“Can you drink the cup that I will drink?” (Matt 20:22). This is the question Jesus posed to St. John the Evangelist and his brother, James, as they and their mother petition for seats on his right and on his left. Though not a martyr, several traditions affirm that John did suffer from persecution, though he was preserved from death. One tradition says that he was offered a poisoned cup of wine and after blessing it was not harmed. If not the cup of martyrdom, John drank the cup of the Lord’s suffering and blessing, and through him God blesses our own drinking on the Apostle’s feast day through a blessing of wine following Mass. We see in the Evangelist’s teaching how God uses the image of drinking and wine to symbolize the blessings he wants to bestow on us.
In the Bible’s sacramental vision, earthly realities symbolize hidden, spiritual realities. Drinking is one such symbol, which God uses to express the deeper meaning latent within our hearts and his design to fulfill the longings he elicits. According to the Psalms, wine is a sign of God’s blessing: “wine to gladden the hearts of men” and “my cup overflows” (Ps 104:15; 23:5). It is also a sign of thanksgiving and praise: “I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps 116:13). The abundance of wine is an image of the bounty of the earth and God’s blessing within it.
St. John, in the fourth chapter of his Gospel, gives us one of the clearest places where we see earthly drinking united with the spiritual draught it symbolizes. Jesus is thirsty; a disgraced Samaritan woman comes to Jacob’s well; Jesus, breaking taboos, asks her for a drink; she is scandalized. Jesus responds: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” What is beautiful is that Jesus asks her (and us!) for a drink: “I thirst,” a line foundational for Mother Teresa’ spirituality. Rather than even noticing Jesus’ thirst we usually focus on satiating ourselves. Literally. We drown away our sorrows, or even try to obliterate them in excess.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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St. John also show us, in the Book of Revelation (yes, I am ignoring disputes about authorship), that there are three kinds of spiritual drinking. First, Revelation shows us what we take on our own: “for all nations have drunk the wine of her impure passion” (Rev 18:3). Second, it shows us what we get when we satiate ourselves: “Render to her as she herself has rendered, and repay her double for her deeds; mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed” (Rev 18:6). Finally, we see the drink that God wants to give us: “To the thirsty I will give water without price from the fountain of the water of life. He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son” (Rev 20: 6-7).
Scripture’s warning against drinking the wine of our passions should not lead to prudishness. Revelation shows us that God reveals the joy of Heaven precisely as a feast: “And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb’” (Rev 19:9). God does not suppress the natural joy we have on earth, but fulfills it in a much higher way. Our own feasting is a small sacramental sign of our eternal happiness in Heaven.
Another insight from the second chapter of John’s Gospel shows us how the Lord transforms our festivities into a sign of the eternal wedding feast. O happy fault that caused the wedding feast to run dry of wine! The simple line “they have no wine” reveals our true emptiness before the Lord. He fills the cup for the feast, as a sign of his hour to come. It is of course during his hour that he shows us just how profoundly he will satiate us. Now Christ does not turn water into wine, but wine into his Blood. First he provided wine for the feast, but now he provides the new wine that draws us into the eternal wedding feast. And there will be a mystical wine in this feast: “I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt 26:29).
In the Gospels, Jesus asks us to “do this in memory of me,” which we do at every Mass. In an elusive phrase, Paul relates the words of institution as “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:25). No earthly drinking can surpass the Eucharistic feast in which our earthly wine becomes a new, heavenly fruit of the vine. Nonetheless, Paul seems to exhort us to remember the Lord whenever we drink of the fruit of the vine. In this way, we see how our earthly celebrations, like the wedding feast at Cana, can point beyond the present moment, in sacramental fashion, to the new vine of Heaven.
The blessing of wine for the feast of St. John, therefore, is perfectly timed during the Octave of Christmas and shortly before our celebration of the New Year. Our festive drinking should be in memory of the great deeds of the Lord, coming to earth for us, that gives us true cause to celebrate. I would even say that without memory and celebration specifically focused on the Lord, we run the risk of turning Christmas and the New Year into anti-festivities. Gifts without real sources and drinks without a true cause of celebration create hollow holidays. Josef Pieper tells us that “the artificial holiday is not only a sham festival; it borders so dangerously on counterfestivity that it can abruptly be reversed into ‘antifestival.’” He also challenges our “true existential poverty … in having lost the power to celebrate a festival festively,” which includes food, wine, song, dancing, art, and the praise of God.
A key cause of our existential poverty comes from the breaking of the temporal from the eternal. Our feasting should be as a sign of Heaven. This includes our ability to raise a festive glass, truly rejoicing in the Lord, the goodness of his creation, and his arrival in this world to sanctify it. Pieper affirms that “to celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.” This assent to the world, however, as a moment of leisure entails a breaking out of the mundane ritual that confines us. It opens us to the transcendent so that “in celebrating festivals festively, man passes beyond the barriers of this present life on earth.” The joy of the festival, drawing together the memory of both earthly and divine blessings, points to the eternal joy of Heaven, by giving us a small, imperfect glimpse of the eternal feast.
As we drink of the vine on the feast of St. John we celebrate the reality of the Incarnation and thank God for the blessings of the past year as we look forward with Christian hope to the New Year and the dawning of the new age.
As we plan our feast, Michael Foley provides us some guidance in his Drinking with the Saints. Foley describes the traditional “Love of Saint John,” which consists in “wine or cider that is blessed by the priest after Mass with a special blessing from the Roman Ritual and poured into everyone’s glass before dinner later than night. The blessed liquid was considered a sacramental and used in a variety of ways. It was poured into every barrel of the family wine cellar or kept in the house throughout the year for newlyweds to drink immediately after the wedding ceremony, for travelers before a trip, and for the dying after receiving Last Rites.” He includes a recipe that includes sugar, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom.
St. John drank of the cup of the Lord. As we raise our own festive glass, let’s toast this great saint and ask that we might be worthy to share in the new wine of the Kingdom with him.
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A traditional blessing of wine for the Feast of St. John from the Roman ritual:
Graciously bless and sanctify, O Lord God, this wine and this drink with Thy right hand, and grant that by the merits of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist, all who believe in Thee and partake of this wine may be blessed and protected. And as Saint John drank poison from a cup and was unharmed, so may all those who this day drink of this cup in honor of Saint John be preserved from all poisoning and other harmful things, and as they offer themselves to Thee in body and soul may they be free of all guilt. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Bless, O Lord, this drink which Thou hast created, that it may be a salutary remedy for all who partake of it, and grant that all who taste of it may, by invoking Thy holy name, receive health for body and soul. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the blessing of Almighty God, of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, come down upon this wine and any other drink, and remain forever. Amen.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Hip Hip Hurrah!,” was painted by P.S. Krøyer in 1888.