“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)
The fact that Jesus chose to use imagery of bread and wine to represent Himself and His body and blood tells us that He thought that bread and wine had symbolic value to them and could be used as a teaching tool about salvation. St Nicholas Cabasilas writing in the 14th Century offers his thoughts as to why common food was used to help us understand God’s saving action in the world.
“… these gifts of human food, whose purpose is to sustain the life of our bodies; especially because life is not only maintained by food, but also symbolized by it. The Apostles said of Christ: ‘We ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead’ (Acts 10:41) to prove that they really saw him alive. . . .
For Cabasilas food not only nourishes the life of our body but more importantly symbolizes life itself. And it was in eating a meal with the Risen Lord that the Apostles realized He really was alive and bodily present with them at the table. The meal became for them sacred and life-giving and a sign that Jesus Christ is Lord.
But you will say, perhaps, that all that was offered to God of old could be used as food by men; they offered fruit for which the farmers labored, and edible animals. Were these then the first fruits of human life?
By no means: for none of these foods is proper to the human race, but nourishment shared by all creatures, fruits being the particular food of birds and grazing animals, while flesh is that of the carnivores. We call human that which belongs to man alone. Now the need of baking bread and making wine to drink is peculiar to man.
That is why we offer bread and wine” (COMMENTARY ON THE DIVINE LITURGY, p 32)
As Cabasilas notes even every animal needs food to survive – not all foods symbolize something or have spiritual significance. Some foods are just part of the physical necessities for any animal to stay alive. Only particular foods come to symbolize life and being human. He argues that no animal bakes bread or ferments grapes – these are particularly activities of humans, and so as foods go distinguish us from the other animals on earth. Thus bread and wine symbolize not merely human activity but us humans. When we eat bread and drink wine we are engaging in a uniquely human activity – bread and wine therefore symbolize who and what we humans are. God enters into the world as a human in order to unite humanity to divinity – and offers us bread and wine now become the Body and Blood of Christ. God became human so that we humans might become god. The bread and wine of the Eucharist help us understand that salvation is God uniting Himself to humanity so that we humans can share in the divine life.
Bread and wine both show the symbiotic and synergistic relationship between God and humans. God gives us seed and soil. We humans plow the soil and plant the seed. God gives the growth. We cultivate the crop and harvest it. We turn the wheat into flour and the grapes into wine. At the Divine Liturgy, we then offer them back to God who shows them to be the Body and Blood of our Savior. God accepts our offering, transforming our bread and wine by divine action into the Body and Blood of His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Bread is thus both of human and heavenly nature. It is a symbol of humanity itself and capable of being our way of receiving the incarnate God.
One more symbol for us to consider. There is a reality that many of us are not bakers and only eat bread but never make it. We show up at the Liturgy expecting that someone will have made the bread for the offering. In our parishes however the concept of bread maker also becomes symbolic of each and everyone of us as ministers of Christ. Our goal in the parish is to turn each of us from being loafers into bakers. We all are to actively engage in ministry in the parish. We don’t belong to the community just to be consumers. If you think you don’t get anything out of the Liturgy, you need to rethink: what am I supposed to be giving to the church community? I don’t show up to loaf around, but to become the bread of life.