Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Meanings of Bread and Wine in the Eucharist

The Church has the Gospel of Mark read every three years (it is called Year B; Year A is the year for Matthew and Year C for Luke). We are in this time of the proclamation of Mark and because Mark is the shortest of the Gospels, the Church includes several weeks of reading John, Chapter 6. We have been hearing how Jesus calls himself the Bread of Life.

All Scripture Scholars agree that this discourse by Jesus in John 6 is about the Eucharist. The central material elements in the Eucharist are bread and wine. Bread and wine "speak" to our imaginations on many levels. Bread and wine are more than food and drink; they also have a number of symbolic meanings. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago writes:

"We take two material gifts, bread and wine and, through the power of the Spirit, we ask that they may become ‘the bread of life’ and ‘our spiritual drink.’ [from the Offertory Prayers at Mass]

"On the one hand, these gifts represent ourselves, as we long for ever greater Eucharistic transformation. The bread represents all our united human efforts that contribute to the building up of a civilization of love on this earth. The wine represents all the pain, suffering and death involved in the discharge of this holy task---all once again embraced by the Eucharistic Body of the Lord.

"On the other hand, the bread and wine represent material creation itself, which awaits its own Eucharistic transformation, ‘a share in the glorious freedom of the children of God’ (Rm. 8:19-23). The Spirit's presence in this moment of offering is often made explicit in the Prayer over the Gifts, which concludes our preparation of the altar and the gifts."
I love to think about the symbolic meanings of the bread and wine. Cardinal George expresses it rather elegantly, but what he is saying is that bread is the use of a God-created reality, i.e. wheat, that is changed into bread by human labor. So it can very well stand for "our united human efforts to the building up of a civilization."

Wine is also the combination of created reality and human art. But also, wine is pressed and so "suffers" and is often red like blood poured forth. So as the Cardinal says, it can represent "all the pain, suffering, and death in life..."

Paradoxically, wine in the Scriptures is more often associated with festivity and joy (as any party-goer knows). Bread is more associated with the necessities of life. We speak of earning the bread we eat.

And yet another meaning of bread and wine is that each involves bringing together many grains and many grapes to make one loaf and one cup. The early Church saw this as very significant because we are made one in the Eucharist. (1 Corinthians 10:17: "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.")

Perhaps you may want to think about bread and wine ands other meanings they have which might be brought to the Eucharistic celebration and understanding.