Bread & Wine

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Why do we use bread and wine for Mass? The easy answer to give would be to just say, well we use bread and wine because Jesus used bread and wine. We need no other explanation.

A professor at seminary would jokingly tell us that sometimes the answer is Jesus. And that would be reason enough, we do plenty of things simply because Jesus did, so the better question may not be why do we use bread and wine, but why is it fitting to use bread and wine at Mass and why perhaps did Jesus pick these elements.

St. Augustine gives us a good answer in a sermon he wrote and it is this sermon I will be drawing from. He says ad I paraphrase, Bread and wine is fitting to use at Mass if we consider how it is made. For bread to be made, many grains of wheat must be gathered, these grains are then ground up and formed into one loaf of bread. A single grain of wheat cannot be used to make bread, it needs hundreds of grains. This is the same for wine, wine cannot be made from one single grape, you need many.

And for this reason bread and wine are perfect for Jesus to use and give to us. For we as the Body of Christ are not made of one person, but many. We all gather here at Mass to form the one body. Like the wheat and grape we lose our individualness to make the one body. That is why we all say the same responses at Mass, we are no longer many, but one. We become inseparable.

That is not all, it reminds us we do not live as silos, and we do not think as silos. We should be just as concerned for the person next to us as we are ourselves. When one of us suffers we all suffer, it is why we announce funerals at Mass, when one of us is joyful we all share that joy, it is why we announce baptisms/weddings at Mass. Jesus uses the accidents of bread and wine to remind us how he wants us to live.

There is more though. Bread is the universal sign for sustenance. Throughout the world bread is used by everyone, rich and poor to feed and sustains us. This makes it fitting for Jesus to use bread because he also sustains us. He sustains us both physically and spiritually. He does not change what bread does, he elevates it. He becomes bread so that he can sustain us both physically and spiritually.

Wine also carries an important attribute, joy. When we drink wine we feel more joyful. Jesus also brings us joy, spiritual joy. Again Jesus does not change wine, he elevates what it can do. He becomes wine so that we may have both physical and spiritual joy brings joy.

Sign of Peace

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A part of the Mass that may seem very casual and straightforward but is actually an invitation to an incredible moment of forgiveness and healing is the Sign of Peace which is not as easy as we might think. And if we think about it this action is a little odd, I mean we take a pause in the liturgy to give each other a handshake, or if you were me when I was younger a successful sign of peace was when I crushed my siblings hand hard enough they winced in pain.

The reality of what we are doing in this moment though is important and it stems from a passage in the Gospel of Matthew which says, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

The Sign of Peace occurs right before we come forward to the altar and receive Communion. But we cannot receive Communion if we are at odds with someone in the community. You cannot be in Communion with someone you are fighting with, so at the Sign of Peace, before approaching the altar of Communion, we turn to our brother and sister and first make amends with them, we give them peace.

That is no light or easy moment, for two reasons. The first reason is we make peace with the ones we love the most, which can be the people we hurt the most, our own family. We turn to them and in our sign of peace, we are both apologizing for the hurt we have caused them and forgiving the hurt they have caused us. For a handshake, which is just the sign we use for the peace we give, is something you both give and receive. It is a beautiful moment of reconciling so that we may approach the altar without anger, hatred, or hurt in our heart for the person next to us.

The second reason the sign of peace is no light or easy moment is that you are not just giving and receiving peace with your loved ones. You are also giving and receiving peace from the larger community. The person who cut you off, the friend who betrayed you, the boss who yelled at you. At the sign of peace you are also reconciling yourself with those people, forgiving them and asking forgiveness if the roles are reversed, because if you do not, you cannot receive Holy Communion fully, because you cannot be in communion with people you have anger or hatred for.   

With this understanding, the sign of peace at Mass is not a light moment, in fact it is a solemn and grave one, but also a beautiful one. And I can think of no better way to prepare to receive Christ in the Eucharist, than offering each other the sign of peace. 

The Little Drummer Boy

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“The Little Drummer Boy” is my all-time favorite Christmas song. Oddly, I can remember singing it in Christmas pageants as a kid hating it. “What a dumb song! There is no drummer boy in the story of the nativity,” I would think to myself while rum-pum-pumming to the beat. But a few years back, a Canadian a cappella group known as Pentatonix released their version of the song. Being a fan of the group, I listened and was amazed when I promptly burst into tears listening.

 Yes, their arrangement is beautiful. If you haven’t listened to it, I highly recommend it. But something about the lyrics to the song hit me in a new way as I listened to them.

 You see, the little drummer boy is me. It is each of us. Whether or not there was actually a little drummer boy at the nativity scene is irrelevant really. Because the story is still a narrative that perfectly describes each of us coming before the infant Lord in the manger at Christmas.

 Here is this little boy who is told to prepare to go meet a new king. How could he possibly understand what that really means? Other than knowing it is something, someone very important. How can I? How can I truly understand the fullness of the babe in swaddling clothes? Who He is and what He means to the world?

 The drummer boy is told to bring his finest gifts for the king. But he is poor. He has nothing to offer anyone, let alone a king. Was he ashamed walking up to the king with nothing? Insecure or afraid he would be found lacking? Even if he was the richest person in the world, what gifts of use or importance could anyone possibly give to a king?

 I too am poor. Not so much materially, but spiritually, emotionally, personally. What gifts do I possibly have to give a king? THE King? Should I even bother approaching? Am I worthy? Am I welcome? Will I be found lacking?

 Off he goes with the rest of his community to meet this newborn king. And as his time comes to go up to bestow gifts, all he can present is himself. In his poverty. In his nothing-ness. Just himself and the only thing he has--his drum. And so he plays. Maybe not well—he is a little boy. Being poor, I presume the drum is beat up and ragged. But despite the challenges facing him, the ways in which he is lacking, the little boy plays. And the song tells us he plays the best he possibly can for this little baby king, hoping to do him justice with the little he has to offer.

 Isn’t this the reality for all of us as we approach the newborn King at Christmas? Walking up in humble confidence knowing we have nothing to give, except for our very selves. Knowing we too are poor compared to Him. Wanting to do Him justice with the little that we have to give. Approaching Him nonetheless; striving to do our best, to “play” our best for Him regardless. To give the best of what we have, the best of what we are, little though it might be. Just ourselves. In all our flaws and failures and nothing-ness.

 And how does He respond?

 “Then he smiled at me, par-rum-pum-pum-pum.”

 It is enough. It is more than enough. You alone are enough. Jesus delights in the song of the little drummer boy, likely far more than He delighted in the gifts of the Magi. The point of the gifts, according to the song, is to honor the King. And what honors our King more than the gift of our self? Our heart and mind and life and very being, presented to Him as a gift of love. What need has a king for fancy gifts? What He wants is us! To love us. To have a relationship with us. Poor, humble, and playing our best on the beaten up drum of life. He sees us standing before Him. And He smiles with delight.

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