Last week I made the bold suggestion (bold to an American mindset anyway, and downright scandalous here in central Texas) that we introduce our children to drinking at a relatively early age. In that blog I referred to the kind of drinking to which we should introduce our children as “sacramental drinking.” However, I failed to define what that actually is. Today I will try to do so.
By “sacramental drinking” I do not mean receiving Holy Communion under both kinds but drinking in a way that reflects a sacramental worldview. Sacramental drinking has two aspects. The first is recognizing all creation as a sacramentum or “divine sign” pointing to some aspect of God’s goodness and love for us. The Church Fathers, for example, saw the great Book of Nature as a series of sacramenta which, when read correctly, eloquently reveals attributes of its Author and His order.
The Catholic Church continues to view all created things in this manner, and that includes our alcoholic beverages. Consider the following blessings for beer and wine, taken from the traditional Rituale Romanum:
Blessing of Beer
Let us pray.
Lord, bless this creature beer, which by your kindness and power has been produced from kernels of grain, and let it be a healthful drink for mankind. Grant that whoever drinks it with thanksgiving to your holy name may find it a help in body and in soul. Through Christ our Lord.
Blessing of Wine for the Sick
Let us pray.
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who in Cana of Galilee changed water into wine, be pleased to bless and to hallow this creature, wine, which you have given as refreshment for your servants. And grant that whenever it is taken as drink or poured into wounds it will be accompanied by an outpouring of grace from on high. Thou who lives and reigns forever and ever.
Blessing of Wine for the Feast of St. John the Evangelist
Let us pray.
God, who in creating the world brought forth for mankind bread as food and wine as drink, bread to nourish the body and wine to cheer the heart; who conferred on blessed John, your beloved disciple, such great favor that not only did he himself escape the poisoned potion but could restore life by your power to others who were dead from poison; grant to all who drink this wine spiritual gladness and everlasting life. Through Christ our Lord.
Note the presuppositions that are operative in these blessings, especially the parts that I have italicized. Beer is a product of God’s kindness; He gave us wine to refresh us and to cheer our hearts. In other words, alcoholic beverages are a product of, and hence testimony to, God’s goodness and loving kindness. They are a sacramentum or divine sign that points us to the loving Creator of both them and us.
Side Note #1: I am struck by how these blessings emphasize God’s role in the existence of beer and wine rather than man’s. Whereas the offertory prayers in the Ordinary Form or new rite of the Mass refer to wine as “fruit of the vine and the work of human hands,” the traditional blessings speak of God as “producing” beer and “giving” and “bringing forth” wine. Obviously, both statements are correct, but thinking of God as the Maker of strong drink both affirms the goodness of alcohol and guards against human self-congratulation, which is a particularly tempting vice where technological mastery is involved. O noble home brewer, beware thou of pride! Remember that your Mr. Beer Home Brew Kit® may have planted, and you may have watered, but it is Almighty God who gives the bubbly increase.
Side Note #2: I could not find in the prayers of the Church similar praise for strong spirits such as whiskey, gin, or vodka, but hey, ours is an organically developing tradition, so keep your fingers crossed. A hundred years ago, the Roman Ritual didn’t have a blessing for a seismograph or an automobile either, but it does now.
Side Note #3: Don’t you just love the reference to beer as a “creature”? That surprised and amused me the first time I read it. Today, of course, that word is used to distinguish an animal or living thing from a human being, but originally it meant anything that was created by God—inanimate, animate, or human. So it is good that we keep the language of “creature” as a reminder of the creaturely character of things.
I mentioned that sacramental drinking has two aspects, so let us now turn to the second. If alcohol is a gift from God and a divine sign pointing back to Him, the appropriate reaction is not to abuse it but to use in keeping with the mind and intention of the Giver. In Chesterton’s famous formulation, “We should thank God for burgundy and beer by not drinking too much of them.” Sacramental drinking therefore involves not only perceiving reality as suffused with divine significance or “charged with the grandeur of God,” but also of responding to such enchanted meaning with gratitude, moderation, and good Christian cheer. Prosit!