National Catholic Register

Blogs

Eucharist: Bread and Wine

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 3/2/10 at 2:00 AM

 

The two elements of the Eucharist are bread and wine—simple gifts laden with enormous symbolic significance reaching right back to the roots, not only of Israel’s revelation, but to our own most elementary animal needs and our own deepest human desires.  They speak to so many things at once: to our fundamental need for food merely in order to survive, to our human hunger for conviviality and the immortal love of a good meal with friends around the table.  They recall our helpless dependence upon God who made this world without us and who shares his bounty with us.  They recall the food scratched from the dirt by the sweat of our brow and the astonishing Providence of God beyond all our imaginings or deserts.  They speak of sacrifice, especially the sacrifice of the Seed Who went into the ground and died to bring forth an abundant harvest in the Resurrection.

In Scripture, two Old Testament passages in particular stick out as foreshadows concerning the Eucharist: the story of the manna in Exodus 16 (which Jesus himself very thoroughly links with the Eucharist in John 6) and the curious prophecies of abundant wine in the coming messianic age in Isaiah 25.  In both bits of the Old Testament, the funny thing is the way in which contentment and super-abundance go together, rather like in the teaching of Christ. 

In the story of the manna, for instance, we are told:

This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Gather of it, every man of you, as much as he can eat; you shall take an omer apiece, according to the number of the persons whom each of you has in his tent.’” And the people of Israel did so; they gathered, some more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; each gathered according to what he could eat. And Moses said to them, “Let no man leave any of it till the morning.” But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and became foul; and Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered it, each as much as he could eat; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.

On the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers apiece; and when all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, he said to them, “This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the LORD; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay by to be kept till the morning.’” So they laid it by till the morning, as Moses bade them; and it did not become foul, and there were no worms in it. Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is a sabbath, there will be none.” On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found none. And the LORD said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? See! The LORD has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days; remain every man of you in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day. (Exodus 16:16-30)

Whole books of moral theology about everything from trust in Providence to the sin of gluttony could probably be teased out of these few lines.  They illustrate in a peculiarly compact way both the great good of contentment with God’s provision and the weird habit we humans have of nervously grabbing at more “just in case” even when it’s a bleedin’ obvious fact that God is taking care of all the “just in cases” and we have nothing to worry about.  For a brief glimpse, we see the vision that animated all the idealists who hoped to build the Communist Paradise on earth: “he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; each gathered according to what he could eat.”  However, in the verses which follow that passage (studiously ignored by the Communist Idealist) we also see why that paradise could never be achieved in this world: sin and distrust and greedy grabbiness—in a word, original sin.  It takes more than mere material provision to inaugurate a happy world.  Before kingdoms change, men must change.  And that remains the case even when God does just the sort of miracle people tend to assume would make us all be “good”.  You know: something big and splashy and public and empirically verifiable.  The sort of thing atheists demand to see before they will believe.

Exhibit A: Israel’s astounding capacity to get used to and even bored with the miraculous.  Or, then again, maybe it’s not too astounding.  They, like us, show themselves able to (quite literally) digest wonders and even wonder bread.  What is stupefying on the first day becomes dull by the tenth.  We have, as Chesterton noted, an amazing facility for becoming weary of hearing what we have never yet heard. And so Israel names the mysterious food they are fed “manna”, which basically means “Whatsit” in English.  It’s astonishing on the first day.  Yet not long after, they are sick of it—and they still have not the slightest idea what it is or how it gets there.  All they know is that they’ve seen this epoch-making miracle enough and want new thrills.  Of course, we’re totally different and superior to them, with our perpetual computer upgrades, our boredom with the last movie’s special effects, and our serial relationships.  We’ve evolved.  We’re not ingrates or greedy for new excitements.

This weird capacity of the fallen human mind to imagine that seeing a miracle a lot means you understand it is on display throughout history.  We let go of a stone and we think that we thereby “understand” gravity.  But, of course, this is nonsense.  Knowing that something happens consistently is not knowing what it is.  Some incomprehensible invisible power draws the stone and everything else downward.  But why it does so or how this power works?  We have no more idea now than did Neanderthal Man.  We merely have sufficient math and physics knowledge to describe the mystery in more detail.  But why it or anything else exists?  Not a clue.

Similarly, novelist Frank Schaeffer, a member of the Orthodox communion, relates a moment in his catechesis when he confronted his priest and asked why they gave Eucharist to infants in the Eastern Church.  “After all,” he remarked, “they don’t even know what it is!”  His priest turned to him with an eyebrow arched and replied, “Do you?”  In the face of a true miracle it’s better to receive first and analyse later.  If the analysis of manna or Eucharist turns up nothing, that doesn’t mean it can’t still satisfy your hunger, whether of body or soul.

Of course, much hangs on what we mean by “satisfy”.  To be “sated” calls to mind Tolkien’s hobbits, leaning back in their chairs, contented, picking their teeth, filled with the warm sense of contentment that a really fine meal and really good company around the table can give.  This is light-years away from the sin of gluttony and is ordered toward conviviality: the ancient loves, joys and friendships of the banquet table.  Such human goods are, of course, celebrated by our Lord, who compares the kingdom of heaven to a Wedding Banquet and who inaugurates his own ministry at, where else?, a wedding by means of, what else?, miraculous turning Adam’s Ale into wine.  In so doing, he shows us, once again, the astonishing abundance of his Providence while, at the same time pointing us backward to Isaiah’s great promise of the messianic age:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. And He will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of His people He will take away from all the earth; for the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 25:6-8)

One of the signs of the final bounty God means to bestow on the world in the Messianic age is wine.  Isaiah (curiously) associates wine with, of all things, the destruction of death.  It’s not a connection most of us would normally make, yet there it is.  And (Isaiah being an inspired prophet and all) it turns out he was right to do so.  For of course, the very first miracle done by Jesus in inauguration of the Messianic Age was to turn water into wine.  At the end of His ministry He likewise turned wine into blood.  And that wine is what we receive in every Eucharistic cup.