The Symbol of the Eucharist, the Reality of the Symbol

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

We depend on symbols. An engagement ring, for example, or our nation’s flag. These are essential because they communicate what we cannot see: love, devotion, freedom, home. At the same time, we know that symbols are not enough. No bride (we hope) is satisfied just with the engagement ring. She wants what it symbolizes – her fiancée’s devotion and love. No soldier abroad is content with just the flag hanging on post. He wants to be back home, with family, friends, and familiar country around him.

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The same is true as regards the Eucharist – and even more so. Because the Eucharist is both the symbol and the reality. An engagement ring symbolizes love and commitment – but it is not actually those things. A flag evokes one’s nation – but it is not the nation itself. The Eucharist, however, the substantial Presence of our Lord under the form of bread and wine, is both a symbol and the reality of our Lord.

Now one obvious danger is that some have chosen the symbol and left behind the reality. For them, the Eucharist is merely the symbol not the reality of Christ. And to that rather new opinion (no Christian held it until the Reformation) we can respond as Flannery O’Connor did: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it!”

And yet, the Eucharist is a symbol. Perhaps when Flannery blurted out that response she should have said, “Well, if it’s only a symbol, to hell with it!” Those zealous for the truth of the Eucharist emphasize that neglected part of the doctrine – i.e. the Real Presence of our Lord under the form of bread and wine. Seeing irreverence, neglect, even outright denial, we want to rally to the defense of the Real Presence. Which is all well and good. But an essential part of the doctrine is also that the properties of bread and wine remain. The symbol endures as well. Jesus chose to be present under these forms…and He must have done so for a good reason.

Like the engagement ring that a wife wears even after the wedding, or the nation’s flag that a soldier treasures even when he is home, the symbol retains importance. In a sense, it has more importance precisely because of the reality. After all, if the reality is denied, what does it matter what the symbol is? Since He is really present, we should appreciate the symbol – the outward sign, the properties – through which He is present. Which is all to say that our devotion to Christ present in the Eucharist can be helped along by a consideration of the outward forms of bread and wine.

And why bread and wine at all? Why not something already present in nature – like raw grains and grapes? What this brings to mind is that Jesus chose to be present through something that demands human labor. Bread and wine are, as the offertory prayers say, “fruit of the earth/vine…and the work of human hands.”

This simple observation reveals an important truth about the Eucharist: It requires our cooperation to be efficacious. Receiving Holy Communion is not an automatic blessing. It is not magic. We must labor in our devotions and prayers to prepare for that great gift. We can receive this great grace in vain…indeed, even unto our own condemnation (cf. 1 Cor 11:29).

The human effort in making bread and wine is hidden from us. We swing by the store and pick up a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine. We remain ignorant of the hard work involved in the planting, growing, tending, reaping, harvesting, winnowing, crushing, etc. The work entailed to bring about these symbols points to the labor required for the reception of Holy Communion. Not that we work to earn the Eucharist. It is, rather, that we must labor to avail ourselves of the gift. We do not just saunter forward and receive the Host. We must labor to prepare – to reflect, repent (go to confession, if necessary), recollect – prior to Communion. And likewise then the hard work of remaining recollected, investing ourselves, and giving thanks after we have received. If we fail in these efforts, the Eucharist falls upon us as seed upon the rocky ground.

The most prominent sign of the Eucharist, of course, is bread. This is the most basic form of nourishment. And it is not fancy bread. Not focaccia or raisin bread or sour dough. Unleavened bread…made from wheat flour and water and nothing else. The simplicity of the sign reveals the necessity of the Eucharist, our fundamental nourishment. Indeed, the simplicity of bread reveals that we are starving…beggars. No one hungers for delicacies. We hunger and cry out for what we need, what we must have to survive. Give us this day our daily bread! Spiritually, we starve without this Bread.

We fall into bad habits and take the Eucharist for granted, failing to see It as our most fundamental food. We prefer spiritual junk food. But if we realize the value of this sign, and trust in this fundamental food, then It will nourish us all the more.

Then there is the wine. Bread satisfies our hunger. But wine does not satisfy our thirst (as much as some try). Wine indicates something different, but just as necessary for Christians: joy. Almost every culture associates wine, and especially the sharing of wine, with joy. On weddings, feasts, anniversaries, and other such occasions we raise our glasses in joyful celebration and remembrance. He has given us wine to cheer our hearts, as the psalmist says (cf. Ps 104:15).

This sign speaks then of the joy that the Eucharist brings. How can we allow the difficulties of the world to burden or depress us when we have within us His own redeeming Blood? This is a received joy, not one of our own manufacturing. He gives us this joy in giving us Himself. To receive this we must detach ourselves from the false joys of the world and shape our lives according to the Eucharist.

As we continue in the glow of Corpus Christi, let us see in these outward signs invitations to greater devotion to the Presence they convey.

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