I spent Christmas and New Year in the Moselle Valley, one of the major wine-producing regions of Germany. Here, December 27, the feast day of St John the Apostle, has special significance, writes Gabrielle McMullen.
The scriptures refer to St John as the ‘beloved disciple’. He and his brother James, sons of Zebedee and young fishermen, were called by Jesus to become members of the original twelve apostles. According to Tradition, they were cousins of Jesus, their mother a younger sister of Mary. John was devoted to his Master and Jesus' special love for John is highlighted by the evangelists – he was the disciple ‘whom Jesus loved’ and who leaned against his shoulder during the Last Supper (John 13: 23, 25).
John was also the apostle who stood with Mary at the foot of the cross, when the others deserted Jesus, and to whom Jesus entrusted the care of his mother (John 19: 25-27). With Peter, John was prominent in the founding of the early Christian community and, in particular, is generally seen as a leader of the early Church in Asia Minor. John is believed to be the only apostle not martyred and is said to have lived to an advanced age, despite attempts made on his life.
While generally considered to be mild-mannered and referred to as the Apostle of Charity, when the patience of John and his brother James were tried, they could be fierce indeed, earning them the title from Jesus of the "sons of thunder" (Mark 3: 17). The Church Fathers generally acknowledged St John as the author of three epistles, the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) although modern studies have raised the possibility that these works have different authors.
Wine-land celebrations of his feast day in the Christmas week relate to a legend from the life of St John during missionary endeavours in Ephesus. According to this tradition a leading pagan citizen is said to have challenged St John, committing to convert to Christianity if John consumed a cup of poisoned wine (poisoned chalice) and survived.
John blessed the wine and was unharmed when he drank it. This wonder led to the conversion of the pagan and numerous others. Images of St John holding a chalice with a serpent emerging from it relate to this legend whereby the adder is a symbol for the poison.
The poison chalice legend is the basis of wine-growing regions, like the Moselle Valley, having the custom of St John's wine or ‘St John's love’. In the northern hemisphere, his feast day falls about the time when new wine from the most recent harvest is ready for bottling. Thus, on December 27, vignerons bring bottles of wine to the local Church and, following the Mass for St John's feast day, the wine is blessed by the celebrant in thanksgiving for the harvest and for wellbeing in the New Year.
In some parishes blessed wine is then shared amongst the congregation. Mostly, however, it is taken home and some shared around the table during the main meal on the feast day. Traditionally, a toast was proposed to St John's great love for Jesus. The father would begin, touching his glass to the mother's and saying, ‘I drink you the love of St John’ or ‘Drink the love of St John’.
She answers, ‘I thank you for the love of St John’. The mother would then similarly toast the oldest child and the other children, any guests and the servants would follow suit. It was a rare occasion when children, even toddlers, were allowed to have a sip of wine. The blessed wine is a representation of St John's great love of Christ. As well as having this religious significance, however, this Last Supper-type ceremony was an occasion to foster the sense of belonging of the whole household.
Blessed wine was also saved for other occasions. For example, a bride and groom were given St John's wine as a blessing for their life's journey, travellers and warriors for a safe return, the sick for healing, and the dying and even those sentenced to death for their final journey. Like other Christian ceremonies, St John's wine might have its origins in the adaptation of a Roman or other pre-Christian custom.
Let me conclude with the Church's ritual blessing for his centuries-old Catholic devotion in celebration of the love of St John:
Be so kind as to bless and consecrate with Your right hand, Lord, this cup of wine, and every drink. Grant that by the merits of Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, all who believe in You and drink of this cup may be blessed and protected. Blessed John drank poison from the cup, and was in no way harmed.
So, too, may all who this day drink from this cup in honour of Blessed John, by his merits, be freed from every sickness by poisoning and from any harms whatever. And, when they have offered themselves in both soul and body, may they be freed, too, from every fault, through Christ our Lord. Amen
Bless, Lord, this beverage which You have made. May it be a healthful refreshment to all who drink of it. And grant by the invocation of Your holy name that whoever tastes of it may, by Your generosity, receive health of both soul and body, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Professor Gabrielle McMullen AM is Emeritus Professor, Australian Catholic University.
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