Bread and Wine

The bread and the wine, transformed respectively into the body
and blood of Jesus, make the risen Christ present among us.

Bread and wine are universal symbols of what brings us life: food and drink. The psalmist thanks God for satisfying mankind's needs: "for cattle you make the grass grow, and for people the plants they need, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to cheer people’s hearts. " (Psalm 104:14-15)

Thus Christ chose the simplest of elements as the sacred signs of His grace. Christians nourish themselves with bread and wine, which have become the body and blood of the Lord Jesus. As far as the Catholic and Orthodox churches are concerned, a real transformation of substance occurs during the consecration, the "transubstantiation." This belief is shared by High Church Anglicans and certain Lutherans, but for most Protestants, the bread and the wine are nothing more than symbols (in the broadest sense of the term) of Christ and not His actual presence.

The separation of Christ's body and blood is obviously a symbol of His death on the Cross. Their actual presence is witness of the renewal of the sacrifice of the Eucharist, inaugurated by Jesus Himself during the Last Supper. This body and this blood must be given as nourishment to the faithful, following Christ's words: "Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise that person up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink ... As the living Father sent me and I draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will also draw life from me" (John 6:54-57).

Whoever receives the communion of the Eucharist is truly given the life of Jesus, through the Father, and thus also through the mystery of the Trinity which unites in love the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We are invited to the "holy table" and are received there as guests to share with Jesus His life as the Son at the heart of the Trinity.

The bread of the Eucharist consists of small wafers of unleavened bread, which are called hosts. This word is a link between the Christian communion and sacrifice, for the Latin word hostia means a sacrificial victim, and this is the sense in which Saint Paul uses it when talking of Christ. ["...and follow Christ by loving as he loved you, giving himself up for us as an offering and a sweet-smelling sacrifice to God (tradidit semetipsum hostiam deo in odorem suavitatis)." Ephesians 5:2.] Unleavened bread was the only sort permitted in the Jewish rite of the Passover [Exodus 12:8] and that is why it was consecrated by Jesus during the Last Supper. For this reason, the Roman Church does not permit the consecration of ordinary bread, as opposed to the Orthodox churches which celebrate the Eucharist with leavened bread. The disputes which were once caused by these diverging customs have fortunately lost their bitterness during the last few centuries.

In the West, a distinction is made between the small hosts for the faithful (which are easy to distribute and to receive) and the large ones for the priests (so that they are easily visible when raised after consecration). Nowadays thicker ones are produced and their baking sometimes gives them a color which is more golden than white.

At the beginning of the mass, the hosts which are to be consecrated are placed in one or more patens (from the Latin patena, "a shallow dish"), which are convex, circular, and made of precious metals plated with gold or silver. They can also be made of other fine elements and some patens are masterpieces of the goldsmith's art. The same is true for the ciborium (from the greek kiborion, "the fruit of the water-lily" and, by extension, a cup shaped like this fruit) in which the hosts are placed for the assembled faithful. The ciborium is a hemispherical cup, closed with a cover, which is often topped by a cross. Outside the mass, it is kept in the tabernacle to hold "the Reserved Sacrament," which are the consecrated hosts which have not been distributed during the communion. It is then covered by a "canopy," a piece of cloth in the shape of a round tent.

During the adoration of the Holy Sacrament, the consecrated host is presented to the faithful in a monstrance (from the Latin monstrare, "to show"). It consists of a piece of gold or silver plate, decorated with an ornamental motif, centered on a circular base (the "lunette" or "little moon," decked with two glass discs) on which the host is placed. The monstrance very often creates the effect of a gleaming sun around the Holy Sacrament.

When the Holy Sacrament is not being displayed, it is kept in the tabernacle in a metal box called a custodial (from the Latin custodire, "to keep") or a pyx (from the Greek pyxis, "a box"). The pyx is also the name of those small circular boxes which are used for taking the communion to the sick.

The Code of Canon Law gives a precise description of a communion wine: "The wine must be natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt" (canon 924). It must therefore be the result of the fermentation of pure grape juice. During the Last Supper, it was the "fruit of the vine" which Jesus transformed into His own blood at the end of the meal. The traditional Passover meal includes four cups of wine and it was the fourth one, the cup of Hallel (the adulatory praise of Psalms 114-117), which Christ consecrated. [Matthew 26:29]

Since the time of the Old Testament, wine has been one of the fundamental symbols of the messianic feast at which, according to Isaiah, must be served "well-strained wines" (Isaiah 25:6). The eucharistic sacrifice and communion make the Last Supper and Calvary a present reality for us, by giving the faithful a foretaste of the feast of the Kingdom to come. For the consecration of the wine during the mass, the Roman Church generally uses white wine, which will not stain any vestments with which it may come into contact. The celebrant pours it into a chalice (from the Greek kylix, in Latin calix, "drinking cup"), which is generally a fine piece of goldsmithery. The style of chalices has changed during the ages. They are often decorated with eucharistic symbols or phrases from the Scriptures.

The way in which they are produced means that the bread and the wine are also symbols of the unity of the believers who partake of them. This is explained in one of the most ancient Christian texts, the Didache, or "Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles," which dates to the end of the first century A.D.: "Even as this bread which we break was once scattered through the hills and has been gathered and molded into one, may thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth in thy Kingdom! For thine is the glory and the power forever and ever." The same can be said for the multitude of grapes: pressed together, they become one single wine. Thus, the faithful who break the bread and drink the cup of salvation, who, in other words, eat the body of Christ and drink His blood, grow up into adult members of the Mystical Body of Christ [Ephesians 4:12-16; Colossians 2:19], which is His Church.

While dealing with the Eucharist, we should mention a custom which would do well to be revived: the Benedicite at the beginning of a meal, and grace at its conclusion. This is also a Jewish rite, derived from the numerous blessings or berakoth which mark different moments of the day. In family ritual the ancient blessing of meals, the Birkat-ha-Mazon, was of central importance. Here is an extract: "Blessed art thou, Lord God, King of the Universe, thou who feedest the whole earth from thy bounty, grace, tenderness and mercy... Day after day, thou takest care to do us a multitude of good things. It is thou that multiplieth us forever in thy grace, tenderness, spirit, mercy and all that is good." During the offertory of the Catholic mass, the two prayers of presentation of the bread and the wine are blessings of this sort. Even more profoundly, the blessing of a meal lies at the root of the Christian Eucharist.

Christians must keep the benefits which God's love gives them permanently in mind, and thank Him constantly, even if the path they have been given to follow is beset with a variety of difficulties. These acts of grace (which is, in fact, the original meaning of the word "Eucharist") pass through Jesus Christ, even as, according to Saint Paul, grace comes to us through Him: "Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ." (Ephesians 1:3).

Through respect for bread and for what it signifies in the Church, for the person into whom it is transformed by the Eucharist, it is a Christian custom not to throw any of it away and, before slicing a loaf, a cross is first traced over it with the knife.

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