Wine: a sign of peace and joy, but also suffering.
In a strange way the sign of wine combines in itself peace and joy with suffering.
Bread and wine. Under these two forms Christ has remained with us. Bread is the staple daily food. Sharing it is a sign of friendship. And since it is the product of many small grains, it is a sign of the Church – the many make up the one body. But why wine?
Just as with bread we have to say, “we don’t know because its God’s decision”. However, we can reflect on this sign. And a sign is quite . . . . umm . . . . let’s say, ambivalent. It unites within itself opposites. And in a surprising way it is fitting for the Eucharist: a reminder of death giving life.
Carefree peace and joy
In the Bible, wine is firstly a symbol of abundance, peace and joy. And you can even say to a certain extent being carefree. A beautiful illustration of this theory is the example of the prophet Hosea (ch.14), who announces the future prosperity of Israel.
They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow,
they shall flourish as a garden;
they shall blossom as the vine,
their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
In the psalmist (Ps 104) there is a similar exclamation praising God for His care of man.
Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine,
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
Vine-growing, just like all other use of the land, requires peace, for quite obvious reasons. While herds can be round up and hidden somewhere and hidden before war, but the land is where it is. When armies meet in battle, it’s impossible to prevent the land being churned up. And on top of that the victorious enemy will deliberately destroy and burn . . . . Although, in getting grains and vegetables growing again doesn’t take too much time. In the conditions of the Holy Land, several crops can be gathered over a year. With grapevines it’s not easy. It takes years before any meaningful quantity of fruit can be gathered. So, wine from grapes is a sign of a time of stability: times of peaceful prosperity. Times when you can enjoy everyday life without many worries.
So, no wonder that when in the Bible there appear times of success, the image of enjoying the taste of wine and feasting is invoked. Exploited in the miracle of Cana in Galilee and Isaiah(25):
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken.
Wine belonged to those foods which were offered to God in the temple in Jerusalem. The so-called continual offering as prescribed in the Book of exodus (29).
One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer in the evening; and with the first lamb a tenth measure of fine flour mingled with a fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and a fourth of a hin of wine for a libation. And the other lamb you shall offer in the evening, and shall offer with it a cereal offering and its libation, as in the morning, for a pleasing odour, an offering by fire to the Lord. It shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak there to you.
Of course, there is no lack in the Bible of condemnations of drunkenness. However, the symbolism of wine in the liturgy is definitely a sign of peace, prosperity and joy; a carefree life.
Healing suffering and trial
Wine is also, however, a symbol of . . . . suffering. A strange duality of symbolism, isn’t it? But that’s how it is. This symbolism of wine is related to the way in which it is produced. We know that grapes have to be crushed in order to release the juice. This can be done by trampling the grapes in barrel-like tanks, or simple devices can be used for this purpose. This work is always accompanied, to a greater of lesser extent, by squeezing the juice out. And since grapes were usually red there is the association with blood being shed, indeed, even with the criminal and the insane, in a time of blindness, they immerse themselves in it with a lust for destruction.
Perhaps the most well-known passage referring to this symbolism is the apocalyptic scene of the God’s judgement (Ap 14).
And another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has power over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Put in your sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle on the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God; and the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for one thousand six hundred stadia.
In this same chapter, earlier on, we have a scene where drinking wine is associated with having to endure great suffering.
And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also shall drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.
So, drinking wine is also a symbol of suffering. And since drinking is from the cup, this vessel has also become a symbol of suffering. Though it’s not necessarily suffering that comes from punishment. Sometimes it’s about ordeal. Jesus says in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26):
My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.
During His arrest, He said to Peter (J 18):
Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?
Moreover, Jesus refers to this symbolism earlier on: in the scene, when the mother of James and John asked for privileges for her sons, Jesus says:
“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
Wine and the cup are, therefore, also symbols of suffering. Both being a punishment as it is a Divine trial.
One of many
It’s worth paying attention to still one more dimension of the symbolism of wine. This is mainly found in the liturgy. Analogous to the symbolism of the bread baked from the flour made from many grains for wheat, wine is made from the juice of many grapes – a symbol of the unity of believers in one Church. And, as in the symbolism of sharing bread, so drinking wine together at a feast is also a sign of fellowship and friendship. So, the symbolism of wine and shared drinking of it at a feast is interesting and ambiguous. In the Eucharist, when it becomes the Blood of Christ is not only a sign of His saving passion. In an astonishing way it shows, at the same time, the peace and joy as promised by God in the kingdom of heaven but is also a reminder that to reach this kingdom it is sometimes necessary to go through trials of suffering. And in the receiving of Communion – that is Community, in Latin – a sign of unity. Not only us, the people with God, but all of us with each other in one Church.