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The Profound Significance of Bread and Wine at Mass

by Romano Guardini


Seeing God, loving God, by consciously turning toward him with our minds and wills, though a real union, is yet not a union of being with him. It is not only our minds and our wills that strive to possess God. As the psalm says, "My heart and my flesh are athirst for the living God." Only then shall we be at rest when our whole being is joined to his, not by any mingling or confusion of natures, for creator and creator are forever distinct; to suppose otherwise would be as nonsensical as it is presumptuous. Nevertheless, besides the union of simple love and knowledge, there is another union that of life and being.

We desire, are compelled to desire, this union, and scripture and liturgy place upon our lips words that give profound expression to our longing. As the body desires food and drink, just so closely does our individual life desire to be united with God. We hunger and thirst after God. It is not enough for us to know him and to love him. We would clasp him, draw him to ourselves, hold him fast and, bold as its sounds, we would take him into ourselves as we do our necessary food and drink, and thereby still and satisfy our hunger to the full.

The liturgy of Corpus Christi repeats to us these words of Christ: "As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father, the same shall also live by me." Those are the words. For us to offer such a claim as a thing due to us of right would border on blasphemy. But since it is God that speaks, we inwardly assent and believe.

Let us not presume that the bread and wine in any way efface the boundary between creature and Creator. In deepest reverence, and yet without fear, let us acknowledge the longing which God himself has planted in us and rejoice in this gift of his exceeding goodness. "My flesh," Christ says to us, "is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed . . . .He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him . . . .As the Father has given me to have life in myself, so he that eats me, the same also shall live by me," To eat this flesh, to drink his blood, to eat him, to absorb into ourselves the living God it is beyond any wish we might be capable of forming for ourselves, yet it satisfies to the full what we long for of necessity long for from the bottom of our souls.

Bread is food. It is wholesome, nourishing food for which we never lose our appetite. Under the form of bread God becomes for us the food of life. "We break a bread," writes St. Ignatius of Antioch to the faithful at Ephesus, "we break a bread that is the food of immortality." By this food our being is so nourished with God himself that we exist in him and he in us.

Wine is drink. To be exact, it is more than drink, more than a liquid like water that merely quenches thirst. "Wine that makes glad the heart" is the biblical expression. The purpose of wine is not only to quench thirst, but also to give pleasure and satisfaction and exhilaration. "My cup, how goodly it is, how plenteous!" Literally, how intoxicating, though not in the sense of drinking to excess. Wine possesses a sparkle, a perfume, a vigor, that expands and clears the imagination. Under the form of wind Christ gives us his divine blood. It is no plain and sober draught. It was bought at a great prince, at adivinely excessive price. "Sanguis Christi, inebriat" me, prays St. Ignatius, that knight of the burning heart. In one of the antiphons for the feast of St. Agnes, the blood of Christ is called a mystery of ineffable beauty. "I have drawn milk and honey from his lips and his blood has given fair color to my cheeks."

For our sake Christ became bread and wine, food and drink. We make bold to eat him and to drink him. This bread gives us solid and substantial strength. This wine bestows courage, joy out of all earthly measure, sweetness, beauty, limitless enlargement and perception. It brings life in intoxicating excess, both to possess and to impart.