When Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, he held up bread and wine as two elements within which to make himself especially present to us. Since that time, now more than 2,000 years ago, Christians celebrating the Eucharist have used the same two things, bread and wine, to ask Christ to bless this world and to bring God’s special presence to our world. Why two elements? Why both bread and wine? What reality does each represent?
I have always found this insight from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin particularly meaningful. Commenting on why both bread and wine are offered at each Eucharist, his says this: “In a sense the true substance to be consecrated each day is the world’s development during that day — the bread (body) symbolizing appropriately what creation succeeds in producing, the wine (blood) what creation causes to be lost in exhaustion and suffering in the course of that effort.”
There’s an important lesson here for how we are invited to enter into and pray the Eucharist. When Jesus said, “my flesh is food for the life of the world,” he meant just that. He meant that our prayer, particularly the Eucharist, needs to embrace nothing less than the world, the whole world and everything and everybody in it.
And that is asking a lot because, as we know, our world is a pathologically complex place, mixed, bipolar, differentiated, a place full of both good and bad, young and old, healthy and sick, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, triumph and defeat, life and death. Making Christ’s flesh food for the life of the world means holding a lot of things up for God’s blessing, and that doesn’t always come naturally to us.
As instituted by Jesus, the Eucharist needs to be a prayer that embraces the whole world and everything and everyone in it. It needs to be a prayer for the poor, the aged, the sick, the suffering, the powerless, and for everyone (including mother earth) who is being victimized — even as it needs to be a prayer for the rich, the young, the healthy, and the powerful.
At the Eucharist, we need to pray for those in our hospitals and for those who are bursting with health. We need to pray for the woman or man who is dying, even as we pray for the young athlete who is preparing to compete in the Olympic games. And we need to pray for the refugees on our borders as well as for those who make laws regarding our borders. As Teilhard de Chardin says, we must hold up in prayer “what creation succeeds in producing and what creation causes to be lost in exhaustion and suffering in the course of that effort.”
As a Roman Catholic priest, I have the privilege of presiding at the Eucharist, and whenever I do, I always try to remain conscious of the separate realities which the bread and wine symbolize. When I lift up the bread, I try to be conscious of the fact that I am holding up for God’s blessing all that is healthy, growing in life, and is being celebrated in our world today. When I lift up the wine, I try to be conscious that I am holding up for God’s blessing all that is being crushed, is suffering, and is dying today, as life on this earth moves forward.
Our world is a big place and at every moment somewhere on this planet new life is being born, young life is taking root, some people are celebrating life, some are finding love, some are making love, and some are celebrating success and triumph. And, while all of this is happening, others are losing their health, others are dying, others are being raped and violated, and others are being crushed by hunger, defeat, hopelessness, and a broken spirit. At the Eucharist, the bread speaks for the former, the wine for the latter.
Several days ago, I presided over the Eucharist at the funeral of a man who had died at the age of 90. We celebrated this faith, mourned with his family, highlighted the gift that was his life, tried to drink from the spirit he left behind, said a faith-filled ritual goodbye to him, and buried him in the earth. The wine we consecrated at the Eucharist that day symbolized all this, his death, our loss, and the deaths and losses of people everywhere — God’s being with us in our suffering.
Shortly afterward, I was in a house filled with the vibrancy and young energy of three small children — aged 5, 2, and 8 months. Little on this planet so refreshes the soul as does young life. There isn’t any antidepressant drug anywhere on this planet that can do for us what the energy of a young child can do. When I next held up the bread at the Eucharist, I was more conscious of what that bread symbolized — energy, health, beauty, young life, vibrancy — God’s joy and radiance on this planet.