Holy Week 2024: Jesus and David Part 5 – David and the Bread of the Presence


Holy Week 2024: Jesus and David Part 5 – David and the Bread of the Presence

Published: 3rd April, 2024

Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12.1-14
1 Corinthians 11.23-26
John 13.1-17, 31-35
c.f. 1 Samuel 21.1-9

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The sacrament of the Holy Eucharist that is at the heart of the life of the Church stands in a very special and particular relationship with the Jewish celebration of Passover.  Just as the Passover lamb was sacrificed and consumed by the Israelites on the eve of their escape from slavery in Egypt, so too Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, and by sharing in the sacrament of His Body and Blood we are incorporated into His body the Church.

But whilst there is a very direct relationship between the Passover and the Holy Eucharist, the Passover is not the only place in the Old Testament where Christians find Eucharistic resonances.  Another such example is the story of Melchizedek, King of Salem, meeting Abraham with gifts of bread and wine.  And another is the Shewbread, or the Bread of the Presence, the freshly baked loves set before the Lord in the tabernacle day by day.

The link with the Passover emphasizes the importance of the shared meal: it is the shared meal that incorporates those who eat it into the redeemed people of God.  But the link with the Bread of Presence emphasizes something different: that sense of the Eucharist as something offered to God, something set forth in God’s presence, by which we plead for God’s forgiveness and mercy and love.  In the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood that we celebrate day by day but above all on this night, we bring before the Father the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation, pleading that full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, that we may receive the forgiveness of our sins and be filled with grace and heavenly blessing.

The Bread of the Presence has a particular place in the stories of King David.  It is an incident that Jesus Himself references in one of His many arguments with the Pharisees.  Fleeing from King Saul, David runs to the priest Ahimelech, seeking bread and a sword.  The only available bread is the Bread of the Presence, which the priests alone are permitted to eat.  Ahimelech hands over the bread to David.  In the interpretation of the rabbis, this came to be understood as showing that saving life – in this case feeding the hungry David – was more important than the ritual law.  In Christian interpretation, David’s receiving the Bread of the Presence reveals him as the Lord’s anointed successor to Saul as king, and also as anointed through the Spirit of God to a prophetic and even a priestly role; all of this prefiguring Jesus’, the Anointed One, the Son of David, who is prophet, priest and king, and in whom the Bread of the Presence finds its fulfilment.

But the breaking of the bread is not the only thing that happens at the Last Supper.  Of course there are many details and elements, especially in the extended account that we find in John’s gospel.  But the event that is pushed to the fore in the Liturgy of Maundy Thursday is Jesus’ washing of His disciples’ feet.

We might at first see this action as being in contrast with the ritual act of the breaking of the bread.  And certainly there will be those who are more drawn to the ritual and sacrificial aspects of the Last Supper, and others who are more drawn to the ideal of service manifested in the washing of the disciples feet.  But the more I think about it, the more I see these acts as being of a piece.

Returning briefly to David and the Bread of the Presence for a moment, it is implicit in the account in the First Book of Samuel, and explicit in Jesus’ interpretation of the story, that David takes the Bread of the Presence not only for himself but for his men.  This strikes me as a little strange.  If David is leading a group of men and they have no food, he might have sent some or all of them to go and find provisions.  That would be the normal way of things between leader and led.  But that is not what David does.  He takes responsibility for the situation; he secures the supply of food and distributes the loaves to his companions.  In this we see not only a prefiguring of the Eucharist, with the breaking and giving of the bread implicit in the story; we also see a prefiguring of the washing of the feet, with David modelling a kind of servant leadership, taking responsibility for providing for the men under his command, rather than expecting them to serve him.

In washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus puts Himself in the lowest place at the meal.  He performs the task usually performed by a slave.  It is an act of giving, an act of service, and an act of love.  It is an act that is both practical and symbolic.  Likewise in the breaking of the bread, a sign of the breaking of His body that is to come: in the context of the meal, a practical and necessary act, but also one richly symbolic of the depth of His self-offering and His love.  There is an essential unity in Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper; the breaking of the bread and the washing of the feet are of one piece.

And just as the ritual and the practical are found in the closest connection at the Last Supper, so too in the life of the Church.  There is always a danger that our celebration of the Sacrament can become a little too rarefied and aesthetic.  We must value the beauty of holiness, but the beauty has a moral as well as an aesthetic aspect.  And there is also an equivalent danger that too singular a focus on a ministry of practical service can start to neglect the proper focus on the worship of God.  If the breaking of the bread and the washing of the feet, the ritual and the practical, are of one piece at the Last Supper, so too in the life of the Church there must be the deepest connection between the celebration of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood, and the more practical aspects of the Church’s life in acts of love and service.  In both the Lord Jesus is continuing His work in us.  In both He sets forth before the Father the fulness of His redeemed and redeeming humanity made manifest in His body, the Church.

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.