My Thursday commentary on the Mass has taken us past the Liturgy of the Word and so now into the Liturgy of the Offertory, the Preparation of the Gifts. At this point, while of course words are still used in the Mass, the use of the symbol begins to emerge here in its prominence.
So I want to spend some time these next few weeks discussing the central symbols of the Mass that dominate the action of the Eucharist. Specifically, there is 'bread and wine', there is the altar, and there is the priest. These are the basic symbolic elements of the celebration of the Mass into which we all enter in worship.
Why is it bread and wine that is used for the matter of the sacrament? Of all the foods that could be chosen, why did Our Lord choose these two? Why does the Church insist on wheat bread and grape wine, even when this may be inconvenient (say, in mission areas where these need to be shipped in at some expense)? Or even when it may make it difficult for an individual Catholic to receive the Eucharist (say, someone with celiac disease or an alcoholic)?
Fundamentally of course it is a matter of obedience. The Lord used bread and wine, told us to do what he was doing the way he was doing it, and so we have no authority to change it. That's really it--the sacraments were not our brilliant idea, not ours in their institution and so not ours to muck around with and change according to whatever brilliant idea is floating around in the Church or in the world (this applies to all the sacraments, marriage and priesthood being the two that people seem to want to muck around with the most these days).
But anyhow, back to bread and wine. Granting that we use them for the simple reason that Jesus done told us to do so, is there anything more to be said? Quite a bit more, actually. Bread is the great scriptural symbol of the basic reality of human life. The word itself in Hebrew is used interchangeably with 'food'. Bread is sustenance, bread is survival. The core reality of ordinary life lived day to day.
Bread also has a shadow side, too. Life is labor, life is hard. 'You will earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.' There is the bread of affliction the people ate in Egypt--bread has this aspect of hard labor, of a world that is marked by economic hardship, injustice, exploitation. Bread is life... but life is hard.
Wine is something quite different, symbolically. We cannot live without bread, symbolically speaking. We can live without wine. Wine is the great symbol in the Bible of life lived beyond the level of mere survival, mere sustenance. Wine is the symbol of human flourishing, joy, celebration. Life as not just a chore to be endured but as something happy, something rich and full.
But wine too has its shadow side. Drunkenness, folly, the wreckage of life that comes when it is consumed rashly or without due measure. Wine 'gladdens the heart', to use the fine biblical phrase, but it can also sadden the heart, drunk in the wrong amount at the wrong time.
All of this meaning is taken into the action of the Mass. Bread and wine are taken to the altar and given to the priest. Everything that human life is - the basic reality, the hard laborious injustice, the glad celebration and joy, and the tragic wreckage of our brokenness - all of this is carried up the aisle of the church to be given to the priest and placed on the altar.
I will say more about those symbols next week, but for now the main point is that Christ's choosing of bread and wine means he has chosen us, that he has chosen to bring all of human life in its beauty and goodness and its tragic suffering into his own offering. There is nothing - not one particle of our human life, that is outside of the Eucharist, that cannot be brought into the mystery of Christ and of God. These simple Eucharistic elements of bread and wine contain within them the whole panoply of the human condition, the human experience. And all of it is to be brought to the altar of God, all of it is to be brought into the mystery of Christ and His love.
As to what happens to those elements, what happens to our human lives, what happens to us when this is done... well, that's for the posts ahead. Stay tuned.