Saturday, March 03, 2012

Blessing the Wine: An ancient Jewish tradition sheds light on Jesus' last supper

Many Christian churches still follow the ancient practice of blessing the wine for communion. We trace our practice back to what Jesus did when he celebrated his last supper:
And he took the cup, and gave thanks ... (Matthew 26:27)
And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them (Mark 14:23)
And he took the cup, and gave thanks ... (Luke 22:17)
The gospels do not go into exact details on what was involved in blessing the wine. We can see that the blessing was a hands-on action that required taking the cup in hand and giving thanks, but we know little more than that directly from the Scriptures.

An ancient Jewish source, the Talmud, goes into details on what went into a Jewish blessing over wine. Some of the instructions seem obscure to us today, for instance: the one who blesses is wrapped, possibly in a robe.* Some of the instructions seem obvious, for instance: the cup is washed / rinsed. And some of the instructions have been passed along to this day:
'It is taken in both hands': R. Hinena b. Papa said: What is the Scriptural warrant for this? -- Lift up your hands in holiness and bless the Lord. [Psalm 134:2] (Berachoth 51a)

'He raises it a handbreadth from the ground': R. Aha b. Hanina said: What Scriptural text have we for this? -- I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord. [Psalm 116:13] (Berachoth 51b)
Compare those ancient Jewish instructions to some modern Christian instructions on how a priest is to bless the wine:
He returns to the middle of the altar, takes the chalice with both hands, raises it a little, and says quietly: Benedictus es, Domine (Blessed are you, Lord). (from p. 40, item 142)
There are other parts of blessing the wine mentioned in the Talmud as well: the one who blesses fixes his eyes on the cup, and after the wine is blessed, it is passed around to the members of the household. These are also familiar to many Christians from our own worship services.

This practice is not limited to Roman Catholics; steps just like these are followed by a variety of Christian groups around the world. Those words and gestures are following a pattern inherited from Judaism and passed down through the ages. They may well reflect Jesus' own actions that last night. While some parts of the practice may have dropped out -- such as being wrapped in a robe -- those parts that have survived are still clearly recognizable after roughly two thousand years.

As for the history of the liturgy -- the ancient form of worship celebrated in mainstream churches -- most parts of that liturgy have names in Latin, such as the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis. Just a few parts of the worship service are known even in Western churches by their Greek names. Greek was used earlier in the church than Latin, so it's likely that the parts that have kept their Greek names are among the most ancient parts: the Kyrie and the Eucharist.

* On the robe part, the Talmud mentions a disagreement on whether that was necessary. I also did not see any Scriptural warrant cited for the practice, unlike some of the others.

1 comment:

Jenifar said...

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