Johannes Brahms was once invited to dinner by a noted wine connoisseur. In the composer's honor, the man opened one of his finest bottles. "This," he announced to his assorted guests, "is the Brahms of my cellar."
Brahms nodded, carefully examining the wine - inhaling its bouquet, swirling it in his glass, and holding it up to the light - before setting it down without further comment.
"How do you like it?" the host asked with anticipation. "Well," Brahms replied, "better bring out your Beethoven."
I love a good wine. People have been making wine for over 8,000 years. Wine residue has been identified in ceramic jars from Neolithic sites at Shulaveri, of present-day Georgia. Of course, it wasn’t all about getting drunk, although there’s nothing wrong with that. It has not always been that safe to drink the water. The alcohol in wine, when mixed with water, made for a safe beverage. And we know now that wine is good for you. People who drink wine moderately live longer. Wine is good. So it shouldn’t surprise us that wine is such a central symbol in religion.
We all know it. You are what you eat (and drink). Food and drink are life. They are central to our lives. Wherever people gather, you will find food and drink. It is a part of every celebration. We wouldn’t think of having a wedding without a reception. You cannot have a wedding reception without a toast to the happy couple. The first miracle Jesus performs is changing water into wine, according to the gospel of John. Later in John, Jesus uses the image of wine to teach about our relationship with God.
Jesus said to his disciples:
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,
and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.
You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.
Remain in me, as I remain in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit,
because without me you can do nothing.
Anyone who does not remain in me
will be thrown out like a branch and wither;
people will gather them and throw them into a fire
and they will be burned.
If you remain in me and my words remain in you,
ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.
By this is my Father glorified,
that you bear much fruit and become my disciples." (John, Chapter 15, 1-18)
Now of course, Jesus may never have actually said this. The Gospel of John was written very late, at least seventy years after the death of Jesus. But whether Jesus said it, or whether John was using this story to illustrate his understanding of the godhead, it doesn’t really matter. The truth of the story is still the same. Strip away the dogma and the message is the same.
The metaphor is clear. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. God is the vine grower. God is not the wine maker. The vine grower is the one who goes around the vines after the picking; he examines the vines, sees where the vine has to be cut back to promote new growth in the next season. S/He cuts back the vines, cuts them back to the stock. The vineyard is bare in the winter, but come spring and the vines shoot out, they blossom and the fruit forms. The success of the new vintage depends on the careful work of the vine grower. But the wine depends on the grapes.
You need all three to produce good wine. Jesus wants us to know that the grapes, the vine, the branches, even the vine grower, all are one in the process, and all necessary. Moreover, the hardships we face are necessary for good fruit to grow. Jesus also tells us that as God has loved him, so he has loved us. Turn that around and you see that also means as he has loved us, so God has loved him. We abide in him. He abides in us. God abides in him. So God also abides in us. So we are one. We are holy. In fact, he even says so. He says that we are made holy.
We are what we eat. Consider the symbolism of the last supper, of our relationship of God symbolized in the Eucharist, communion. Seeds are grown, nurtured by the farmer, and harvested. From the wheat comes bread to sustain us. Vines are planted by the vine grower. The fruit is harvested. From the grapes comes the wine that helps to bring flavour to our lives. Jesus says “This is my blood.” This wine is life itself. From the bread we make, from the wine we make, comes life.
We are part of the process of making wine. As such, we are holy. From this idea, there can come no condemnation. It is karma pure and simple. Our lives are the wine we produce. We are the branches. We produce the grapes. I would love to think that the grapes I produce make a nice pinot noir, full of rich body, warm and fruity. Of course, I know that sometimes I’m lucky if I can punch out a cheap bottle of Night Train. But I keep trying. I would be happy if my grapes could mix and age and produce a fine Brahms. But at the moment, for some reason I have a craving for cheese and crackers, and a nice glass of pinot blanc.