A merry (sort of) Christmas story about the transforming power of wine
As it is Christmas I thought it was a good time to reflect on the source of Christianity and his relationship with wine. Many of you will know about the use of wine in Christian ritual (Holy Communion or the Mass) and a number of writers have picked that relationship, so I want to focus on something different in this post – the marriage at Cana.
The stories about Jesus record that he performed miracles and if you know anything about these then you will think of him curing the sick, feeding starving people or giving sight to the blind, all designed to show his power and his mastery of nature. One of the New Testament books about him, the Gospel of John, records seven of his miracles culminating in bringing his friend Lazarus back from the dead. Yet an earlier miracle, which the author of the Gospel records as his first, is rather different.
Jesus was invited, along with some friends and his Mother, to a wedding celebration in a town up in the hills above lake Galilee, called Cana. As is common in most cultures, a wedding celebration was an extravagant business – both in terms of time and money. The party could go on for some all day and overnight with lots of food and drink provided for the guests. Managing the party was the responsibility not of the groom, nor the family, but a Master of Ceremonies, whose role was to make sure that all had a good time. Yet this party, in the home of what seems to have been a fairly well-off family, went wrong. In the middle the wine ran out! Maybe the guests were more in need of alcohol than had been planned; maybe the groom was just trying to save a bit or money. In any event, Jesus’ mother, Mary, picked up that there was no more to drink. For whatever reason she thought her son ought to know, to which his response, broadly, was ‘what’s it got to do with me?’
That didn’t stop Mary, who clearly had a lot of confidence in her son’s ability. She said to the servants ‘whatever he tells you to do, do it’. Even more, whatever Jesus had previously said, he decided to get involved. In the courtyard of the house were six large earthenware jars which held water which was used for ritual purification: cleaning hands before meals, preparing utensils and other forms of washing. They were empty (no doubt with all the washing of the guests and the wine cups) and Jesus told the servants to go and fill them with water, which they did – ‘to the brim’ according to the story. Then Jesus told them to take some of the water out and give it to the Master of Ceremonies who drank it, and found that it was wine. The party kicked on – but the Master of Ceremonies (who clearly had no idea where the wine had come from) went to the Groom and complained to him that the wine he had kept to serve now was better than that which they had started with: ‘surely you know that everyone has the best wine first, and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink – yet you have saved the best wine until last’. Not ‘saving the best till last’ by implication meant that the guests would not usually realise that the later wine isn’t so good any more.
And so what? I’m not interested here in arguing about the veracity of the story; what does interest me is what it means as the first supernatural action of the founder of the most widely accepted religion in the world. You see, this wasn’t about curing disease or calming storms. Instead, it was about conviviality. A party is running out of wine (the implication is that they’ve already drunk quite a bit) and they need more – so miraculously it is provided. Much of the history of Christianity is about restraint, asceticism, and piety; yet the first miracle is about fun, partying and alcohol. The first Christian meetings were not structured religious services, with a rubric and ritual, but a sociable meal (agapé – a Greek word meaning a ‘love feast’) which all the believers shared in and which included shared bread and wine.
The next point is the link to the idea of wine being a great transformative agent – it changes us. It is hardly surprising that from its first discovery wine gave rise to a link with the supernatural. There was no knowledge of the science of fermentation; no understanding that sugar is changed to alcohol and carbon dioxide. There was just the empirical evidence: you leave grapes or juice for a few days and the result is something very different. It is less sweet and has a strange, slightly bitter, taste; yet it is also warming and – noticeably when you’ve had a few gulps – it makes you feel changed. There could be no other explanation for this than the logical one – that it is magic. Some god must have touched the grape juice and allowed this transformation which in turn changes you. It defines humans, changing them from animals (who cannot make wine) into rational beings with a command of the natural world; changing them also from savages into thinking beings, able to project a future, anticipate their own death, and maybe seek to overcome it. John, the writer of this story, is thus clearly identifying Jesus with what was – even then – a millennia-old tradition which associated wine with religion, and the gods; a big claim.
Further, the fact that Jesus used the jars reserved for purification – for cleansing from what is bad or dangerous and thus ‘improving’ us – was no surprise either. The wine is something which makes its drinkers better people and it allows them to celebrate another significant transformation – a wedding which brings two people together to make a new family.
Nevertheless, having said all of this, it’s also important to remember that this story is not about ‘Christianity’. At the time it refers to there was no Christian religion, and no believer. It is a story about Jewish culture, and a Jewish man who tries to teach, as a Rabbi, fellow Jews how to live a better life, and who perhaps aspires to personify some of that better life. Wine has also been a fundamental part of Jewish religious and communal ritual as well, both weekly on the Sabbath and annually at Pesach (Passover).
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Paradoxically, the Christian message about the value of wine in instilling a sense of community, and indeed in representing how lives can be transformed, has often been ignored or even rejected by the Church. This seems bizarre, given that wine is incorporated into religious ritual, yet with the growth of prohibition movements in many countries this changed, because one mainstay of the campaign to stop people drinking were groups of Christians. These were invariably Protestants, generally of a fairly extreme persuasion (Catholics have never warmed to the idea of banning alcohol).
Thus, my grandparents, who were Protestant missionaries in a small town in Algeria (at that time part of France and the major source of cheap wine in that country) were adamantly opposed to drinking alcohol. It was the work of the devil, and the fact that (according to them) the Catholic priest in the town was regularly drunk merely compounded his heresy. Money and time spent carousing was money that could be used to ease the lot of poor people and time which should have been spent in the service of God. Thus, they never drank, and never knew that any of their offspring did – they would have been mortified by that. It was a joyless, hard religion. Often, with the widespread abuse of alcoholic drinks, its opponents had a good point to make. However, as history has taught, banning doesn’t solve the problem – restraint is what has an effect and fun and enjoyment are healthy, necessary and good, not evil.
Yet, of course, as firm believers in what the Bible taught, they had a problem. Jesus drank wine, and left the Church a ritual of wine drinking to remember him by. So how could wine be so diabolic? Because, it was argued, the wine Jesus drank was not alcoholic – it was grape juice: that is what as being drunk at the wedding at Cana. That ignores the fact that in a hot country like Israel any grape juice would naturally ferment within a few days, and that couldn’t be prevented; modern life taught that wine was evil so, self-evidently, Jesus could not drink it, so (not for the first time) science had to be thrown out and reason had to be turned on its head in pursuit of the truth.
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In case you think this post unduly focused on Christianity, the next one early in the New Year will be in a different religious context. Meanwhile, for many of us this will be a holiday time. So to everyone who reads this – whatever your religion or none, whether the most significant day for you is the 25th or 31st December or the 1st or 6th of January – a very merry holiday and a healthy and safe New Year.