The moment when the Lord comes down and transforms bread and wine to become his Body and Blood cannot fail to stun, to the very core of their being, those who participate in the Eucharist by faith and prayer. When this happens, we cannot do other than fall to our knees and greet him. The Consecration is the moment of God’s great actio in the world for us. It draws our eyes and hearts on high. For a moment the world is silent, everything is silent, and in that silence we touch the eternal—for one beat of the heart we step out of time into God’s being-with-us.
Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy
There’s something simultaneously humble and profound in the use of bread and wine to convey the presence of Christ in the world. Bread and wine were deeply important to both the ritual and physical lives of the Jews, and thus it was natural for Christ to use them as vehicles for his new covenant. In doing so, he both fulfilled and extended their role and meaning.
Themes of replacement and abundance are central to the gospel of John. Jewish institutions, rituals, and feasts are to be replaced with the person of Christ himself. In particular, wine and bread shall be provided in great abundance, in fulfillment of the messianic promises of the Old Testament.
Over the next few days, I’m going to do a bit of catechesis on bread and wine in the Old Testament, and the way it is transformed in John’s gospel.
I want to start by isolating all the passages referencing bread and wine in both the Old and New Testaments, which is an easy task to do with Verbum. Here are the results:
Here’s the distribution of the word bread among the books of the OT and NT:
The use of “bread” in the OT is complex, since the word (לֶחֶם lechem) could have various meanings in Semitic languages, with the root representing any staple food. Thus, “in Arabic one has laḥm, ‘meat,’ in Ethiopic laḥm, ‘cow,’ and in the South Arabic language of Soqoṭra leḥem, ‘fish.’ In Ugaritic, Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and Mandaic lḥm referred to bread specifically and food generally.” (The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman) The highest number of references are grouped in Exodus, Leviticus, and 1 Samuel.
In the NT, it’s a little simpler, with ἄρτος (artos, “bread”) used pretty consistently. As you can see, the Gospels represent the most frequent usage of “bread,” with John having the most at 20.
Isaiah has by far the most references to wine, and we’ll see why as we go through this catechesis. There are several Hebrew words that get translated into “wine,” but the most common יַיִן (yayin).
By contrast with references to bread, references to wine are more predominant in Revelation (again, for reasons we’ll see) than the gospels. The Greek word here is οἶνος (ŏinŏs, “wine”).
These two elements become the vector for intense meaning both in the Old Testament and the New. Even before the last supper, bread and wine were imbued with deep layers of significance for the Jews. As we’ll see in this catechesis, together they fulfill key elements of John 10:10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”