By Fr. Dwight Longenecker
So often we attend Mass and take things for granted. Not paying attention, we miss the meaning and overlook the significance of the little things. The bread and wine are brought forward during the offertory, and perhaps we take no notice. But the bread and wine are central players in the Mass, and if we stop to understand their significance, the offering of the Mass will take on a deeper reality.
First we should understand how important bread and wine were in the ancient world. For most people, having food on the table meant a life of hard work. There were a few staples from which everything else was derived. In the Middle East those staples were the things people could grow: grapes, wheat, fruit, vegetables, and dairy products. Meat was expensive. Bread and wine, therefore, were the two basics. As such, bread and wine represented the goodness of the earth and God’s provision of food, health, and well-being.
In the early Church the faithful would bring small loaves of bread, which they put into a basket at the back of church. They also brought small cruets of wine, which they poured into a common flagon. The flagon and basket would then be brought forward at the offertory. In this way the bread and wine consecrated at Mass was literally the offering of the people. The bread and wine was the gift to God from the people of God.
ONE BREAD, ONE BODY
As basic foodstuffs, bread and wine symbolize the full meaning of feasting together in unity. St. Paul comments on the unifying dimension of the Eucharist by saying: “Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:17). Bread and wine, therefore, indicate the unity of the body of Christ. This would have been clear to the early Christians as they put their offering of bread into the shared basket and their offering of wine into the flagon.
Sharing a meal together is the bonding experience God has given us. Dating couples go out to dinner. Business deals are signed over lunch. Diplomatic missions are concluded with a state banquet. Weddings are sealed with a wedding reception and feast. Families bond by sharing parties, celebrations, and meals together.
This is why Jesus likened the kingdom to a wedding feast; it’s also why the vision of heaven in the Book of Revelation is called the “marriage supper of the Lamb.” In this symbolism Jesus is the bridegroom and the Church is his bride. Thus the symbols of bread and wine point to the wedding banquet bonding of God’s family, the Church. This also explains why non-Catholics are not admitted to Communion at the Catholic Mass. To share in the consecrated bread and wine is to share in the unity of Christ’s Church. Sharing in Communion is like the unity of husband and wife in marriage. It is therefore false for those who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church to share in the Eucharist.
BREAD AND WINE
The language of the Mass echoes time and again the language of sacrifice. In Eucharistic Prayer I, the priest speaks of “the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek.” Melchizedek is a mysterious figure in the Book of Genesis who is called the “king of Salem” (14:18). The word salem means “peace,” so Melchizedek is the “king of peace,” but scholars also believe he was the priest-king of the ancient city of Salem which would one day become Jerusalem. In Genesis 14, he comes out of the city to greet Abraham with an offering of bread and wine. This offering is considered a foreshadowing of the Eucharist, and Melchizedek is understood as a precursor — or a human prophecy — of Jesus, who is prophet, priest, and king.
In the Jewish religion, as in most primitive religions, the faithful brought animals to the temple to be sacrificed. However, throughout the Old Testament, in addition to the animals, bread and wine were also to be offered. The people were expected to bring offerings of grain and wine to be poured on the altar as an oblation to God. Bread and wine were also important elements in the Jewish Passover feast. At the Last Supper, which was a Passover feast, Jesus emphasized the bread and wine more than the sacrificed lamb. This is because Jesus was soon to become the Lamb of God on the cross. After Jesus’ death, all blood sacrifices ceased. The bread and wine therefore became the offering instead of the flesh and blood of animals or humans.
Jesus was the Lamb of God that was sacrificed.
‘THIS IS MY BODY’
At the Last Supper all the images of sacrifice came together. Jesus was the Lamb of God that was sacrificed; the bread was to become Jesus’ body and the wine his blood. Was this merely a symbol? Jesus taught clearly that unless a person eats his flesh and drinks his blood, they cannot have life within them (see John 6). Some of his disciples drew back from this startling teaching and stopped following Jesus. When this happened the Lord did not say, “Hold on. I was only talking symbolically.” Instead he asked his closest disciples if they were going to leave him, too. He said we must eat his flesh and drink his blood. At the Last Supper he took the bread and said, “This is my body” (Matthew 26:26). He took the chalice and said, “This is my blood” (Matthew 26:28). Therefore we must take his teaching very seriously.
That is why from the beginning Christians have insisted that the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ. Through the offering of bread and wine, without shedding blood, we bring into the present moment Christ’s once for-all sacrifice on the cross. Through the action of God through the priest, the inner reality of the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, and in the Mass we say that the sacrament “effects what it signifies.” In other words, the bread and wine not only symbolize Christ’s body and blood and the unity we share — the sacrifice of the Mass actually makes these things a living reality.
A LIVING SACRIFICE
In his letter to the Roman church, St. Paul says, “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” (12:1). God doesn’t want animals or even humans to be killed in some barbaric rite. He wants us to offer ourselves in loving service to him and to our neighbor. The bread and wine make excellent symbols for this living sacrifice. Because of the action of yeast in both bread and wine, they are “alive” in ways that other foodstuffs are not. Jesus uses this image when he says the kingdom of heaven is like yeast in the dough — working its way invisibly through the dough, transforming it almost as if it were alive (see Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:20–21).
Jesus speaks of this same action when he teaches about the new wine and the old wineskins. Wine was stored in leather bottles, and Jesus points out that we don’t put new wine in old wineskins because the action of fermentation in the wine will burst the dry old wineskins (see Luke 5:36–39, Matthew 9:14–17, and Mark 2:18–22). In other words, the wine, like the dough, is alive because of the yeast. That invisible, transformative action of the yeast is like the working of God’s grace in our lives. Grace adds a new dimension to our humanity, making us come alive and transforming us into the image of Christ. Bread and wine therefore become symbols of God’s work of grace in our lives, in the Church, and in the world.