Here’s a plan to remedy the craziness that the sacraments have become. It’s from the Bible — you know, that big book on the coffee table. There is a passage in the New Testament that has always bothered me. “No one puts new wine into old wineskins, otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one, after drinking old wine wishes for new, for he says, ‘The old is pleasant. ’” (Luke 5:37-38.)
Everyone knows that Jesus is saying that innovation is good, after all isn’t he recommending new wine? Why then does he say that old wine is good, and that having drunk the old, no one wants new? It makes no sense!
(CAUTION; I am the only person I have ever heard say the following things, so I am probably wrong. Don’t say you weren’t warned!) The phrase new wine appears only in the context of this New Testament dialogue with the Pharisees. The Bible mentions new wine in the Old Testament, but the references are pretty negative such as Hosea 4:11 “old wine and new wine take away their understanding” and Job 32:19 “Inside I am like bottled-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst.”
If you look up new wine on the internet, there is an unending succession of New Wine reverences: New Wine movement, New Wine church, New Wine magazine and so on. It never seems to occur to anyone that Jesus seems to say that new wine is not always the best. There is a catch. Jesus is talking to the Pharisees who are criticizing him for eating with sinners, which by their standards would render him ritually unclean. I think He is saying that their teaching about radical ritual purity is new wine, and I don’t think he means it as a compliment.
The Pharisees, a name that means “the Separated”, got started about a hundred and fifty years before the birth of Christ. They taught that all Israelites in all places were bound by the halachic laws of ritual cleanliness which had formerly had applied only to those going up to the temple and to the priestly classes. Jesus taught that this was a departure from Israelite tradition that turned the worship of God into legalistic observance.
The old wine of the covenant of God with Abraham and Moses is better and Jesus claimed to be the fullness of that covenant. He was warning that the new wine of the Pharisees would burst the wineskin of Israel. He was absolutely correct. The rabbinic Pharisee movement which most people simply call Judaism has kept its adherents outside the mainstream of Israel and of the wider world. The Pharisees believed that was the purpose of the Law of Moses. However, most Israelites, especially in the Greek speaking Roman Empire seem to have accepted Jesus as Messiah in the first three centuries after Christ. Thus, they brought the beauty of the religion of the Israel to the whole world. Rabbinic Phariseeism is not responsible for the dispersion of the ethical and moral treasure of the faith throughout the world. The Notzrim are. (Notzrim is the ancient Hebrew/Aramaic word for the Israelite sect of the Nazarenes, also known as Christians). The Notzrim accepted gentiles into the family of Israel without the imposition of ritual purity laws.
Jesus also said that, “A disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” (Matt 13:53) CS Lewis says the same thing in chapter 25 of The Screwtape Letters, a delightful correspondence between two demons, a senior devil and his nephew, a junior tempter. In chapter 25 Screwtape advises Wormwood, “The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart — an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship.”
We moderns love the new, no matter how chintzy and garish it may be. Have you ever bought a product that was not marketed as new and improved? Has it ever occurred to you that if something is new, it cannot be improved? One can only improve something that is already old enough to have been a flop, and chances are the improvement will only make it worse. The phrase new and improved — which usually means “bigger box, less product” — was, as far as I can tell, coined by a fellow named Irving B. Harris around 1943. He had developed a home permanent that burned peoples’ hair, so when he figured out how to stop burning peoples’ hair with his product, he called it “new and improved”. He saved the business! After all, who would want something that was old and unimproved, unless of course it was a good bottle of wine or the undying faithfulness of God to Israel.
Since the home perm was invented, it appears we Americans have been wild about everything new and we American Catholics we have been utterly gaga over progress for a little over forty years: new nun’s habits, new liturgy, new liturgical styles, new music, new morality, (which coincidentally seems to be the same thing the old immorality, new everything. Heaven save us from the same old boring thing. The new and improved religion seems to have the same result as the new improved breakfast cereals — bigger box, less product. New patches and a perfectly good old garment, new wine in very useful old wineskin. Kaboom! And a mess all over. Bigger programs, bigger religious bureaucracies, fewer priests, nuns, weddings, baptisms, funerals, and few believers. Time to reevaluate, I would think.
For 40 years we have tried to make the sacraments new and meaningful. I don’t think it has worked. Perhaps we can go back to a more practical and meaningful understanding of the sacraments, taking some old things out of the storehouse. For instance baptism. Now it’s a celebration of life. Maybe we could talk about the human condition and the need to wash away original sin. First Communion. Maybe we could do away with the photo-op- rite of passage-welcome to the banquet of the community of faith. Perhaps we could return to the idea of offering our lives to the Lord at the Sacrifice of the Mass and receiving His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in return.
And weddings. (Always with the weddings. This guy is obsessed.) At the time of Christ, the cost of burial was bankrupting Israelite families. The burial garment and the cost of the coffin and tomb just kept getting higher. The poor were embarrassed by the shabbiness of their funerals and would have their faces covered because their poor diets caused their faces to discolor quickly. Eventually the great Rabban Gamaliel ordered that he be buried in a simple shroud, face covered, and thus it became the fashion to do things simply. Extravagant mourning is still forbidden to the Jews, and I have heard it said that a toast is still drunk to Gamaliel in thanksgiving. We Christians should drink a toast to Gamaliel too, for protecting Peter and John. There is a tradition that Gamaliel may actually have accepted Christ. He is regarded as a saint in the Eastern Church. Christian or Jewish, Gamaliel is a person to whom the world owes much.
We need a new Gamaliel, someone who will make simplicity fashionable again. How wonderful it would be if the longing of those to be married, or communed, or confirmed was the sacrament, and not the photo-op. How wonderful it would be if the family of the deceased thought only of the repose of the soul of their beloved dead and not just of their grief and the humorous eulogy. Where is a Gamaliel now?
I am not fashionable by any stretch of the term, but allow me to make a suggestion regarding weddings. One of the reasons that people are not getting married in church these days is the outrageous expense and bother of the whole thing. What struggling couple can afford the $40,000 needed for the wedding? There are the headaches of planning, the expense, the decision whom to pick for the bridesmaids, whose irritating little offspring will be the flower girl, the little couple, the ring bearer and if we pick nephew A, cousin B will be horribly insulted and the bride would be embarrassed to tears if her wedding wasn’t at least at as big as Becky Sue’s, that hussy! Wouldn’t it be nice if somehow we could remember that a wedding was first and last a sacrament established by Christ to give grace for a family life together?
Here is my proposal.
To be continued…