I recently got into a friendly discussion / debate with my pastor over the recent introduction of white grape juice, in place of red, when we celebrate communion. My concern regarding the change in practice had to do with the intentional exclusion of the dark colored “wine”, which I perceive as significant to the symbolism of Christ’s blood. I must say that my first inclination, as to the reason for the change in element, was that white grape juice was being sold for less than red, and that in time we’d return to the regular practice. Pragmatic frugality aside, the actual reason for the change was more disconcerting. It seems that after a recent refurbishing of the church sanctuary, which included a lighter colored upholstery on the pews, there was the concern that spilled red grape juice would stain the pews (and, I suppose, parishioner’s clothing). Complicating that subjective concern was the additional matter of the cost of removing the stain(s).
In discussing the topic of this ancient practice I was quickly reminded how fast rabbit trails emerge within the thickets of theology. One acquaintance stated, when presented with this issue, that if we were to follow the original practice, then we would be using wine and not grape juice. Others have brought up that the bread is not the same, the manner with which we partake of the meal itself is different, and that we don’t use a communal cup. I recently shared the following as a status on Facebook:
Using white grape juice instead of red, for communion, so as not to possibly stain anything, is like using peppermint leaves instead of bitter herbs, for Passover, so as not to possibly have pungent breath afterward.
In the comments that followed, I ran into the issue of using white wine and red grape juice, ostensibly to allow those who wish to partake of wine the opportunity, while allowing those who prefer grape juice that route, with the distinction being made easy to identify by… sight.* While all of these issues may be true, their veracity does not negate or vindicate my concern regarding the color of the wine used.
I’m not concerned with whether or not we practice communion exactly as was done in the upper room, by the early Christians, or by the Jews celebrating Passover. That the wine may be substituted with grape juice, coca-cola, or whatever, depending on the context of the situation, is irrelevant (to the context of my concern). Issues regarding whether or not we eat an entire meal, engage in the practice in unison or systematically in a queue, use wafers or loaves, etc., are all ancillary to the context of my question. That some of these ancillary issues may indeed be relevant to how we practice communion does not necessarily hinder or help the argument pertaining to my original question.
I try to approach issues in the simplest manner possible, while still addressing the intricacies involved – not always a task that is easy to accomplish. In looking at the color of the wine question I am attempting to ascertain the intent of not only the practice, but the means with which the practice is followed. I am of the opinion that God has, within his theology, intertwined abstract concepts with physical attributes – attributes which we perceive with our five senses. Consider that the Bible states that sacrifices brought a pleasing aroma to God. No doubt such events brought with them sights, sounds, and smells which would leave a lasting impression on those participating. It certainly should be of no surprise that the metaphorical meaning of the unleavened bread and bitter herbs of Passover was heightened through our sensory perception of their physical attributes. And the sense of taste and smell, particularly of the wine, would lend a certain memory imprint on any individual participating in communion. Is this not significant?
Therefore, I’m wondering if the same application could (or should) be made with something like the color of the communion wine. If it represents the blood of Christ is it happenstance that wine was chosen as the metaphorical symbol for the Passover meal? I don’t believe that God is surprised by anything or that he needs to have a “Plan B”, so it seems to me that his original intent was for the Passover meal to flow into the practice of communion. The wine, from the beginning, was to represent the blood of Christ. What are the physical attributes of blood? Crimson by sight, a distinctive rich taste (remember the taste in your mouth when you lost a tooth?), an equally distinctive aroma… Doesn’t wine mimic these attributes? It’s dark, red quality, a slightly burning and warm taste, and a rich aromatic quality.
I find it interesting that our 21st century Western culture, despite its technological prowess, seems to have lost touch with the history of the importance of meaning provided by our five senses. Visual and auditory stimulation, through means of movies, the internet, TV, video games, iPods, et. al,, while exciting, operates mainly as an ultimately unsatisfying, yet addictive, stimulant. The senses of taste and smell are catered to, by and large, through the gourmet world of microwavable-junk-food. Even though I am wary of much of what is happening in the emerging church, it is refreshing to see a desire to return to liturgies, accompanied with stained glass and incense, seeming to be a desire for sensory meaning amidst the muck of our techno-innovations.
So, if it could be argued that the attributes of the wine, while not necessary simply on their own for the practice are, nonetheless, important aspects of the metaphorical imagery being used, why would one avoid them? I understand the everyday concern about staining pews, carpet, clothing, etc., with spilled wine (interestingly enough, blood also stains). I simply don’t see that as a major concern. Is it really necessary to have stains from communion wine removed? Cleaned up, yes, but removed? It seems to me that such stains would be, in some sense, a badge of honor – that a church bears the evidence of the practice of communion being exercised so frequently. I recall a pastor deciding against replacing prayer benches because, once he realized that the “old” ones were stained from the tears of parishioners, he realized the testament he was about to remove.
Imagine a balance scale. On one side we have the choice of using red wine (or… dark grape juice) for communion. The minimum “weight” in favor of this choice is original intent, which brings with it all the metaphorical imagery surrounding the color of the blood of Christ. On the other side of the balance, we have the choice of using a clear liquid. The minimum “weight” on this side is, essentially, a desire not to stain the pews, carpet, or clothing – or perhaps another minimal reason.
It seems to me that the balance tips easily to one side…
* This practice seems, at first take, to be an attempt to address the stronger brother / weaker brother situation. I wonder if Paul ever ran into a church that had an after service time of fellowship with idol sacrificed pork grilling in one section and beef not sacrificed to an idol grilling in another section?