“But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
As a Protestant (Episcopalian and later non-denominational), I prayed often for the presence of God to be made manifest, the thought being that God’s presence alone would be enough to bring comfort, healing, solace – even faith. Of course, the form of God’s presence was something I always imagined to be something other than physical – real, but invisible; not felt by touch. I expected God’s presence to be experienced ethereally and I was ok with that.
Now, journeying back to my Catholic roots, via RCIA, I find that everything’s changed; God’s presence is more than ethereal.
The Eucharistic Presence of Christ is central; it forms the core of Catholic teaching and everything revolves around it. You cannot be truly Catholic and dismiss it. Dare I say it is not a thing easily or casually embraced? Nor should it be.
It is also beyond doubt the doctrine forming the greatest chasm between Catholics and Protestants.
Into that divide steps Dr. Brant Pitre and his book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist which should become, in my humble, less-than-learned opinion, a seminal work. And not just for Catholics.
Pitre wends his way through the Old Testament and ancient Jewish writings like The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Works of Josephus, The Mishnah and other writings and he ties together lose ends. He focuses on beliefs about the Passover, the Manna from heaven and the Bread of the Presence; and demonstrates their relevance to and foreshadowing of the Eucharistic Presence, and makes a forceful and powerful argument for his thesis, which is that the Holy Eucharist cannot be fully understood as a continuing Presence of God, unless considered within the context of 1st Century Judaism. For Catholics, this book will be substantiating and affirming. For Protestants, it can be illuminating and clarifying.
This passage from Pitre’s chapter titled The Bread of the Presence gives a foretaste:
… the word commonly rendered as presence is actually the Hebrew word for face (panim). Therefore, the most literal translation of the Hebrew is the Bread of the Face. From this perspective the meaning of the expression is clear, but the implications are enormous; the Bread of the Presence is nothing less than the Bread of the Face of God. In this view, somehow, the bread itself is a visible sign of the face of God.
There is of course much more and all of it leading to a wondrous end. It’s a work I would have liked to have seen some time ago.
I’ve been away from the Catholic faith for 40 years, in essence wandering in the wilderness as the Jews who were led out of Egypt. My trek toward belief in the Real Presence has been slow and methodical, perhaps even too cerebral; my struggles have been, well . . . real and present. Pitre’s book has helped fill the intellectual gaps and in that sense is an enormous assist.
I’m not about to suggest a formulaic solution for those who’ve struggled with Eucharistic Presence. I don’t believe there to be any such solution out there, but what I can do is relay that my journey toward belief is fueled by my need for it to be true. I have longed and do long for the presence of God. I am comforted, consoled, strengthened, encouraged, chastened, made aware of my sinfulness, healed and forgiven by His nearness. I have lately been able to experience these things and more during Holy Communion, during Adoration and recently, during a moving and most holy Eucharistic Healing service offered by The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.
I’ve entered into these things with imperfect faith, with flawed belief, with too many doubts and yet each time, I’ve been granted release. Each time I have left a Eucharistic encounter believing more strongly than before that something mystical and something holy and something real had been before me and experienced by me. My faith has been strengthened.
In Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Brant Pitre has provided a firm foundation on which I can literally build my faith, and wrap my brain around the Scriptural basis for Christ’s Presence in the breaking of the bread. This is, frankly, an answer to my prayer and my desiring. With Lent in mind, I urge Catholics and Protestants alike to read Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. Catholics will become more aware of the richness and depth of our faith, Protestants will better understand why the Holy Eucharist forms the core of Catholicism, as reality, and not a symbol.
Visit the Patheos Book Club for more resources and conversation on Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.