As related in a previous article, symbols are very powerful, and are useful in capturing ideas and defining movements. Christianity makes use of a number of symbols, two of which are associated with the sacrament of communion: the bread and the wine. In that previous article, I made use of a little biology/biochemistry to explore what makes bread such an appropriate symbol. In this article, my objective is to do the same with the communion wine: how the effect of wine in the human body can relate to a person’s spiritual life in Christ – both individually and in the church.
There are some interesting parallels between the effect of Christ’s blood in the life and being of a Christian, and the effect of wine in the human body. It must be said, however, that the physiological effects of wine are not well understood, and research conclusions are very tentative. So, this is not an attempt to wed scientific truth to spiritual truth, nor I am attempting to use science to uncover some hidden or new meaning in Scripture. Rather, I am applying some scientific knowledge simply to reflect on truths which we already know from scripture, and connect some dots.
The choice of red wine as a symbol seems most obvious because of its resemblance to blood – the blood of Christ which was shed on the cross for us. As Jesus stated at the last supper, “… [the wine] is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt 26:28) In addition to its appearance, early Christians also understood that wine had some curative properties. In a parenthetical statement, the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy that he should “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (I Timothy 5:23)
Red wine has been recognized as containing a class of chemicals known as antioxidants, in particular, resveratrol. Antioxidants are ostensibly important for reducing oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. One suggested effect is that antioxidants reduce the number of free radicals in the body. Free radicals are atoms or molecules with an unpaired electron making them very reactive which can result in damage to DNA and other parts of human cells. Antioxidants, then, help maintain normal body function and reduce the risk of a number of degenerative diseases.
Like free radicals, sin is present our lives disrupting our relationship with God and others. Christ effectively dealt with this disruptive effect of sin and made it possible to restore our relationship with God and enable the work of His Spirit in our lives. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” (Ephesians 1:7)
Antioxidants won’t repair the damage of free radicals, but will keep the damage from getting worse. Similarly, all the damage from sin in this present life can’t be fully repaired, but we rest in confidence that the blood of Christ will have its ultimate effect in the life after this one. In the meantime, the power of Christ helps us to control our sin nature. “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” (Romans 6:6-7)
Moderate consumption of red wine has also been associated with heart health and decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Again, the cause and effects are not certain, but wine seems to have a connection with reducing fat uptake, decreasing hardening of the arteries and lowering blood pressure. Compounds found in wine such as procyanidins also seem to have a role in keeping blood vessels healthy.
The work of Christ in us has an effect on our spiritual heart. In scripture, the heart is regarded as the seat of the will – the place from which our emotions and desires arise. As humans we have a distinctive heart problem as Jesus told us, “out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23) It is the work of Christ in us that transforms our hearts, and keeps us from having a hardening of our spiritual arteries: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
Wine is also known for its antiseptic qualities – killing off harmful microorganisms which may lurk in our drinking water. Our modern water treatment systems have removed this concern from most of our lives, but such was not the case in days gone by when communal drinking supplies could be contaminated by harmful organisms. Like wine, God’s Spirit has a way of protecting us from sin entering our lives in the first place: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
Paul’s admonition to Timothy mentioned above made specific reference to the use of wine to alleviate a gastrointestinal problem he was having. The conventional wisdom concerning wine and gut health has been born out in a number of studies which have examined the positive effects of the polyphenols found in wine. These compounds seem to favor the micro-biotic flora in the gut. While positive effects are observed, the researchers recognize the need for additional studies to better understand these interactions, and before any health claims can be made. A healthy gut enables us to properly digest and absorb the nutrients from our food. Red wine, while not required, seems to promote this.
Christians realize that just as we need physical food, we need spiritual food as well. Jesus quoted the Old Testament when he said, “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) As physical food needs to be digested and absorbed, so does spiritual food. Any person is capable of reading and understanding the teaching of the gospel, but it is not possible to fully “digest and absorb” this spiritual food without the regenerating work of Christ in our lives. Paul wrote that, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” This spiritual discernment happens, says Paul, because “we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:14,16) To be clear, the Spirit of God is essential in this process, unlike wine which is optional (analogies have their limits).
In summary, like the bread, wine also serves as a good symbol for the Christian life and the life of the Church. Wine combats harmful substances in our body and points to the redemptive work of Christ’s blood in countering the harmful effects of sin in our lives. Wine promotes heart health and prevents heart disease which points to the work of God who keeps our spiritual hearts from hardening. Wine helps keep harmful organisms from entering our bodies and points to God’s work in limiting the temptations in our lives which may lead to sin. Wine can also help digestive function and points to the power of God’s spirit to help us absorb the spiritual truths he has given to us in scripture. Just a few more things to reflect on the next time you go to the altar to drink from the cup!