Bread & Wine As Religious Symbols

by Michael H. Jenkins

Bread and wine are staples in the human diet, and have been for thousands of years across a broad range of cultures. Over time, they have accrued religious symbolism in a number of different contexts, which have in turn adapted over time.

Bread and Wine in Judaism

Bread and wine have long been used in Jewish religious practices. The most common of these is the Shabbat rituals, during which bread and wine are blessed as gifts from the bountiful earth provided by God. During the service, a ritual cup of wine known as the kiddush is filled and then blessed. Those assembled then take part in the wine without speaking, as Jewish custom requires. Later in the service, two loaves of challah bread are placed on the table, uncovered, and blessed. This bread represents the double portion of manna the Israelites were able to gather in the desert while fleeing Egypt, as recounted in Exodus 16:22 (Source 1). The blessing given praises God for bringing forth bread from the earth, again using it as a symbol of all food.

Roman Catholicism

The Eucharist is the heart of the Catholic Mass.

Christianity has retained a number of Jewish symbols and imagery. Among these are the bread and wine, used by Jesus during the Last Supper as recounted in the Gospels. Jesus' actions reflect Jewish tradition, in that he blessed both items and distributed them to the assembled. However, breaking with Jewish tradition, Jesus explains the bread and wine as a symbol of his own body and blood, and thus his sacrifice to redeem the world. Holy Communion is a ritualized version of the Last Supper practiced in many Christian churches.

Other Christian Denominantions

While the particulars of Holy Communion -- also known as the Eucharist -- can vary from denomination to denomination, basic practice of blessing and distributing the sacraments remains consistent. Of more importance are the differing theologies behind the ritual. While Roman Catholics believe in transubstantiation -- meaning that through the blessings, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ -- the idea is not universally followed in the Orthodox or Anglican Communions. While Protestant Christianity believes in the symbolism of the last supper, Communion is not regularly practiced in many denominations. For example, Lutheran and Methodist congregations include it regularly, while Adventists only perform the service quarterly. If one is visiting a church for the first time, it would be better to ask about the practice rather than assume.

In Other Faiths

Wine and Bread have, over the long history, been used as religious symbols outside of the Judeo-Christian traditions. The ancient Romans used wine as an occasional offering to their numerous gods, both in the temples and in household alters. Frequently, this took the form of a libation poured directly onto the statue of a god. Other faiths forbid the consumption of alcohol. Islam is perhaps the most prominent of these, though Mormanism and some branches of Buddhism and Hinduism follow suit. Bread has been used as an offering to deity in many traditional faiths, from ancient Roman religion to Hinduism. More recently, some neo-Pagan traditions like Wicca have incorporated bread and wine into their ceremonies as symbols of the bounty of the earth.

References

  • The Old Testement
  • The New Testement
  • Roman Religion, Valerie M. Warrior (20060

Photo Credits

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