[Bunch of Grapes, by Andrew John Henry Way, 1873]
To make a jug of wine, a grape seed must first have gone into the ground and died in order to begin pushing up vines and leaves and the accoutrement of life. The vine may be left to grow wild, or it may be given a graft to grow the best kind of grapes. Either way, it will put forth a blossom, and that blossom will wait to be pollinated. Then, the very blossom itself will become the grape—the fruit quite literally is the flower, only transformed and given a shape entirely new.
In a grape, fermentation begins while the fruit is still on the vine. A little bit of wine begins to form inside. When the fruit is ripe, it is harvested and pressed, left to ferment in its own natural yeast a little longer. Then it is poured into glasses and cups and mugs, mixed with water (in the ancient world at least) and it is drunk. That drinking, as human beings have always known intuitively, is only properly done in the company of others, for the beauty of the effect of alcohol on the brain is not its intoxication, but its ability to draw us closer to one another in conversation, in the joy of a gladdened heart, and in love—in other words, in deep communion.
Wine is undoutedly the single most important symbol in Christian spiritual life. Wine gladdens the heart, so the psalmist tells us. A seed must die if it wishes to live (a grain of wheat according to the Lord, but the model of bread is much the same). This, the death of baptism, is the first step toward life. Then Christ is the true Vine upon which we are grafted. And his blood, in the form of finished wine mixed with water (according to the ancient practice) is drunk in the ultimate act of communion with one another—a foretaste of the Kingdom, as we are always reminded.
Life this side of the Kingdom, it seems to me, is centred on accepting several but not yet all of the key steps in the process of reaching God’s intended destiny of man: that of becoming wine, according to this metaphor. We must die as a seed dies, breaking down a hard outer shell, and then must be grafted to Christ the true vine. These are the first steps of Christian life—the crisis or breakdown that leads us to search for faith, and the acceptance in baptism that that faith must be in Christ.
From there, we must let ourselves blossom—allowing the life of the true vine to flow through us in order to make us flower. These are the first indications of a life of faith. Piety and liturgy, kindness and prayer, religious practice, fasting, canon, theological learning, the commandments, and the rest—the little outward signs of being and becoming Christian.
Yet things do not stop there—or at least they should not. The flower must be transformed once again not by becoming something other than a flower, but by becoming its true and almost unrecognizable self. The flower must become fruit—and this is the deep work of Christian life, the work that takes us past simple piety, which in isolation from the Spirit is nothing more than phariseeism, and into a transformed way of being. The fruit remains identical to the flower biologically—those first practices that we have learned in becoming Christian do not cease or even fundamentally change. And yet their interior significance becomes something vastly different, and radically more beautiful, so that they are almost unrecognizable. They become something completely the same, yet entirely different. Our pieties and actions are filled with flesh and juice. And the juice, even here, begins to ferment.
And that, in this life, is where it will stop. The ultimate end of this mortal existence is to become fruit if we allow it—the rest still awaits. In this life, some seeds will never let themselves die and so will remain just seeds. Many more will not allow themselves to be grafted, and will face the rigours of life as a wild vine; they may still, perhaps, be able to transform into fruit, but if so it will happen in a rugged world distant from the true Vine to which they are invited. Still others, even after grafting in Christ, will decide to remain as only vines or flowers, enamoured with the beauty of their shape in that state (for they are sincerely beautiful!), sometimes even disdaining those that have moved forward to become fruit as the pharisees disdained the Lord. But even those who accept God’s Grace in Christ enough to become a finished grape will stop there this side of death—this is the most that we can do in this life; this is God’s intended purpose for this temporal world. In the Eucharist we will begin, just a little, to ferment. But we are still not wine—not yet.
The day will come when those grapes are harvested and pressed. It must be agony, to be pulled from the vine we have known, and then crushed—utterly destroyed. Death, the great harvest, is a terrible and fearful thing. The crushing of the judgement must be more terrible still, I expect. The breaking of the skin, the cracking of the seeds, the filtering of all the outside flesh and matter to draw out from us only the juice that can be used, with that juice then left to sit (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!”) until the fermentation is finally complete. Death, destruction, isolation...
And then...and then! To become the very blood of Christ, to be drunk in the communion of all creation and of the Triune God who is defined in His very Essence by communion—a communion of which we become a part in the same way that earthly wine becomes essential to our communion with others on earth.
We die, then, unfinished, but hopefully we have at least allowed ourselves to become fruit by the power of the true Vine. We face a fate more awful than we can comprehend in death and the judgement—the crushing of what we are to push us yet further toward what we are meant to become.
And then...and then!
On we go in this temporal life—seed to grape, if we will let Him cultivate us. From there, the great mystery. The hope. The wine.