I’ve had a complicated relationship with wine. At the age of thirteen, when it was my turn to serve as acolyte and help distribute communion, my parents gave me a firm warning: make sure you ask for the grape juice. Since I would be taking communion first, without them by my side, they felt it necessary to remind me that I needed to take initiative and request the non-alcoholic option—something we did religiously as a family.
As a thirteen-year-old boy, I was not the initiative-taking type. When the pastor got to me, feeling like the whole church (my parents included) were watching, I balked and didn’t ask for the grape juice. I accepted the wine and drank it down like the other kids to my left and right. When we got to the car I could feel my parents disappointment all the way from the back seat. At that moment, I vowed I would never drink alcohol, never let them down, again. Then we got to my uncle’s house later that afternoon and I found out that for lunch we were having brats—beer battered brats. I almost started crying.
Throughout high school, I never touched a drop of alcohol and shunned those who did. When I went to college I made sure it was a Christian school that forbade alcohol. I gladly signed the covenant that required my complete abstinence from drugs and strong drink. Of course by this time, in my pharisaical heart, I had identified those who did drink as heretics.
Then I met the girl who eventually became my wife. She didn’t drink (or else the union likely wouldn’t have happened) but her family did. The first time we drove to her house for me to meet her parents, we arrived to find her dad and brother sitting on the front porch, shotguns across their laps and beer cans strewn across the lawn. This, of course, was all done in jest and we have laughed about it many times in the years since, but their drinking was something I had to choose to grow accustomed to.
Looking back, the attitude I harbored toward alcohol during my younger years seems silly at best, sinful at worst. Though my feelings about drinking kept me from drunkenness, it also hardened my heart. The purity of my lips created in me a false sense of superiority. I looked down on others and their acceptance of alcohol.
Unfortunately, I’m not alone when it comes to this type of experience. Many in America, especially evangelical Christians, have lived out a similarly rocky relationship with wine and alcohol.
My wife’s family has helped me renounce my pharisaical teetotalism. So too has a proper, biblical understanding of wine. “In the scriptural imagination,” writes Andrew Wilson in Spirit and Sacrament, “wine represents abundance, shalom, hope, and new creation.” Here, Wilson is writing about Jesus and his choice to announce his coming, his ministry with what could almost be called a party trick. The fact that Jesus initiated his public ministry by turning water into wine at a wedding, “is curious, to say the least,” admits Wilson. I for one had wrestled with it. But to say I ignored it would be more accurate.
We know that Jesus didn’t do anything by accident. When he turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana, he knew exactly what he was doing.
The word wine is mentioned 231 times in the Bible. Often its usage is positive. As Wilson observes, it connotes happiness, “. . . wine to gladden the heart of man,” promise, “then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine,” and blessing, “May God give you of the dew of heaven and of the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine.”
In the words of Wilson, “The transformation of water into wine is far more than a demonstration that Jesus loves weddings . . . it is a sign that joy and abundance and restoration, and even glory, are now here, breaking into a world for the first time in the person of Jesus.”
Just as Jesus read from the scroll and then sat down in the synagogue, and just as he rode a donkey into Jerusalem declaring himself king, his turning water into wine is a declaration of grace invading the world. Joy, abundance, and restoration find their fulfillment in Jesus and in his wine. If my savior used wine, and if wine means those things, my attitude about it needed to change. And it has.
This past winter my wife and I, along with our two children, had occasion to attend a traditional Christmas market in Vienna, Austria. It was cold and wintery and beautiful. Part of the festivities is German mulled wine, served hot. While we were there I suggested the unthinkable. “Why don’t we try it,” I offered. My wife was surprised, but upon my insistence, we ordered one to share. I cupped the warm mug in my cold hands and at the age of thirty three, took my first sip of guilt-free wine. I didn’t like it. But that’s not the point. The point is that wine is a blessing from the Lord. One that signifies promises fulfilled, hearts gladdened, and joy abounding. When consumed rightly, in moderation, with a thankful heart, it is beautiful and one could even say worshipful. A proper relationship to wine has supplanted the old judgmental notions that used to live in my heart. I might not like to drink it, but I love what it says about my savior.
Cover image by Viktor Nikolaienko
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