Bread and wine are ambiguous, both in life and in the Eucharist.
On the one hand, bread is perhaps our primary symbol for food, health, nourishment, and community: Give us this day our daily bread! Let us break bread together! Bread is a symbol for life and coming together.
Few things speak as wonderfully about life as does the smell of fresh bread. The fragrance of fresh bread is the smell of life itself! Yet there is another story to bread. Out of what is bread made? Kernels of wheat that had to be crushed in their individuality to become something communal, flour, which then had to endure fire to be baked into the substance that gives off the smell of life. As St. Augustine once said in a homily:
For surely this loaf was not made from one grain of wheat? The grains were separate before they came together to became one loaf. They were joined together by water, after first having been ground [contritionem—the Latin verb he uses here]. For if the many kernels are not ground and are not moistened by water, they could not come to this form, that we call a loaf. … And then without fire, there is still not a loaf of bread.*
Bread must be baked too in a fierce heat. Bread then speaks of both joy and pain.
Wine too speaks in this double way: On the one hand, it is a festive drink, perhaps our foremost symbol for celebration. Wine has nothing to do with basic nourishment or necessity. It is not a protein needed for health, but an extra that speaks of what lies beyond the hard business of making and sustaining a living. Wine speaks of friendship, community, celebration, joy, recreation, victory. We celebrate everything, not least of all love, with wine.
But, like bread, wine has another side: Of what is wine made? Crushed grapes. Individual grapes are crushed and their very blood becomes the substance out of which ferments this warm, festive drink. No wonder Jesus chose it to represent his blood.
On the one hand they represent everything in life and in the world that is healthy, young, beautiful, bursting with energy, and full of color. They represent the goodness of this earth, the joy of human achievements, celebration, festivity, and all that is contained in that original blessing when, after the first creation, God looked at the earth and pronounced it good. The Eucharist too gives off the smell of fresh bread.
But that’s half of it. The Eucharist also holds up, in sacrifice, all that is being crushed, broken, and baked by violence. The wine, fittingly, is also blood. At the Eucharist, we hold up both, the world’s health and its achievements along with its depressions and failures, and ask God to be with us in both. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once put it this way: In a sense the true substance to be consecrated each day is the world’s development during that day—the bread 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.
What we see in the Eucharist, the goodness and joy of life and the pains and shortcomings of that same life, is the same tension that we need to hold up each day within our ordinary lives. How do we do that?
By enjoying life and all its legitimate pleasures without guilt and without ever denigrating them in the name of God, truth, and the poor, even as we go and stand where the Cross of Christ is forever being erected, namely, where the excluded, the poor, the sick, the unattractive, the lonely, the hungry, the crushed, and the bleeding find their place.
We properly live the tension of the Eucharist, the ambiguity of bread and wine, whenever we honor both the smell of fresh bread and the process by which it came to be. What that means is that we must fully honor the beauty of nature, the grace of an athlete, the energy inside music, the power and sacramentality inside sex, the humor inside a good comedian, the vibrant feel of health, and the color and zest that lie everywhere inside of life itself, even as we are conscious of and in solidarity with all that is being excluded from or victimized by these wonderful energies which ultimately take their origin in God.
In John’s Gospel, water becomes wine and wine becomes blood and blood and water both eventually flow out of the pierced side of Jesus. That happens too in the Eucharist and it happens in our lives. The task is to hold them both in our hands, as happens at Eucharist, and then offer them up to God.