In vino veritas

When Christians take communion, they eat bread and drink wine. Some churches substitute grape juice for wine (my church included), but we miss something of what’s represented by wine when we do this.

Consider how the ancient Greeks and Cretans celebrated Dionysos:

Carl Kerenyi, the Romanian historian of religion, introduces his book on Dionysos by saying that his first insight into the god of wine came to him in a vineyard–he was looking at the grapevine itself and what he saw was ‘the image of indestructible life.’ The temples are abandoned, but the vine still grows over the fallen walls. To explain the image, Kerenyi distinguishes between two terms for ‘life’ in Greek, bios and zoe. Bios is limited life, characterized life, life that dies. Zoe is the life that endures; it is the thread that runs through bios-life and is not broken when the particular perishes…

In his earliest Minoan forms, Dionysos is associated with honey and with honey beer or mead. Both honey and grape juice became images of this god because they ferment: ‘A natural phenomenon inspired a myth of zoe,’ writes Kerenyi, ‘a statement concerning life which shows its indestructibility…even in decay.’ When honey ferments, what has rotted not only comes back to life–bubbles up–but its ‘spirit’ survives. (Lewis Hyde, The Gift, pp 41-42).

And the spirit that bubbles up and survives in the mead is stronger and more powerful than honey left alone. The same is true with the progression from grape juice to wine: in fermentation, the grape juice rots–it dies–to become wine, elevating and intoxicating those who drink of it.

In this sense, wine itself is a picture of Jesus claiming his place at the right hand of God. He dies on the cross and comes back having conquered death. More than that, his Spirit has been released and lavished on those who follow him in life, to death and to life eternal. This is the Spirit by which, even two thousand years after Christ’s death and resurrection, we have communion with him and with the Father.

So with the Dionysians we rejoice at a spirit stronger than death who gives indestructibility to life. This is an aspect of God he’s put in the very fabric of nature and the Dionysians are wise to recognize it. But we are not Dionysians because we do not worship a god who died nobody knows where, nobody knows when, but we worship one who died in a particular place, on a particular date, followed by definable historical consequences. As C.S Lewis has it, “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. ”

Not only is Christ’s resurrection the historical fulfillment of the old myths, but it is a better reality, for Christ does not sacrifice bios to preserve zoe, as Kerenyi defined the terms. Instead, he seals their union forever. Jesus wasn’t absorbed back into God somehow when he ascended into heaven. He didn’t give up his “characterized…particular” bios life for a more enduring ethereal zoe life, but he united the two in what the Bible calls a spiritual body. That is to say, a body similar to the ones we have now, capable of eating and registering at specific GPS coordinates, but which is at the same time completely enlivened, engulfed, and animated by the Spirit of God. As individuals we’ll be free to live as we were created to be, reflecting glory back to God as we sing, work and socialize in the new heavens and new earth.

It’s this reality that we cherish as we eat the bread and drink the wine. This is our hope and our salvation.


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