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What is "the bread of the Presence"?

Q. In some translations of Matthew 12:1–4, Jesus refers to “the bread of the Presence.” Is this the same as the Real Presence in the Eucharist?

A. In that passage or its parallel in Mark 2:25–26, Our Lord is making a reference to the Old Testament account found in 1 Samuel 21:1–6. The “bread” in that account refers to the twelve loaves baked weekly by the priests, then placed in the Tabernacle (and later in the Temple) on a golden table, where they would lie in the special presence of God associated with the Ark (thus “bread of the Presence”).

At the end of the week, these loaves — made of fine flour and covered with incense — would be replaced by new loaves, and only the priests could eat the old ones, because they had been made sacred by their time in the Tabernacle. This “bread of the Presence” is first mentioned in Exodus 25:30.

The term “Presence,” then, refers specifically to God’s presence, whether speaking of the Old Testament bread or the Blessed Sacrament. But the two breads are not at all the same thing.

The former was sacred bread, but still only bread, consecrated for a special role in temple worship. It was called “bread of the Presence” simply because it had been made holy by lying in the Presence of God as He manifested Himself in the Tabernacle in Old Testament times. It was an offering and, in fact, the New American Bible translates the phrase as “bread of offering.”

The Eucharist, on the other hand, is of course the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Himself, which we honor especially each year on this Solemnity of Corpus Christi (Latin, “Body of Christ”). God is really, truly present in the Eucharistic Host in a unique way.

Even so, we can view the Old Testament bread of the Presence as a symbolic foreshadowing of the Eucharist, much like the manna (“bread from heaven”) that fed the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, or the unleavened bread at the Passover meal each year.

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