How did the Mass become BYOB?

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Article Prayer and Sacraments Scripture and Theology

Wine possesses a multi-layered significance that brings Christians into communion with Christ but also with one another, with our Jewish heritage, and with cultures preceding our own. It serves as a flavor-enhancing, pleasure-giving element of the messianic banquet. Receiving it in faith, we are “enthused,” filled with the divine reality that is the source of all life. In a sacramental sense we know it as the Blood of the Lord. But how did wine get involved with religion in the first place?

Historical research into the consumption of wine and other alcoholic beverages suggests that we humans have been saying “bottoms up” (or its equivalent) for a long time. Along with bread and olive oil, wine has been a staple in the Middle East for thousands of years. The popular red wine known as Shiraz receives its name from a city in southwestern Iran, where its grapes were first cultivated centuries ago.

Because grapes ferment on the vine if invaded by a particular bacteria, the pleasurable effects of alcohol consumption were probably discovered by accident. As a cultivated crop, the fruit of the vine became an important part of daily life and religious ritual. It had medicinal purposes and was a safe alternative to unsanitary water.

The religious rituals of ancient Greeks and Romans included many uses for wine. It was offered as a libation to the gods, often in honor of the dead. The Greeks understood wine consumption as an actual imbibing of the god of wine; the sense of inebriation demonstrated the deity’s control over them. Wine spilled accidentally was considered by the Romans to belong to the gods and had to be handled in a ritual manner.

A thriving wine trade existed in Palestine and Egypt by 2,500 B.C., and the Egyptians considered certain wines necessary for a satisfying afterlife. The Hebrews understood wine to be a divine gift for the purposes of bringing joy to the heart (Ps. 104:15), an obvious reference to the effects of fermentation. Many Jewish prayers are offered with a glass of wine held aloft, a simple gesture incorporated into the Eucharist.

Although drunkenness is condemned in the Bible, there is no outright rejection of alcohol. As with all of God’s creation, the problem is not with the Giver but with misuse of the gift. The enjoyment of wine has traditionally been understood as a legitimate experience of a blessed life, overindulgence being frowned upon because of the impropriety that can be its byproduct. Perhaps this is why cultures around the Mediterranean have long diluted their wine with water, a practice common in Palestine in Jesus’ time. It continues to be part of the Eucharist today, where it symbolizes the ancient Christian hope of deification: “Through 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.”

This article appeared in the September 2006 (Volume 71, Number 9; page 41) issue of U.S. Catholic.