As Christians we know that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection resulted in a New Covenant that brings the Old to it’s fulfillment and offers eternal life to all that believe in the new. Jesus Himself said, Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them (Mt 5:17.) And as Paul teaches us: Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better (Heb 8:6.) Everything that we have now, by the grace of our great God, surpasses what was contained within the Old Covenant in ways that were unimaginable to our ancestors in faith.
With this fact in mind, I turn to both the Old and New Testaments to explore the idea of the presence of God and challenge certain Christians outside the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches with the question: Why would we have less?
At the end of the book of Exodus, after Moses has completed the Ark as requested by the Lord, we read:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would go onward; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not go onward till the day that it was taken up. For throughout all their journeys the cloud of the LORD was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel (Ex 40:34-38.)
God Himself joined His people in the tabernacle that He asked them to create. So sure were they of that presence that whenever the ark set out, Moses said, “Arise, O LORD, and let thy enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee.” And when it rested, he said, “Return, O LORD, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel” (Nm 10:35-36.)
The Catholic and Orthodox Churches teach that the presence of God that was experienced by the ancient Israelites is with us today and more excellent in its accessibility to us. In the Eucharist, we have the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, in our church buildings 24 hours a day and available for daily reception. If the Israelites of the past had the presence of God in the Ark, again I must ask: Why would we have less?
The argument might be made that we have the presence of God in our hearts or in the midst of of our communal worship; for as Christ Himself says, where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Mt 18:20) and Paul teaches, your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you (1Cor 6:19.) Amen, I say, but we, like the Israelites, have the presence of God in yet another way beyond those. The Jews knew of an ever-pervading presence of God and thus we read: Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? (Ps 139:7.) They had an understanding of God being with the faithful, thus Jeremiah could say, the LORD is with me as a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, they will not overcome me (Jer 20:11.) The presence within the Ark, however, is notably different. If Jeremiah and I can both say the LORD is with me, how am I to say God’s presence in the covenant I am living under is better than his? As a Catholic, I can answer it is because of the Eucharist, and my ability to receive within me that notably different presence which exists within the Blessed Sacrament.
Turning from the Old Testament to the New, we can see Jesus making the promise that His new covenant with His followers will surpass that of the old, including the Temple of the Old Covenant. In Matthew’s Gospel account we read:
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law how on the sabbath the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here (Mt 12:1-6.)
The Bread of the Presence was an offering of unleavened bread that was to remain in the Temple before the Ark of the Covenant at all times, and when consumed could normally only be done so by priests, as it was holy. (cf. Ex 25:30 & Lev 24:7-9.) Jesus mentions a story from 1Samuel in which David and his men eat the Bread of the Presence, but only after the priest makes sure they are ritually clean. He makes a comparison between the laws of the Sabbath and the laws of the Temple and shows the Temple laws to be greater as the priests bake the Bread of the Presence and do other Temple work on the Sabbath yet remain guiltless. He Himself, He declares with all the authority of Heaven, is even greater than the Temple. The Bread of the Presence, like the entire Old Covenant, prefigures what is to come in the New Testament. If the Israelites had a holy unleavened bread, what are we to think about the unleavened bread Jesus introduces into the Christian Church at the Last Supper saying, This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me (1Cor 11:24?) If the Israelites had that holy unleavened bread, why would we have less? Would we not have even more?
In the Gospel of John we have a well known story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan women at a well. They have the following exchange:
Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him (Jn 4:20-23.)
When the women brings up the differences in worship location, Jesus asserts the superiority of the Temple saying salvation is from the Jews. He goes on to say that what He is establishing will surpass the Temple and that the worship of His followers will no longer be tied to a single place. Just as in the passage from Matthew, it is Christ Himself that surpasses the Temple. Our worship could only be considered superior to that of the Temple if we had the substantial presence of God as the Temple once did and if we had a superior sacrifice. The Lord tells the Psalmist I do not reprove you for your sacrifices;your burnt offerings are continually before me (Ps 50:8.) The purpose of the Temple was for sacrifice to God, thus our worship areas must have a superior sacrifice that is continually before the Father. In the Eucharist we do have that superior sacrifice. We have the same sacrifice of Calvary, the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of His Son, made really present. We can partake in our Bread of the Presence because as Christians we have been built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood (1Pt 2:5.)
The question began, Why would we have less? But we end with: How beautiful is it that we have so much more?