Christianity and drink have a comfortable relationship for the most part, despite ‘Temperance’ preachers, famously of the ‘Methodist’ denomination, periodically thundering that the Spirit is against spirits. As Holi, the Hindu drinking binge, almost always happens around the Christian holy holdback of Lent, it’s interesting to see what Christianity, embraced by the great wine-growing cultures of Europe in the first millennium of the Common Era, has to say about drinking.
Keep in mind that wine is central to the most important Christian ritual, the Eucharist, in which believers queue up at the altar where the priests dispense a wafer and a sip of wine to symbolize what Jesus said of the bread and wine at the Last Supper, “This is my body and this, my blood.”
Every scripture has its see-saw subjects and each century must proceed in the spirit of its time. The Bible itself shows these ambivalences on the subject of drink and modern Christians have wisely made their personal interpretations of these for the most part, in the spirit of tolerance.
Proverbs, a brilliant book in the Old Terstament, best read in the King James Version for its poetic drama, says in 23:29-31:
“Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? who hath contentions? who hath babbling? who hath wounds without cause? who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine.
Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright.
At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder.
Thine eyes shall behold strange women, and thine heart shall utter perverse things. Yea, thou shalt be as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea, or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast.
They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not: when shall I awake? I will seek it yet again.”
St Paul, the stern Jewish persecutor of Christians, who suffered a convulsion on the road to Damas-cus and became a zealous Christian thereafter, said in the New Testament,
“Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying.”
And further in Ephesians 5:18,“Be not drunk in wine, wherein is excess, but be filled with the Spirit.”
But it’s the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah who is truly thunderous:
“Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them!”
Isaiah shakes his head grimly again about drink in 28:7,
“But they also have erred through wine, and through strong drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink, they are swallowed up of wine, they are out of the way through strong drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgment.”
But in between, most delightfully, he says in Isiaiah 22:13,
“And behold joy and gladness, slaying oxen, and killing sheep, eating flesh, and drinking wine: let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die.”
In that he echoes the most Upanishadic of all the books in the Bible, the one that baffles and sometimes annoys strong Biblical commentators with its lofty Himalayan tone, a book, not surprisingly, a favourite with Indians: Ecclesiastes, also called ‘The Preacher’ and one of the Four Wisdom Books in the Old Testament (the others are Proverbs, Psalms and The Song of Songs, also called The Song of Solomon). For Ecclesiastes 8:15 says with heartwarming serenity:
“Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.”
This is also translated in the English Standard Version as “And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.”.
Well, then. Holi hai!