Why the Appearances of Bread and Wine?

A Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.

–John 6:35–

            As many of you know, until the spring of 2013, I taught high school sophomores—for a total of twenty-four years.  Today people sometimes ask me if I still miss the classroom.  I answer with a resounding NO!  However, on those rare occasions when the teaching mood comes upon me, I foist my tenth-grade theology lectures on my unsuspecting congregation.  Well, mes amis, I feel a lecture coming on.

            What you are about to hear is a presentation I used to give to my students, and this is itself based on a lecture delivered by one of my seminary professors, viz. Monsignor Michael J. Chaback, who now resides at our villa for priests.  So thank you, Monsignor Chaback!  Here goes.

            Question: Why does Jesus give us Himself in the Eucharist under the appearances of such fragile things as bread and wine?  Lovers generally want to bestow enduring gifts on those whom they love.  What could be more long-lasting than a diamond, or the value of gold and silver jewelry?  What better symbolizes true love’s endurance than the circular shape of a wedding ring?  I recall hearing the story of a man who actually had a star named for his beloved.  If, then, lovers want to give long-lasting presents, why does Jesus give us Himself under the appearances of such ephemeral things as bread and wine?  Why bread and wine?  Why not diamonds?  Here are three reasons.

            First, bread and wine are forms of food and drink.  Food and drink, as everyone knows, are essential to life.  Without food, we hunger; without drink, we thirst.  Without each, we perish.  Christ gives us Himself in the Eucharist under the accidents (sense perceptions) of bread and wine to signify that we need God in order to exist at all.  The Eucharist also reminds us that we should hunger and thirst after God with our whole being.  The Psalmist says, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God.”[1]  In addition, the Eucharist appears to us as bread and wine as a reminder that Jesus is our ultimate satisfaction, the ultimate fulfillment of all our longings.  In today’s Gospel, Our Lord asserts, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.

            Second, bread and wine do not occur in nature.  We cannot pick bread from a tree; nor can we drink wine from a stream.  Bread and wine are products of human society.  The farmer, the miller, the baker—all have a role to play in the making of bread.  The vinedresser, the vintner, the winery workers—all do their part in the production of wine.  Bread and wine are, to quote the words of the priest’s offertory prayer, the “work of human hands.”  Thus the Blessed Sacrament should remind us that we human beings are social creatures, and that there is no such thing as a pure individualist.  We need each other.  We need society.  Above all, the Eucharist is a tangible indication that we need to belong to the society of the Church.

            Third, bread and wine are generally enjoyed as part of a meal.  Now it is pretty obvious that meals have a way of binding people together.  Business deals are often struck over lunch.  A man may propose to the woman he loves while the two are dining in some exquisite restaurant.  Relationships are cemented while people sit down to share a meal.  That’s why regular family dinners are vitally important.  Why, even enemies are sometimes reconciled with each other in the breaking of bread.  The Eucharist, then, is a sacred meal in which we Christians are bonded to God and to one another.  This idea is expressed quite nicely in a prayer from the Didache,[2] a writing of unknown authorship dating from the year 110 AD: “Father,…. as grain, once scattered on the hillsides, was in this broken bread made one, so from all lands thy Church be gathered into thy kingdom by thy Son.”

            To sum up, Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine: (1) to remind us that we must hunger and thirst for God, our ultimate satisfaction, (2) to remind us that there is no such thing as an individualist Christian, that we need to belong to the society of the Church, and (3) to remind us that it is precisely through our reception of Holy Communion that we are bonded to one another to the extent that we are united to God.

            End of lecture!  There’ll be a test next week.

[1] Psalm 42:2.  See also Psalm 63:1, Matthew 4:4 (Deuteronomy 8:3), and John 4:34.

[2] The treatise’ English title is The Lord’s Teaching through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations.