An event, action or object can be simultaneously real in itself and also symbolic of something beyond itself. While Catholics may, in principle, accept this statement they tend to become somewhat twitchy when it is applied to the Eucharist, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
This reaction is understandable, for centuries insisting on the Real Presence of Jesus, body and blood, soul and divinity, under the appearance of bread and wine in the elements of Holy Communion has been an existential matter for the Church. To talk, then, about symbolism in this context can feel to many like a betrayal of the faith.
It remains nonetheless true that that an event, action or object however sacred can be understood at multiple levels of meaning. It takes nothing away from the dogma of Transubstantiation if we also look at the other things which the drama of the liturgy reveals to us about God, about the transcendent dimension and about ourselves.
The Eucharist, then, also stands as symbolic of a shared meal. As such it is a universal sign. Sharing food, breaking bread together, is a unifying ritual (as well as a pleasant way of taking on board nourishment) recognised across the whole world and throughout the span of human history. And any one such event has multiple resonances of other similar events, sharing with family members, sharing with friends, sharing in peace and hope with strangers.
These experiences of eating, taken together, are each of them simply visible manifestations of the unseen reality of love. Love realised with family and friends, love in potential when with strangers. So, considered either as an actual meal in ‘normal’ life or as a ritual meal in the Eucharist these communions with others represent a breaking through of the invisible into the world of the visible.
At a deeper level still the Mass represent an aspect of the unification of earth with heaven, the participation of time bound flesh in the eternal sharing of the transcendent dimension which is itself a reflection of the essence of the Trinitarian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who exchange their Love always. This heavenly dimension is made explicit in Catholic belief in a twofold way. Firstly it is believed that whenever the Mass is worthily celebrated the visible congregation is joined by invisible hosts of angels and saints who share in the rejoicing, Secondly Our Lord Himself spoke of a heavenly banquet in which we shall all share in the Kingdom of God and the Eucharist is recognised as a forerunner of this divine meal.
Though this specific warrant from Jesus exists it cannot be said that all the aspects of this vision, a meal which stands as a sign for both love as such and the uniting of earth with heaven, is a uniquely Christian one. It can be found in other belief systems. Among the Vikings it was believed that, after death, warriors would share with the gods in the feasts of Valhalla. The Olympians dined on ambrosia and nectar, food and drink so potent that any mortal given them would themselves become one of the immortals. Which is to say there is or has been a widespread religious belief in shared meals which unite the visible with the invisible. It is, in fact, a universal archetype.
This is another thing about which Catholics get twitchy; the description of aspects of the faith as ritual reenactments of universal archetypes. Such descriptions are often a preliminary to a statement, which is really a non-sequitur, that therefore Catholic ritual is based not on truth but upon a legend devised to meet the unconscious longing for an archetype.
However, universal archetypes exist for a reason. In the spiritual life of a person they express a deep rooted desire that the separation effected by our alienation from primordial unity be healed through a reunion with the One who is both source and end for each one of us who are of the many. And this desire is certainly reflected in many of the religious myths and legends anent shared meals and heavenly banquets.
Because of the Incarnation, though, the Christian feast, the Eucharist, is more than just a legend among legends. Christ united in Himself heaven and earth, temporal flesh with eternal Spirit. The Mass is not an enactment which like a play depicts the heavenly banquet, it is the heavenly banquet in our midst. The archetype is a reflection in human minds of a divine reality which the Eucharist makes present in the world. And if we share in the meal with a full openness to the action of the Spirit it is a lifting of us as flesh and blood into the Kingdom of Heaven for a moment of time which is also a participation in eternity.
The point, then, about the Mass as both reality and symbol is that what it symbolises is a universal longing and that what it is is a fulfillment, so far as is possible in this life, of that longing.
My *other* blog is thoughtfully detached
The painting is Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio