Why Do We Use Bread and Wine at Mass?

Why Do We Use Bread and Wine at Mass? March 6, 2024

What are we really doing at Mass? Is it just a remembrance or are we re-enacting a sacrifice? Why do we have to use bread and wine—wouldn’t it still work if we represented the Last Supper with Oreo cookies and Coca Cola? Anyone versed in ministry has probably encountered some funky attempts to answer these questions, some more successful than others. The answer, though, is quite clear: for a Catholic Mass to take place, we need bread and wine.

Heart of the Celebration

It is vital to remember that in our celebration of the Eucharist we are not play-acting but truly celebrating the Passion of Jesus. To do this effectively, we use similar materials to what he raised in offering at the Last Supper. This expresses the Incarnational element of our faith. Just as the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became a real, physical man, God uses material realities to communicate spiritual goods to our minds. For the Eucharist, we need bread and wine:

At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ’s Body and Blood (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1333).

Moving from the Old to the New Covenant

Looking back to the Book of Exodus and the Old Covenant, we already see signs pointing forward to the mystery of Christ in the Eucharist, from the unleavened bread of the Passover to the manna in the desert. Jesus is the fulfillment of these signs when he institutes the Eucharist at the Last Supper, and the Church continues to perpetuate this through the Eucharistic celebration.

The remembrance of the manna in the desert will always recall to Israel that it lives by the bread of the Word of God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1334).

In the Line of Melchisedek

The king-priest of the Old Testament, Melchisedek, pre-figures Christ in his offering of bread and wine as a sacrifice. The Church considers this important to understand when considering why we offer bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ. The bread and wine are a phenomenal example of how nature and human labor contribute together to prepare a worthy sacrifice.

The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ; they continue also to signify the goodness of creation. Thus in the Offertory we give thanks to the Creator for bread and wine, fruit of the “work of human hands,” but above all as “fruit of the earth” and “of the vine” – gifts of the Creator (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1333).

There is a cooperation between God and man to prepare the offering. Human hands harvest the wheat and the grapes and put them through the process of becoming bread and wine. However, only God can make the seeds grow. The Offertory is a great moment of the mass to reflect on what we bring spiritually to offer to God. The more we give, the more we get out of the joy and celebration of the Eucharist.

Joy of the Cup and Sustenance of Bread

Just as the Old Testament prefigures the Eucharist, some of the miracles of Jesus prefigure using bread and wine for his Eucharistic Celebration. At the Wedding of Cana, things took an interesting turn when they ran out of wine. Jesus converted water into wine and signaled that he had come to introduce us into the wonder and joy of the heavenly wedding banquet prepared for us in Heaven. By turning water into wine, he prefigures the “cup of blessing” at his Last Supper, which was a celebration of the Passover with his disciples.

The “cup of blessing” at the end of the Jewish Passover meal adds to the festive joy of wine an eschatological dimension: the messianic expectation of the rebuilding of Jerusalem. When Jesus instituted the Eucharist, he gave a new and definitive meaning to the blessing of the bread and the cup. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1334).

Faithful Attend Catholic Mass
Bread and Wine become the Body and Blood of Christ at Catholic Mass | Courtesy: Pexels.com

Joy of the Kingdom

For the mass to be complete, the priest must consecrate both the bread and the wine and receive Communion under both species. By receiving from the cup, he prefigures

the wedding feast in the Father’s kingdom, where the faithful will drink the new wine that has become the Blood of Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1335).

One of his most familiar miracles is when he multiplies the loaves and the fishes at the Feeding of the Five Thousand. This is a prefiguring of how he calls us now to share at his Eucharistic table. The disciples broke apart the loaves as they distributed them to the people on the shore, symbolizing the unity of those who shared the meal. In the same way, we all share the one bread consecrated at the altar and this signifies our unity as the faithful.

How do we explain the greatness of what happens in the Eucharist? St. Thomas Aquinas had to coin a new term to communicate the depth of the mystery.

Transubstantiation

We might not able to fully comprehend the mystery of transubstantiation, but that is no reason to think that it is impossible. When St. Thomas Aquinas introduces the term “transubstantiation” in his Summa Theologiae, he reflects on God’s omnipotence. First, he talks about different types of material change that occur in nature before concluding that the change which occurs in turning bread into the Eucharist is fundamentally unique.

Since God is infinite act, he

can work not only formal conversion, so that diverse forms succeed each other in the same subject; but also the change of all being, so that, to wit, the whole substance of one thing be changed into the whole substance of another (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, Q. 75, a. 4).

Although there have been attempts to explain the reality of the Eucharist with other terms, they all seem to fall short of the power and beauty of the explanation from the Angelic Doctor. What was bread and still looks, feels, tastes, and smells like bread is no longer bread. What was wine and still looks, feeds, tastes and smells like wine is no longer wine. They are converted into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ.

Challenge of Belief

We should not be surprised that the Eucharist is a belief that challenges Catholics. This was the case for the first disciples.

The first announcement of the Eucharist divided the disciples, just as the announcement of the Passion scandalized them (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1336).

However, once they came to terms with the reality, it became a central element of the primitive Church. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that “they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). We must pray and act so that the Eucharist can once again be the center of all our Christian communities. What we are really doing at Mass is continuing this community of discipleship that was lived out in the primitive Church. When we take bread and wine and the priest consecrates them into the Body of Blood of Christ, we share in the same meal he presided over at the Last Supper. The Paschal Mystery is one and we are drawn in mysteriously through the Eucharistic Celebration.

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Looking for more articles on the Eucharist? Look no further.

Mass as a Sacrifice

Mass as a Memorial

Christ at the Center

Just a Symbol?

Distracted During Mass?

Why Are There So Many Names for the Eucharist?

About Fr. Nicholas Sheehy, LC
Fr. Nicholas Sheehy was ordained a Catholic priest in 2013 for the Legionaries of Christ. He has been involved in youth work including missions, retreats and apostolic outreach in Germany, Italy, the United States and Central America. He is passionate about the New Evangelization and formation for young adults and married couples. He is a spiritual director and retreat director, offering marriage preparation and marriage counseling through the Divine Mercy Clinic and Family Center. He is currently Executive Director and Chaplain of the Newman Center at St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Pasadena, California. You can read more about the author here.
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