An Apologia for Wine
May 15, 2023
I recently traveled to Georgia, where I had the blessing of attending the Paschal Divine Liturgy at the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi, as well as visiting a number of sacred places including the breathtaking Gergeti Trinity Church. I must say that Georgia is a fascinating place; it is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world, home to perhaps the most beautiful and unique musical tradition and sacred hymnody in all of Christendom, and the birthplace of wine. I have tremendous respect for this small nation, and for all that they have kept in the face of dire circumstances.
On Bright Monday, I arrived in Stepantsminda, a small town at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains which is the hub for travelers who want to visit the Gergeti Trinity Church. The weather was unusually clear, so much so that it even had the Georgians in awe as Mount Kazbek, standing at over 5000 meters above sea level, seemed to be right before our eyes. The dirt road up to the church is steep, curvy and bumpy so we took a 4x4 ride from Stepantsminda, which has the added benefit of supporting the local economy during the off-season when the tourism stagnates.
That was the first time I heard about Georgians eating and drinking in cemeteries where they are close to the faithful departed - their loved ones who have passed away - particularly after Pascha and during Pentecostarion, as our driver enthusiastically told us about this tradition that is a proclamation Jesus Christ's victory over death, with his fervent hope invigorated in the Resurrection. For He is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto Him (Luke 20:38).
Christ is Risen!
From the moment you step on Georgian soil, it becomes clear that wine has a special place in the culture. It is a symbol of hospitality and friendship. As the liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church goes through periods of fasts where we physically and spiritually prepare ourselves with discipline, and feasts where we commemorate great events as God's plan unfolds, we are given the chance to reflect on the value of the blessings that we have, and the things that ought to be celebrated. For a faithful community, wine is also a beautiful symbol of joyous celebration.
Yet, the consumption of wine and other alcoholic beverages is frowned upon by many due to adverse health effects and behavioral concerns related to excessive imbibition. Of course, moderation is crucial as is the case with anything, but we do not categorically reject bread simply because eating too much of it causes lethargy and obesity. The secular world however, as far as I am concerned, is at odds with what wine represents as it pertains to our connection with one another, and our link to the past which we hold in reverence. It reduces wine to a societal hazard - to a chemical substance with damaging effects and no benefit except for some fleeting carnal pleasure that it brings, which the contemporary ethos implicity despises in its own circular and self-defeating ways. At the crossroads of unapologetic hedonism and arbitrary moral orientations, an age-old tradition that is ingrained in our philosophy of beauty and practiced in diligent enthusiasm and productive zeal is stripped of its symbolic meaning in a communal sense. I believe it is at this point that the contemplative individual might feel compelled to reject this vulgar habit altogether, since we are all called to uphold virtue over vice.
I do not believe that antagonizing the substance itself is appropriate here. Wine has accompanied human endeavour in good times and bad, and our complicated relationship with it comes into view throughout the Holy Scripture. While its subversive effects on a mind that is slave to sin are undeniable, it can also amplify the good, stimulate fruitful discussions and inspire wonderful relationships when the mind is free and properly oriented. I believe this has everything to do with how admiration of beauty unlocks a new dimension in our human experience, bringing the roses back to our cheeks.
The late Sir Roger Scruton introduces his wonderful book1 as a tribute to pleasure, by a devotee of happiness, and a defence of virtue by an escapee from vice, addresing it to "every thinking person in whom the joy of meditation has not extinguished the pleasures of embodiment". At times, we are reminded that there is a natural, good and appropriate way to experience pleasure, through the appreciation of beauty and truth, and subordination to our love for God. Although pleasure unto itself is just incoherent at best and a recipe for destruction at worst, while a life without pleasure is quite unpleasant, God is the primary principle brings everything together. He has bestowed us with winemaking and the Logos has made sense of it, in Scripture and in liturgical life.
For the ancients, alcoholic beverages were an indispensable part of civilization. It is more likely than one might think that our ancestors settled down and began practicing agriculture primarily for the production of fermented drinks, be it wine or beer. Historical findings from ancient Mesopotamia seems to suggest that the timeline checks out. In an era where diseases ran rampant, sanitary conditions were different, and most of the water that could be collected was unfit for human consumption, fermented drinks became the "water of life" for the people. In ancient Egypt, the Nile was so contaminated that making beer was the only safe way of drinking the water from it. The beer tasted bad (really bad). They mixed in some spices to make it less unpleasant: Typically some combination of cassia, coriander and cardamom. Then, it tasted a little bit better. The desire for beauty found its appropriate place in the collective struggle to preserve and honor the life that we are given. The ancient Greeks (and perhaps many others) worshipped an Unkown God along with many other gods, and one of the most important among them was Dionysus (also called Bacchus in Rome), the god of wine. Many other traditions had their deities of viticulture.
Then the true God walked on the Earth, who was made known to the Greeks by the Apostle (Acts 17:16-34). He transformed water into wine (John 2:1-11). He ate and He drank, and He was accused of gluttony and drunkenness (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34).
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.
The Eucharist is at the very center of the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church. Jesus chose bread and wine as the offerings, both of which are deeply symbolic in mysterious ways and frequently mentioned in Scripture. They are gifts that we receive in the form of the seed; we renew them, process them, elevate them, and offer them back to God. This is not to be frowned upon; since man is created in the image of God, he is called to replenish the Earth, and subdue it (Genesis 1:26-28). In the Eucharist, which is more than a symbol or a mere commemoration of events, the offerings - the bread and the wine - are then mystically transformed into the real body and blood of Jesus Christ. During the Liturgy, through its divine power, we are projected to the point where eternity cuts across time, and at this point we become true contemporaries with the events which we commemorate2. The substance, the symbol of ages, is transformed into the truth, and it gives life (John 6:51-58).
In my humble opinion, wine is one of our stronger connections to the past, a richly symbolic chapter in our story, and a catalyst for good conversations and friendships in the future when partaken of in moderation. May the Lord sanctify our souls, hallow our bodies, correct our thoughts, cleanse our minds; deliver us from all tribulation, evil and distress.
1 Scruton, Roger. I Drink Therefore I am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine. Bloomsbury, 2009.
2 Ware, Kallistos. The Orthodox Church. Penguin, 1993.