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Bread and Wine: Simple Gifts of Sacred Meaning

Posted on March 29, 2019 By Fada Herbert in Human Interest

Why does the church throughout the whole world have to use bread and wine for Mass? Did Christ not use bread and wine because it was the staple food of the people of his time? Why can each community not celebrate the Eucharist using the cultural meals of its time, such as “corn fufu” and “palm wine”? The answer to these questions requires an understanding of the Jesus’ action during the Last Supper, the significance of bread and wine and a better understanding of the role of “custom and tradition” in the Church.

Why did Jesus use Bread and Wine at the Last Supper?

The Scripture repeatedly says that Jesus was an observant Jew. As a rabbi and teacher, He followed Jewish customs and hosted his disciples at weekly Sabbath meals. At the Last Supper He was the host of a meal with strong Passover significance. The Passover Meal observed by the Jews required the sharing of the bread and wine. These items are still the staple foodstuff of the Middle Eastern diet to this day. By blessing bread and wine at the last supper and calling them “his body and blood”, Jesus was solemnly declaring that from then onwards, it was His Passover that the disciples would commemorate. The command “Do this in memory of me” is the basis of our use of the same blessing and action at Mass. That is why the priest speaks the same words of Christ over the bread and wine. It is no longer a merely Jewish festival; it is now Christianity’s most sacred meal, the Eucharist.

What do Bread and Wine Signify?

The prayer made by the priest at the offertory is very significant. Lifting up the bread, he refers to it as “the fruit of the earth and work of human hands”. (Cf. Roman Missal, New English Translation) Similar, he says of the wine, that it is “fruit of the vine”. Sacramental theology refers to the gifts of bread and wine as “symbols”; meaning, they contain in and by themselves what they signify. They do not just point at something (like sign posts), but they are themselves evidence of what they point to. The process that we humans engage in to produce bread and wine, qualifies the gifts to be regarded as Paschal gifts; meaning, gifts which portray some kind of dying and rising, like what happened to Christ himself. The manufacture of bread begins with the planting and harvesting of grain. Unless the grain of wheat first dies it cannot bear fruit (John 12:24). Upon harvesting, the grains are milled into flour. This grinding adds to the paschal symbolism. The baking process requires kneading and series of rising. Like with the bread, so too for the wine. The grapes must be planted (first death), then harvested, crushed into liquid (another form of death), then fermented. The paschal process of dying to give life also surrounds the production of wine. Hence, as opposed to seeing bread and wine as merely some Palestine imposition to Christian worship, it is more fitting to appreciate the fact that they are central symbols of paschal dying and rising and therefore most fitting to represent the Eucharist. When at the offertory, the altar servers (or the faithful, in some Masses) bring along these gifts, it should be considered a privileged moment, because through this action, the worshipping community is able to give to God the fruits of their labour, the symbol of their toil, which will become His Body and Blood.

What kind of Bread, what kind of Wine?

The Code of Canon Law stipulates that the Most holy sacrifice of the Eucharist must be celebrated in bread, and in wine to which a small quantity of water is to be added (Can. 924). The bread must be wheaten only (unleavened) and recently baked, so that there is no danger of corruption. The wine must be natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt (Can 924 $ 2-3). Out of reverence for the sacramental sacrifice, every care and attention should be used in preparing the altar bread. It should not be unpleasant for the faithful o eat.

A note about Custom

The first answer to the question why we should use bread and wine at the Eucharist, is therefore “because Christ did so”. The same Lord who was counter-cultural in several aspects decided to give new meaning to the Passover meal, and commanded us to do the same in remembrance of him. Bread and wine therefore constitute the matter (or material ingredient) of Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, and the Church has no authority to change it. The Sacraments belong to the Deposit of Faith to the things, formally revealed in Scripture and cannot be changed, in the favour of any local custom or practice.

Like Bread that is Broken

If we are to worship God in “Spirit and in Truth” then we must worship as Christ himself did, and commanded us to do. Christ invites us not only to receive the Eucharist, but to “become” Eucharist. Like disciples of our Lord, our worship must make us become like bread that is broken and our service to should be sacrificial, like the cup that is shared.

Further Reading

Code of Canon Law, 924 following. Thomas Pazhayampallil, Pastoral Guide, Vol. II, Sacraments and Bioethics, Bangalore, India 2009. Kevin W. Irwin, Responses to 101 Questions on the Mass, St. Pauls Mumbai 2004.

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Fada Herbert is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Buea. He is equally an author, songwriter and has written several articles in the areas of Philosophy, fiction, Religion and Society Follow him on Facebook, twitter and visit his website at

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