While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is my body.”
At the Last Supper, our Savior instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist using the natural elements of bread and wine. Thus, by the divine mandate, only pure bread and pure grape wine can be the matter of the Sacrament of the altar. Like the male-only priesthood, this is something over which the Church has no power but which she receives from her divine Head, Christ Jesus our Lord.
However, it is good to realize that our Savior could have used any food as the matter for the Eucharist. He chose bread, but he could have chosen to consecrate the flesh of the Passover Lamb (for example).
The Eucharist had to be made from food
Simply speaking, God is not in any respect bound by the sacraments. Thus, he could have made more or less than seven sacraments and he could have made different sacraments than he has in fact made. Thus, even in the case of the Eucharist, our Lord was under no compulsion to give us this Most Blessed Sacrament.
However, given that he desired to bestow upon his Church the Sacrament of the Altar as the memorial of his suffering and death, Jesus had to use some food-product as the matter of the sacrament. The very nature of the Eucharist is that of “nourishment” and “food”. In order for the Eucharist to be the Eucharist, it must be sacramental food – hence, it must be capable of being consumed.
Therefore, it is clear that the nature of the Eucharist itself demands that the matter of this Sacrament (i.e. those natural elements which are used in the Sacrament) be food-stuff. The Eucharist must be edible.
The Lord could have used any food-product as the material “stuff” of the Eucharist. In fact, Jesus did choose to use bread and wine, but he was not bound to do so.
One other option, which might seem appealing (on a certain level), could have been the Passover Lamb.
If the Eucharist is truly Jesus’ body, that is, his very flesh; then the flesh or meat of the Paschal Lamb would be a very clear sign of this mystery. The raw or cooked flesh of a lamb would very clearly point to the fact that the Eucharist is the true Body of Christ.
Further, we must point out that the Paschal Lamb was the chief figure of the Eucharistic Sacrifice (see St. Thomas [here]), thus one might have expected our Lord to consecrate lamb-meat as the Eucharist.
Jesus could have consecrated the Paschal Lamb, if such had been his Divine Will. Our Lord could have chosen to make the Eucharist out of lamb-flesh and wine. Instead, he chose to use bread.
Why, then, did Jesus use bread? What was he teaching us by this choice?
Why Jesus used bread: Eucharistic Adoration
There are many reasons why our Lord chose to use bread rather than the flesh of the Paschal Lamb (or many other elements) to make the Eucharist. Most of all, the bread signifies most clearly the two “res” of the Sacrament – that is, the two great effects of the Eucharist.
On the one hand, the Eucharist effects and brings about the unity of the Church as the mystical body of Christ. From and through the Eucharist, the Church is constituted, bound together, and sustained until the end of time.
This reality – the communion of the Church – is clearly signified by bread. For, just as bread is made up of many grains of wheat which are united into one loaf, so too does the Church unite all peoples of all times and places. In this respect, bread was a more fitting choice than the Paschal Lamb.
On the other hand, the Eucharist is the true and real Presence of Jesus among us. In the Sacred Species, Christ is substantially present. And this presence does not diminish after the conclusion of Mass, but perdures as long as the Eucharistic Species remains. Thus, our Savior is truly present in the tabernacle, even if there is no one present to worship him.
This reality – the perduring presence of Christ in the Eucharist – is more aptly expressed through the use of bread than of flesh-meat. While meat corrupts quickly and spoils, bread (and, especially, unleavened bread) lasts a long time. Hence, we must admit that our Savior chose to use unleavened bread at the Last Supper in order to teach us that his Eucharistic Presence will not quickly dissipate, but rather remains so long as the accidental properties of bread remain.
Hence, while it is good and well that the East uses leavened bread for the Eucharist, the West clearly has the better tradition – since unleavened bread is much more easily preserved for Eucharistic adoration, and it also more closely accords with the material which our Savior used at the institution of this Sacrament.
Our Lord chose to use bread in order to signify that, through this Sacrament, he would remain with his Church always – and also, that the faithful should come and find him present therein, and adore him.
Adoro te devote, latens Deitas,
quae sub his figuris vere latitas:
tibi se cor meum totum subiicit,
quia te contemplans totum deficit.
Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur,
sed auditu solo tuto creditur;
credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius:
nil hoc verbo Veritatis verius.
In cruce latebat sola Deitas,
at hic latet simul et humanitas;
ambo tamen credens atque confitens,
peto quod petivit latro paenitens.
Plagas, sicut Thomas, non intueor;
Deum tamen meum te confiteor;
fac me tibi semper magis credere,
in te spem habere, te diligere.
O memoriale mortis Domini!
panis vivus, vitam praestans homini!
praesta meae menti de te vivere
et te illi semper dulce sapere.
Pie pellicane, Iesu Domine,
me immundum munda tuo sanguine;
cuius una stilla salvum facere
totum mundum quit ab omni scelere.
Iesu, quem velatum nunc aspicio,
oro fiat illud quod tam sitio;
ut te revelata cernens facie,
visu sim beatus tuae gloriae. Amen.
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.
On the cross thy godhead made no sign to men,
Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.
I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But can plainly call thee Lord and God as he;
Let me to a deeper faith daily nearer move,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.
O thou our reminder of Christ crucified,
Living Bread, the life of us for whom he died,
Lend this life to me then: feed and feast my mind,
There be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.
Bring the tender tale true of the Pelican;
Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what thy bosom ran---
Blood whereof a single drop has power to win
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.
Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blest for ever with thy glory's sight. Amen.
O Sacrament most holy, O Sacrament divine, All praise and all thanksgiving be every moment Thine!