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Holy Spirit Interactive: Aneel Aranha: Pit Stops on the Road to Heaven: How sweet was the wine at Cana?

How sweet was the wine at Cana?

by Aneel Aranha

On a hot summer night in July 2002, I went out drinking with a few friends of mine. I returned home at an unknown hour in the morning and in a drunken rage proceeded to tear my house apart, assault my wife, terrify my little daughter, and generally create havoc in the entire neighborhood. As this episode, which landed me behind bars, precipitated my conversion [see The Return of the Prodigal], I don't particularly regret it, but it would never have taken place had I not been drunk.

I used to believe that the propensity to violence was something that was restricted to a few stray people like myself who were cursed with a volatile temper. Over the past few months, however, as I counsel people from all walks of life, I have discovered that domestic violence is pandemic, and it is a tribute to our prowess in maintaining facades that it is kept so well hidden from the public eye. In almost every single instance, the violence is a direct result of alcohol.

Domestic violence is not the only sin that is a result of alcohol; most sin in the world can be attributed to it, and you only have to look around you to see how true this is. The reason is obvious. The moment you drink, inhibitions drop as do mental defences and you begin to do things and say things that you might possibly never do or say when you are sober. All too often these are far from pleasing to God.

We are even better at the art of justification than we are in the art of maintaining facades though, and the gamut of excuses I have heard in defence of drinking are fascinating, if totally inane. One gentleman I know, for instance, believes there is nothing wrong with drinking because he knows some nuns in South America who open a bottle of wine at the table every time they have supper! Another gentleman told me — as he guzzled down his third Bacardi — that he was so filled with the Holy Spirit, alcohol didn't affect him; besides, he always said the Rosary when he went home.

The most common justification I have heard, however, is that Jesus endorsed the drinking of alcohol by the miracle that he performed at Cana where he transformed water into wine! It is amazing how every Christian who drinks knows this story, even though they might be hard put to tell you another one from the Gospels. Though this does not really require retelling, I will repeat the story here.

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus' mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus' mother said to him, "They have no more wine."
      "Dear woman, why do you involve me?" Jesus replied, "My time has not yet come."
      His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."
      Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
      Jesus said to the servants, "Fill the jars with water"; so they filled them to the brim.
      Then he told them, "Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet."
      They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, "Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now."
      This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.

While this does seem to validate the opinion that Jesus endorsed the drinking of alcoholic beverages the entire issue is thrown open to question when you realize that the Greek word for wine is oinos, which can refer to two different types of juice of the grape: unfermented juice, or fermented or intoxicating wine. So which one was this? The only statement in the entire story that suggests the wine might have been fermented was the rather ambiguous statement made by the master of the banquet, but let us assume that the wine was, indeed, fermented.

A friend of mine got married recently. He invited 500 people for his wedding celebrations. Since he had decided to serve alcohol at the party he ensured that there was enough liquor for all present. If you were serving alcohol at a wedding, I am certain that you would do the same.

I doubt there were 500 people in all of Cana two thousand years ago, but as I am determined to be very charitable here, let us assume that there were. Let us also assume that the wedding host was a very popular man and decided to invite half the town to the feast. Out of the 250 people invited, let us once again assume that there were at least 150 men present of whom all would drink the wine that was served. Given that the worst thing that can take place at a wedding where alcohol is served is to run out of alcohol, it is wise to assume that the host — like my friend — would have undertaken to arrange sufficient quantity of wine.

For some reason — perhaps the women decided to join in the drinking as well, perhaps some got spilt, perhaps some was stolen — it appears that the host ran out of wine! Regardless of the reason, it would be fair to assume that quite a few guests would already have been inebriated at this stage. Now I invite you to ask yourself if Mary, this holy woman who was so "full of grace" and whom "generations would call blessed", would go to her son Jesus and ask him to change water into wine so that those who were still relatively sober could get into the same condition as their friends; and the friends, already intoxicated, could get even further inebriated?

Let us proceed with the assumption that she does, perhaps because she was a close friend of the family and wanted to do the "friendly" thing. Jesus agrees. He tells the servants to fill six jars, each with a capacity of 20 to 30 gallons, with water, and then with no further ado, changes the water into wine.

Now let us do some math. Each jar has a capacity of 20 to 30 gallons. Given that there are about 4 liters to a gallon, this works out to about 80 to 120 liters. There were 6 jars. Do the math again. 80 to 120 liters multiplied by 6 gives you a total of between 480 to 720 liters! Divided between 150 men, that is an average of 6 liters of wine per man — the equivalent of 6 full bottles! There would not have been a man still standing before that party got over that night. I invite you to ask yourself again, if Jesus, the Son of God, would, for his first miracle that was going to "reveal his glory" contribute in the making of a drunken party?

Which leaves any sensible person with only one possible conclusion: that the wine was not alcoholic!

But, as I said earlier, we are experts in the art of justification. I wouldn't really be surprised, therefore, if a few people reading this would continue to insist that the wine was alcoholic, because they believe that Jesus was really cool with people drinking, even if they all ended up sprawled out on the floor. Let me take you to the word of God again to make it clear that Jesus would not have anything to do with engineering a drunken party. This one doesn't require any assumptions. It doesn't require any math either. It is from Paul's letter to the good folk of Ephesus and is about as straightforward as you can get.

"Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit." (Ephesians 5:18)

The obvious interpretation is that you can be either filled with one or the other. And regardless of what the gentleman who says the Rosary after he gets drunk thinks, after a few Bacardis, he is no longer filled with the Holy Spirit, assuming he was at all when he started.

Do you disagree? Let me give you another verse, this time from Paul's letter to the Corinthians:

"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own." (1 Corinthians 6:19)

I have little doubt that most of us, if not all, would consider nipping a shot of whisky or vodka in a church an act of desecration. Yet, we would desecrate our own bodies with no second thought, unmindful of the fact that it is home to the Holy Spirit, who is God himself! The fact that God would, indeed, consider this desecration is obvious from this passage that Paul wrote to the Galatians:

"The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God." (Galatians 5:19-21)

Let me abridge that in the event anyone missed out a word or two. "The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: drunkenness and the like. Those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God."

There are those who will still continue to justify their drinking by saying this refers only to people who get intoxicated. Frankly, at this point I begin to lose the plot. Why would anybody drink a foul tasting, foul smelling liquid that has no redeemable qualities whatsoever — on the contrary, whose qualities are proven to be detrimental to mind, body and soul — unless it was to get drunk?

For social acceptance? So that you won't be called a "party pooper"? So that you won't lose your friends who drink? So that you can be a good host? These are all justifications that I have heard and they baffle me, because it appears to me that we are willing to jeopardize our salvation just so that we can be accepted by people who don't particular care about their own. I find myself even more baffled by people who don't drink, themselves, yet serve alcohol to others, not realizing the grave risk they take in jeopardizing the salvation of other people.

We have to realize that we are responsible for the sins of others, especially if they are a result of our actions. If a man came to your house, drank your booze and then went home and beat up his wife (or roasted his cat in the microwave, or, if you prefer something less extreme and more common, turned on a "party" film on his video), you are responsible for his sin. It doesn't do to say: if I didn't give him the booze, he would have got it from elsewhere; the fact is, you did.

If your child (or protege) begins drinking and does not have the moral capacity that you do and consequently begins to live a debauched life, you are yet again responsible because you didn't set the right examples by not drinking, yourself. You cannot shrug off the responsibility by saying you had nothing to do with it.

We have been looking at ourselves in isolation for too long, which is one of our biggest mistakes! We are not self-contained entities. We are, if you believe God's Word, part of this body of Christ, and consequently there is nothing one person does that does not affect another person.

In a world where the bad are getting worse, it becomes obligatory for the good to become better. I therefore urge all of you, especially Christian leaders, to stop drinking, regardless of how little you drink, or how much self-control you possess. It does not matter that you might have just a glass of wine before dinner. People don't count the number of drinks that you have had; they simply look at the glass you hold in your hand. It doesn't matter that you might have a strong will either. Not all people do. Some advice that Paul gave to the Greeks in Corinth comes in handy here as illustrative of this point and everything else I spoke about in the last few paragraphs.

For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall. (1 Corinthians 8:10-13)

Paul was willing to give up eating meat so that he would not cause his brother to fall. Christian leaders should be willing to make similar sacrifices. I urge you to do so.

May the Spirit be with you.

Aneel Aranha (June 12, 2004)

Author's Note: I have many friends who drink. Most of them are very close to my heart. I request them not to construe this as a personal attack. My attack is on alcohol, which is a vice that has destroyed - and continues to destroy - many lives. It is also something that distracts people who wish to walk on the path to holiness.

A question that I am often asked is if drinking is a sin. The answer to that is no. Scripture doesn't say drinking is a sin. Nor does the Catholic Church teach that it is. But I do believe that drinking leads to sin very often and both Scripture and Church are very clear about how we should treat such things. Scripture is particularly stern! (cf Matthew 18:8-9)

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