A DISQUIETING THOUGHT
[Our leading article this month was written by Roy Smalley – thank you very much, Roy]
A new innovation has crept into our service of Holy Communion recently, which I disagree with, and which I find deeply disturbing. I refer to the use of white wine. Holy Communion is not a meal in conventional sense. We are not asked: “Do you prefer red or white wine?” It is a sacrament – an outward sign of inward grace – initiated by Jesus himself at what turned out to be his last meal with his twelve disciples (not eleven, as depicted on our reredos). He knew that his death was imminent, despite the welcome he had received only a short time earlier from the crowds as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. He knew that the religious leaders were planning to ‘fix’ him. After all, he had argued with them in the temple, had shown a much better understanding of the Jewish scriptures than them, had kicked over the tables of the money-changers who made a profit from exchanging the normal currency for ‘Temple money’, which is all the priests would accept, and had upset the sellers of animals for sacrifice in the temple. It was the practice of the Jews from ancient times to offer to God the sacrifice of animals or birds – two doves, or a lamb, especially at the time of Passover, which this was. Jesus knew about Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son to God. Abraham even had his son trussed up on the altar and was about to slaughter him, when God intervened, and provided a lamb, entangled in a thorn bush, to be sacrificed instead of Abraham’s son. These sacrifices were the Jews’ oblations – their prayer offerings. Knowing that his time was limited, Jesus took the bread, and taught his disciples: “This is my body”. Then he took the wine-cup and told them: “This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me”. This was one of the last verbal teachings which he imparted to them.
At that time, most of the land round the Mediterranean Sea was occupied by the Romans, including the Jewish homeland. They kept the indigenous population firmly under control, if necessary by military force. They were the Nazis of their day, and like the Nazis, they appointed a governor – a gauleiter in Nazi-speak – to control Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate. He was a Roman, but he had to ‘toe the line’ if he wanted to keep his post, and perhaps his life. The Jewish king was King Herod, but he was a puppet of the occupying powers, rather like Pétan in the French Vichy government under the Nazis, and he had to collaborate with the Romans too.
The Jewish high priests had Jesus arrested as a subversive trouble maker, and brought him before Pilot for trial. Pilot didn’t want to get involved in what he saw as a purely Jewish matter, and referred the case to Herod. When Jesus refused to perform miracles at Herod’s behest, Herod lost interest in Jesus, and sent him back to Pilot. Pilot didn’t want to condemn Jesus to death – after all, what had he done, except upset the local priests? He didn’t present a threat to Roman rule. However, the priests were determined to ‘get their man’, and stirred up the crowd to such an extent that Pilot could see a riot developing, and the situation getting out of control. This would reflect badly on him as Governor. He decided to flog Jesus, but that wasn’t enough for the Priests; they wanted rid of Jesus permanently, and told Pilot that Jesus claimed to be the king of the Jews. Eventually, and reluctantly, Pilot agreed to provide the means of execution, but tried to absolve himself from blame by telling the high priests: “See ye to it”.
In what was a grotesque parallel of a religious rite of sacrifice to God, on the day before the Passover was celebrated by the Jews, Jesus was slaughtered on the altar of the cross. The son of God was also the sacrificial lamb of God, the Agnus Dei, the ultimate oblation, although the Jews would not have seen it like that.
Our oblations – our prayer offerings – are the bread and wine. When the priest is preparing to consecrate these elements, he mixes water with the wine as a symbolic representation of the blood and water which flowed from Jesus’ side when the Roman soldier thrust a spear into his belly, perhaps piercing his bladder. The wine, to symbolise the blood, ought to be red, not white
When I glance into the cup of white wine and see its golden shimmer, I am tempted to see, not the blood of Christ which the Server tells me this represents, but a Roman orgy of drunkenness, gluttony, and debauchery. I don’t want to share this moment with the Roman soldiers who mocked Jesus: “Hail, King of the Jews”. I don’t want to add another stripe to his back by lashing him once more with the whip. I don’t want to press the crown of thorns more firmly onto his head.
Let us think clearly about our oblations, and what we are commemorating, and offer red wine as a symbol of Christ’s blood, shed for the whole world at his crucifixion. He lost the battle for his life, but he won the war by his resurrection. He was the victim, sacrificed on the altar of the cross – the sacrificial Lamb of God – but he was also the victor. Why else would a large proportion of the world’s population still do what he told them to do almost two thousand years ago: “Do this in remembrance of me”?
Agnus Dei, miserere nobis.