Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
∼ Hilaire Belloc
When my wife and I were first married—oh, about half a lifetime ago—there was no wine for us to drink at our reception. It was not that others had depleted the supply before either of us had a chance to imbibe, but that someone had simply forgotten to set it out for anyone to drink. And if I didn’t miss it at the time it was no doubt due to the special aura of my wife’s presence, which served as an inebriating substitute. Since then, however, every time I hear the Gospel reading about the Marriage Feast at Cana, I am reminded of the wine we never drank. And it leaves me rueful for the added laughter that might have been.
As any good Catholic can tell you, Our Blessed Lord’s very first miracle consisted of about one hundred and eighty gallons of well water being converted into rare vintage wine. How that endears him to those of us who believe it! And why shouldn’t we when the outcome proves so wildly and wonderfully over-the-top? For in this blessed event, which we really must attribute to the kindness of Our Lady, a ruinous social occasion is averted, and everyone gets to drink and go home happy. Who could possibly object? And, once more, it is thanks to the Mother of God, who, recognizing the disaster that looms, is determined to put her son in the picture, exhorting him to do something about it. “They have no wine,” she tells him quite simply. Then, when Jesus shows a certain reluctance to move on the matter, insisting that “My hour has not yet come,” she cuts right to the chase, instructing the servants to go and “Do whatever he tells you.”
These are, by the way, her very last words recorded in the New Testament, and how they must horrify the high-minded. All those terribly stuffy types, ever so fastidious when faced with the flesh, they simply cannot abide the liquor and the license. They must surely recoil before so blatant an invitation to alcoholic excess. How, they must be asking themselves, could God have authorized such a thing? No wonder the Methodists hate it, sipping their silly grape juice in place of the wine that becomes his very blood and divinity. Can there be any scandal equal to this in Holy Scripture?
Well, what about the Incarnation? Isn’t that scandal enough to go around for everyone? I mean to say, why on earth would God wish to lower himself to become one of us? There can’t be much percentage in that exchange. The sheer Logos of God starting out as a zygote—what was he thinking? “Not one of the heretics,” writes St. Irenaeus, “is of the opinion that the Word was made flesh.” Instead they insist that God, so disdainful was he of the material world, “descended, in the form of a dove, on the Jesus born of Mary … and after he had announced the unknown Father, he went up again into the divine Pleroma,” taking permanent leave of the world he must have despised himself for having made. Meanwhile, the Beloved Disciple of the Lord shows us the falsity of their claim when he says, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Indeed, in their very refusal to assent to the scandal of Incarnation, they reveal themselves as the party of the Anti-Christ.
Mightn’t it be that God became one like us in order that we might become one like him? “For it was for this,” declares St. Irenaeus, whose thought is so seminal that we rightly proclaim him as Father of Western Theology, “that the Word of God became man and the Son of God became the Son of Man, namely, that man, commingled with the Word of God and receiving adoption, might become the son of God.” From out of an immeasurable depth of divine love, in other words, God entered the human estate in order that we might be free to dwell amid the precincts of God’s own estate.
Here we see into the heart of the Christian Mystery: the humanization of God for the sake of the divinization of man. It is all there in the liturgy, of course, whose essential scandal we find scarcely shocking at all since we say it so often and seldom do we actually think of the words we say. Nevertheless, God’s handiwork is unmistakably present, inescapably at play each time we say,
By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
The realism of the thing is wonderfully bracing. And we know, of course, where it is all going: right to the center of Catholic belief and worship, which is the Event of Eucharist, a sublime sacrificial banquet for which we can never come to an end of giving our thanks. “They are totally foolish,” says Irenaeus,
these people who despise the whole saving plan of God, who deny the salvation of the flesh, and scorn its regeneration, claiming it is not capable of incorruptibility. If the flesh is not saved, the Lord did not redeem us by his Blood, the cup of the Eucharist is not communion in his Blood, and the bread we break is not communion in his Body. For blood can only come from veins, flesh, and whatever else makes up the substance of man. All this the Word of God really and truly became, in order to redeem us by his Blood.
How could such transactions not prove persuasive, endearing even, since they provide so striking and prodigious a confirmation of the munificent ways of God? It cannot be permitted, I am saying, that anyone should denigrate that which, for all its seeming fragility of flesh, became the very vehicle of our salvation. Caro cardo salutis, to quote Tertullian, that fierce North African apologist of the third century, whose mind bears the impress of Irenaeus, turning as it repeatedly does on the same spit, namely, that it is our flesh that became the hinge, the axis, of the world’s salvation.
How else is God to reach out convincingly to the world he made if not by entering it in a way that instantly connects to the creature? Only by becoming one himself can we credit the solidarity struck by the fact that we are made in his image. And when God takes on the image himself, becoming the human being he first fashioned out of the mud and the muck of a material world, he then suffers that same body to be broken on the wheel of a cruel and unjust world. And why does he do it? So that he may become our food and drink. Irenaeus, and the entire ancient tradition of which he is the great herald, were not wrong in pointing to the Eucharist as the final nail driven into the coffin of the heretics. By mixing the water and wine, they argued, the perfect symbol was found for that unity of nature and grace, creature and Creator that Christ came to mediate in the Great Sacrament of the Altar.
Thus it is good that we give thanks to God for the grape. And in thanking him, along with the wonderful artistry of man for its most welcome distillation in the wine—“fruit of the vine and work of human hands,” we say at Mass—we are made doubly grateful for the Blood that God invites us to drink.