Wine and Christianity
Wine has become linked with Christianity in a variety of ways. As Christian doctrine and denominations branched, grew, and shifted over time, wine has grown to be an important aspect of the religion, symbolically and in practice. Though some sects reject the inclusion of alcohol into their sacred rites, Christianity and wine have been bound together since before the Christian faith even began, as the roots of its symbolism can be found in older faiths that impacted the early practices and formation of Christianity, ensuring the two would be linked at the very start.
The first direct link between wine and Christianity occurs within the New Testament itself. While attending a wedding, the party runs out of wine Jesus, a bit reluctant at first, proceeds to turn the water into wine. As the verses go:
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.[i]
The turning of water into wine is considered in Biblical text and Christian faith to be the first miracle performed by Jesus Christ. Though an important link between wine and Christianity, it is by far the only one. Though, as the scene suggests, it is a powerful one with roots found in older religions.
Wine, of course, had a long history in religion, not just Christianity, and was also an important aspect in Judaism. Scholars on the subject note that “Judaism also includes wine in ceremonies and holidays (Shabbat, Pesach, sacrificial service),” which, considering the foundations of Christianity stemmed from Judaism, makes sense.[ii] As noted in the Old Testament, it was even part of early tithing:
“You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.
And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves.
And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.”[iii]
However, wine in Christianity has a great deal of symbolism not found in Judaism. Studies into the subject have noted that “The Christian sacrament of communion illustrates how fully the subtle pleasures of wine drinking became associated with the spiritual urge to find both union with God and fellowship in a community of love. For centuries, Catholic priests preserved and propagated the skills of winemaking as they supplied sacramental wine to worshipers in the Old and New Worlds.”[iv]
It is worth noting just how important wine was in ancient times, especially in desert regions. Wine allowed water to be made safe through boiling and fermentation, and, unlike beer, could last for much longer if stored safely without the need for refrigeration. With bad desert water, or simply lack of water, a constant concern, the ability to amass and safely store water for long periods is a large part of wine was so prevalent in such regions.[v]
As for Christianity, the religion is rife with symbolism. As Jesus symbolized the sacrificial lamb, rendering the need for further sacrifice unnecessary as well as saving humanity from their sins, other symbols are prevalent in the religion. As noted by others on the subject, “Christianity is full of symbolism. Everyday items such as bread, wine and water have extra meaning and significance in certain situations. On the night before he was crucified, Jesus Christ took a Jewish festival meal and gave it new significance.
He began a tradition which still continues in the Christian Church. He told his closest followers to remember his death by eating bread and drinking wine. In different Christian traditions, this is known as Holy Communion, Mass (the term used in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches), Eucharist (a Greek word meaning thanksgiving), the breaking of bread, or the Lord’s Supper.”[vi]
Thus, wine became intertwined with Christianity from its very inception. As the religion became more organized, beliefs and practices based around wine became more institutionalized and coordinated.
Even in the early centuries of Christianity’s spread, some sects called for abstinence. As noted by one source on the subject, “Several Christian sects called for abstinence. But the Church decreed that alcohol was an inherently good gift of God. Wine was to be used and enjoyed. The Church also decreed that Christians could abstain if they chose, but it was heresy to despise alcohol. It rejected the abusive use of alcohol as a sin. The Church urged those who could not drink in moderation to abstain.”[vii]
As Christianity spread, so too did the vineyards needed to make wine for rites like the Eucharist. While grapevines need a great deal of care and water, and thus cannot grow in certain regions, where they could be planted, they were. For example, in the fourth century, St. Martin of Tours planted vineyards while spreading the Christian faith.[viii] Fortunately, France has large regions with ideal climate and conditions for winemaking.
Despite the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, wine remained an important aspect of Christianity. Monasteries handled the bulk of local wine production in regions such as Spain, France, and Italy. Trade did continue, mostly from the city-states of Italy. By the Seventh Century, winemaking had extended as far north as Wales.
While wine was extolled for consumption in the Bible, a great deal of the importance of wine within Christianity lies within its symbolism. As previously noted, wine has several important symbolic connotations. Besides the fact that turning water into wine was, according to the Bible, the first miracle performed by Jesus Christ, wine is a vital component of many Christian sects.
This importance is due to the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. Especially in Catholicism, the Eucharist is vital for representing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for man’s sins. While several Bible verses relate to this event, Catholic scholars and theologians tend to refer it thusly:
In the celebration of the Eucharist, bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and the instrumentality of the priest. The whole Christ is truly present — body, blood, soul, and divinity — under the appearances of bread and wine, the glorified Christ who rose from the dead. This is what the Church means when she speaks of the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. https://www.usccb.org/eucharist
This conversion of the wine and bread of Communion into the blood and flesh of Christ is referred to as transubstantiation. One of several contentions between Catholic and Protestant faiths is that Protestants believe the act of Communion to be symbolic rather than literal. That is, for Catholics, the Eucharist is the blood and flesh of Christ. Protestants believe the act to be symbolic. In either version, wine is a vital component because it reflects the blood of Christ that He shed for man’s sins.
There is more to this symbolism, however, as has been noted by several theologians over the centuries. For example:
Jesus served His disciples wine at the original Lord’s Supper, which took place at the Last Supper. The gospels portray the Last Supper as a Passover meal. Wine was the drink used in the Passover feast. When Jesus picked up the Passover cup, it was a cup of wine. (The unleavened bread was also a part of the Passover feast, and was used by Jesus in the institution of the Lord’s Supper.)
As the traditional table drink at the time, wine was a symbol of fellowship, which is part of what the Lord’s Supper represents for us… indicating that wine will be part of the celebration of our salvation in the kingdom of heaven. How appropriate then that wine is likewise a symbol of the Christian celebration of the victory of Christ won at the cross.
Not all Christian faiths believe in the use of wine for Communion. Some believe any alcohol, even alcohol mentioned in the Bible, to be sinful. For several Protestant faiths, perhaps most famously the various Baptist sects, the “fruit of the vine” mentioned in the Bible is not wine, but grape juice. For such faiths, wine is not part of Christianity, except to be avoided like other sinful substances.
The use of wine in Christianity has only recently been a major point of contention, particularly in the United States, where various groups have advocated against alcohol. Such groups had initial success with the passing of Prohibition in the early twenty-first century, which banned the production and sale of alcohol, with few exceptions. Prohibition was a clear failure and eventually repealed, but in that time wine production and use suffered within the United States. As one of the previously noted exceptions for use of alcohol within the United States, wine for religious ceremonies was on the list.
Wine has important significance in the Bible and the Christian religion. It is noted in both the Old and New Testaments. Wine has powerful symbolic meaning for many Christian faiths, especially the Catholic Church. While some sects renounce wine and alcohol in general, the importance of wine in Christianity is clear. From the first miracle of Christ, to the Last Supper, into the modern era, wine was and is an important component of Christian faith and practice.
This Day in History
January 22, 304 – St. Vincent of Saragossa is martyred. The son of a French deacon, he would be sanctified as a patron saint of wine growers and makers, and is held in especially high regard in the Champagne region of France.
May 22, 337 – Constantine I, first Christian Roman emperor, dies. His conversion would eventually allow for acceptance of Christianity within the Roman Empire, allowing it to spread across Europe and the Mediterranean. Wine was heavily consumed in the Empire.
November 8, 397 – St. Martin of Tours dies. A bishop in France, he did much to spread Christianity throughout Roman Gaul, spreading vineyards as well. He is another patron saint of vintners as a result.
December 31, 1825 – Thomas B. Welch, founder of Welch’s, is born. A Methodist minister from England who settled in America, he disapproved of the use of wine in Communion and sought to find a non-alcoholic solution. In the process he created grape juice, and his company continues into the modern era.