The German theologian Romano Guardini years ago recommended in a little book “Sacred Signs” that we let the signs and the words of the liturgy guide our prayer. He was a key figure in initiating recent liturgical reforms in the Catholic Church, which made the signs and prayers of the liturgy better able to communicate the mysteries we celebrate.
I suspect, though, that in our liturgical prayer today the words of the liturgy–the scripture readings and the homily–get more of our attention than the signs.
Maybe we need to pay more attention to signs like bread and wine. They’re sacred signs we can take for granted.
In our prayer over the bread at Mass we say: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we received the bread we offer you, fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.” The bread we offer is the fruit of the earth and work of human hands. It’s a sign of all creation, of everything that the “God of all creation” gives us, of everything our hands have fashioned.
“The word bread stands for everything,” Augustine said in one of his commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer. (Epistle to Proba) Early commentators like Tertullian, Cyprian and Origen wrestled with that petition, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Does it mean just the food we eat, or does it mean the wisdom we need? Is Jesus Christ our daily bread? I like Augustine’s explanation because it’s so open-ended.
Scientists say that our universe came into existence about 15 billion years ago. About 3.5 billion years ago life began on our planet. Bread and wine represent that universe; they’re brought to the altar to tell its story.
About 200,000 years ago human life emerged on our planet. 200,000 years of human life are represented in the bread and wine, and our lives are part of the human story represented in bread and wine.
We believe that God created our world and it’s good, according to the Book of Genesis. There’s a plan for this universe, a plan conceived in God’s wisdom and love. In its opening chapters, Genesis poetically describes the beginning of our universe, but then turns quickly to the journey of the human family from its beginnings .
God’s plan, however, involves, not just the human family, but also the universe itself. All creation is waiting for the kingdom of God to be revealed. The bread and wine are signs of it.
Certainly human beings have an important role in the coming of God’s kingdom, as the incarnation of Jesus Christ makes clear. We’re not slaves, cogs in the wheel, as life grinds on. We represent God here in the universe and have to exercise a godlike care of this world. Each of us has a part to play that God’s kingdom come. We share in the promise.
We know too that the mystery of evil is at work in our world, a mystery also represented in the bread and wine. When Jesus took bread into his hands at the Last Supper, he saw a sinful world ready to put him to death, but he still took the bread in his hands. His blood would be poured out, but he still took the chalice to drink from it.
How magnificent is his response. He takes all created reality, all human existence, the goodness and evil of life in his hands, embracing them all with God’s love and care. From his hands he gives them to us, blessed by his presence.
“This is my body.” “This is my blood.” Incarnate in this great universe he gives life to it and to us.
In communion, Jesus gives himself to us in bread and wine, the signs of the world in which we live. We’re to live in that great world and have a role in it to fulfill. The Word made flesh is our bread of life, our food and drink, who gives wisdom and power to us.
Father Thomas Berry, a Passionist priest who taught me long ago, had a passionate love of the universe and a concern that the universe story enrich our way of looking at life. In one of his writings he saw the universe story enriching our understanding of the sacraments. It does.