"The Bread of the Presence" or "The Bread of the Face," might be a term unfamiliar to many, and you discuss this in relation to the Ark, and you go all the way back to the priest Melchizedek and to the idea of continual ritual and of a common thread that joins us to our origins. Everything that has passed, and everything that is to come seems geared to bring us "back to Eden." Can you elaborate a little?
One of the great themes of the Bible, recently being rediscovered by biblical scholars, is the importance of the Jewish expectation of a new creation. From a Jewish perspective, God's plan of salvation is not only focused on the salvation of the souls of his people. It also includes the restoration of the cosmos, and the advent of a "new heavens and a new earth" (Is. 64-65). This is directly related to what happens in the Eucharist, in which the bread and wine of this creation are taken up by the priest, offered to God as a perfect offering, and then transformed in the body and blood of the risen Christ, who is "the firstfruits of the resurrection of the dead" (1 Cor. 15).
Sometimes Catholics tend to forget that the Eucharist is not just the crucified body of Jesus; it is the crucified and resurrected body of Jesus. In his risen Body, Jesus is no longer bound by space or time; he can appear when he wills, where he wills, under whatever appearances he wills (think Road to Emmaus), because he is the beginning of the new creation. As he says in the book of Revelation: "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. 21). This 'making new' of all things takes place at every single Mass, with every single host, and every single chalice, and every person who receives them, until Christ becomes "all in all" (1 Cor. 15). It is no wonder that all of the ancient Christian Church Fathers spoke of the Eucharist as the "fruit of the Tree of Life," which Adam and Eve were prohibited from eating, but which we, in the Eucharist receive. Just as with the fruit of the Tree of Life, "whoever eats this bread will live forever" (Jn. 6:51).