In the sacrament of the Eucharist, why bread and wine?

By Father Daniel Schomaker.

The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life. The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch.” (CCC 1324) The Church’s teaching in memoriam tells us that contained in the “sacred species” and veiled in the objects of bread and wine, is in fact Jesus Christ! His very body, blood, soul and divinity!

But why when we celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist do we use bread and wine? The simplest explanation is that we are adhering to the command of the Lord when at the Last Supper “He took bread and gave it to his disciples…” and “He took the cup filled with wine …  ‘Do this in memory of me.’” Ultimately as believers this should be enough, but since God has given us a mind let’s delve a little deeper.

After being cast out of the Garden of Eden because of disobedience, God tells man that it is “bread you shall eat, by the sweat of your brow.” (cf. Gen. 3:19) Humanity also offers back to God the “first-fruits” of the field — as seen in the offering of Abel and later in the offering of bread and wine by the priest-king Melchizedek. Prior to their journey into the desert as they fled Egypt, the Israelites ate “unleavened bread”; and when wandering in the desert, it was the manna or “bread from heaven” that God gave to sustain them.

The gift of bread to eat (which we pray for every time we offer the Lord’s Prayer) is a sign of “the pledge of God’s faithfulness to his promises.” (CCC 1334) Or another way to say this is that in the midst of the trials of life and on our pilgrimage towards the “promised land” (Heaven) and in our thanksgiving to God for any and all blessings, it is bread that always sustains us physically and reminds us of God’s closeness.

The gift of wine or “the fruit of the vine” also finds its way into the revelation of salvation history. Just as there was an offering of bread in the Old Testament, so too was there an offering of wine — often referred to as the “cup of blessing.” At the conclusion of the Jewish Passover meal, this “cup” “adds to the festive joy of wine an eschatological dimension: the messianic expectation of the rebuilding of Jerusalem.” (CCC 1334) We also see, in Jesus’ very first public miracle — the Wedding Feast at Cana  — the centrality of wine, where he transforms water into wine, but not just any wine, the very best wine. And this miracle takes place at a joyful celebration.

So, why do we use bread and wine for the celebration of the Eucharist? 1. Jesus said to; 2. Bread points us to the continual sustenance we receive from the Lord when we cooperate with his grace; 3. Wine points us to the joy of the Gospel and of our eschatological end, heaven; 4. Human beings are a compilation of body and soul; both need to be fed — bread sustains the body; wine sustains the soul.

Father Daniel Schomaker is vicar general; pastor, St. Augustine Parish, Covington; moderator of the Curia; and assistant director of seminarians in the Diocese of Covington.