The liturgy thrives on symbolism. Symbols are actions and objects that reveal or disclose to us realities that lie beyond. Symbols that we can see and hear and touch are the windows that open to us realities that we cannot see or hear or touch. In particular, symbols disclose relationships. A marriage relationship, for example, is a fundamental reality in the lives of people, but such a relationship is invisible. One may see the actions, the evidence of a married couple’s relationship, but the loving relationship itself is invisible. But symbolic actions and objects, like the exchange of rings during the marriage liturgy, makes the reality of the couple’s love present and visible. In fact, the reality of their love is even intensified by the symbolic expression of it. The reality of their married love and their commitment to one another continues to have visible symbolic expression as they wear their rings throughout their lives together.
The bread and wine used for the Mass are just such symbols. But like all symbols, the bread and wine work on many levels. They express a number of invisible realities. As basic food items they are symbolic of God’s constant care for us. They are, as the liturgical texts remind us, “the work of human hands,” for both bread and wine are the result of many laborers who worked to produce them. For this reason they come to symbolize the offering of our labors as a thanksgiving gift to the God who always provides for our needs. Because one loaf is made from many parts of the wheat harvest, and one cup of wine is made from many grapes, these two simple food items come to symbolize the unity of the Church - one Body of Christ made up of countless members. So the author of the Didache, a text as ancient as perhaps the middle of the first century, prays, “Just as the bread which we break, once scattered over the hills, has been gathered and made one, so may the Church too be assembled from the ends of the earth into your kingdom!” The liturgy brings all of these symbolic meanings to us even before we get to the symbolism of the eucharistic bread and wine. The symbol of the Eucharist - the actions of taking the bread and wine, blessing them, breaking and pouring out, and distributing them - reveals to us the hidden reality of the risen Christ. He is now truly present in what appears to be simply bread and wine, but through the language of signs and symbols, and through the eyes of faith, we see through the appearances of bread and wine and discover the Lord who lies beyond what we can see.
Here, too, the liturgical symbols of the consecrated bread and wine offer us several layers of meaning. One obvious meaning is that the Eucharistic bread and wine are there for us as food, for it is the risen Christ who comes to us as the Good Shepherd providing nourishment to his sheep. The Eucharist also symbolizes the enduring presence of Christ the Holy One, who has promised to be with us all days, even to the end of the world. The Eucharist also reveals to us Christ as the one who makes sacrifice for us. As Jesus offers us the bread of the Eucharist, he is giving himself, his life broken and poured out for us, and challenges us to do the same for others. And, of course, the Eucharistic food symbolizes communion - all of us in all our differences mysteriously becoming the one Body of Christ, when we come together to eat of the one bread and drink of the one cup.