Another personal exploration of Biblical allusions to be found in the Canon of the Akathist to the Mother of God.
This time, I’ve been studying the background to
HAIL, living Table that held the Bread of Life.
As always, I find that praises of the Panagia point to Christ.
A Table Crowned with Gold
The copy was not exact. Foodstuffs and animals were sacrificed in the earthly sanctuary by the sons of Aaron, but Christ is the High Priest and sacrifice of the heavenly sanctuary (Heb 9:11-14).
In that earthly copy, stood a wooden table richly laid and crowned with gold, on which twelve loaves of bread (weekly renewed) were permanently set before God, as a sacrificial memorial or oblation before him.
These bread cakes were called ἄρτοι ἐνώπιοι, literally “face-to-face bread”, “bread of personal presence”.
MAKE a table of acacia wood — two cubits long, a cubit wide and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold and make a gold molding around it. […] And make its plates and dishes of pure gold, as well as its pitchers and bowls for the pouring out of offerings. Put the bread of the Presence [ἄρτους ἐνωπίους] on this table to be before me at all times.
It is to this magnificent table in the Temple, made of precious wood, crowned with gold, and bearing bread of oblation, that the Akathist compares the Panagia.
A Memorial Set Before the Lord
This “bread of the Presence” was regarded as among the most significant of all sacrifices, and was also called both a “everlasting covenant” (διαθήκην αἰώνιον) and a sacrificial “memorial” or “remembrance” (ἄρτοι εἰς ἀνάμνησιν).
AND ye shall take fine flour, and make of it twelve loaves; each loaf shall be of two tenth parts. And ye shall put them in two rows, each row containing six loaves, on the pure table before the Lord.
And ye shall put on each row pure frankincense and salt; and these things shall be for loaves for a memorial, set forth before the Lord. On the sabbath-day they shall be set forth before the Lord continually before the children of Israel, for an everlasting covenant.
This same idea of bread “for a sacrificial memorial” (ἄρτοι εἰς ἀνάμνησιν) was employed by Jesus at the Last Supper, when he said:
TAKE, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance [εἰς ἀνάμνησιν] of me.
If Mary is the Table, then of course Christ is the bread of the Presence that lay upon the lap of the Panagia, as upon that Table of precious wood and gold.
He is the perpetual unfading memorial offering, set forth before God and in the presence the Church — set forth for a New and everlasting Covenant.
An Oblation Offered Up from Birth
One key feature of Orthodox churches is the Table of the Prothesis, where the bread to be consecrated later on in the Eucharist stands from the beginning of the service. St Nicholas Cabasilas (14th century) wrote,
THE ceremonies which precede the act of sacrifice symbolize the events which occurred before the death of Christ: his coming on earth, his first appearance, and his perfect manifestation… [T]he psalmody, as well as the opening chants, and before them all that is done at the preparation [prothesis] of the offerings, symbolize the first period of the scheme of redemption. […]
AS long as it remains in the prothesis the bread thus separated from the rest is still only bread. But it has acquired a new characteristic — it is dedicated to God; it has become an offering, since it represents our Lord during the first phase of his life on earth, when he became an oblation. Now this happened at the moment of his birth, as has been said, for, as the first-born, he was offered up from birth, in accordance with the Law.
Commentary on the Divine Liturgy §1.
So the table of Prothesis recalls to us the Blessed Virgin, and the beginning of Christ’s life as an infant in her arms.
Indeed, Cabasilas makes clear that it signifies not just Christ’s development in her womb, but also his birth, his nursing, and his Presentation in the Temple: Mary’s own deeply personal offering, most poignantly so when she gave him as an oblation, in the Temple itself, into the arms of Symeon (Luke 2:22-39)..
Bread of the Presence
The Temple’s rites, sacrifices and furnishings, for all their divine ordinance and glory, were only dumb shadows of things yet to come. But in the sacred rites of the Divine Liturgy, we entertain invisibly among us the living realities themselves.
LET all mortal flesh fall silent, and stand with fear and trembling; be mindful in himself of nothing of this earth, for the King of kings, the Lord of lords, cometh forth to be an offering, and to give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food.
And before him tread choirs of angels, with every principality and power; the Cherubim with countless eyes, the six-winged Seraphim, veil their faces to the presence, and their voices rise in the hymn: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
Liturgy of St Basil.
In the Table of Prothesis, and the Table in the sanctuary in Jerusalem on which the oblation of the bread of the Presence was set, we see the invisible mystery of the Theotokos, the Mother of God.
She is indeed “the living Table that held the Bread of Life”.
She who yielded up to Symeon her firstborn son, so that he might give himself for the life of the world, stands now for ever in a heavenly sanctuary.
We stand beside her, and among the heavenly powers, and receive the bread of the Presence which she freely offered up from birth, the priceless offering which Christ our High Priest sacrificed in his blood once for all upon the altar of the Cross.
YOUR Offspring, O Virgin, has truly made you dwell in the Holy of Holies as shining Lampstand of the immaterial fire, golden Censer of the divine coal, Jar and Rod and Tablet written by God, holy Ark and Table of the bread of life.
IN giving birth you retained your virginity; in falling asleep, O Mother of God, you did not abandon the world. You passed over into life, you, the Mother of life; and by your prayers you deliver our souls from death.