One of my earliest childhood memories is my dad getting tipsy from the communion wine on Christmas Eve. Being a Eucharist minister, he was required to help the priest drink the rest of the wine because none of it can go to waste. On one particular Christmas Eve, he had to serve at a few different Masses. That night, he walked home with us after the children’s Mass, elevated and in good spirits.
When I told him about this a few weeks ago, he denied it with passion. He said it never happened, as if somehow I’d mortally offended him. He’s no longer a Catholic, but he didn’t want to be associated with drunkenness in church, I suppose. Or maybe he wants to deny that he can’t hold his liquor, that after one or two glasses of wine, he’s a sentimental mush ball.
What he probably doesn’t understand is that I consider this not only a fond memory but an important theological lesson. Coming to the Eucharist should be a transformational event, and we should leave elevated. It’s supposed to change you, transform you, and fill you, in the words of an Anglican minister friend of mine, “with eschatological joy.”
To me, it recalls to mind the words of the Anima Christi, a prayer meant to be said after you receive the Eucharist:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O Good Jesus, hear me.
Within your wounds hide me.
Permit me not to be separated from you.
From the wicked foe, defend me.
At the hour of my death, call me
and bid me come to you
That with your saints I may praise you
For ever and ever. Amen.
The third line of this prayer jumps out at me every time: Blood of Christ, inebriate me. We don’t often use the word “inebriate” in its verb form. But to “inebriate” means to intoxicate, to transform one into an altered state, to make one lose his senses. It conveys a sense of almost dangerous happiness. We’re not just getting tipsy here. We’re stumbling around, the life of the party, laughing freely.
This calls to mind the apostles after the Fire of the Holy Spirit fills them at Pentecost, when they stumbled in the streets and spoke in strange languages. St. Peter had to reassure the people, with a wink and smile, I like to think, that the disciples were not in fact drunk.
There’s a reason Catholics and other Christians use wine at the Eucharist rather than just grape juice. Wine must undergo a process of transformation. When you drink it, you know it; it warms your whole body, especially if it was made by monks, who seem to delight in making wine and spirits and even their fruitcakes especially potent. When I take the Eucharist, I keep it in my mouth until I drink the wine, letting it flood and dissolve the wafer into my body. The warmth floods my limbs, my heart, and my soul. I feel joy, transformation and change, even if it is just for a moment.
I need it. This season of my life is difficult in so many different ways. Very often, joy seems to have taken the last train, giving me the finger as it rides out of town. But every time I go to Mass to eat Christ’s body and drink His blood, joy returns.
Some might say that’s the wine talking, not the Blood of Christ. Maybe that’s because they’ve been trained to think in either/or terms instead of the both/and of Catholicism and sacramental theology. At consecration what was once only wine becomes the blood of Christ. Not only will it elevate my body, it will elevate my soul. To drink grape juice out of a plastic cup in my old Protestant days always made me feel like a preschooler who needed a cookie and a nap. There’s no real transformational joy there–not intoxicating moment–at least, not for me.
I can’t wait for Christmas Eve, when I will walk to the altar and hear the Eucharistic Minister say, “The Blood of Christ,” as she offers me the cup. I’ll say amen, yes, it is. I’ll let the Blood of Christ inebriate me as I celebrate the Lord of Creation born in the shit and the straw. For me. For everyone. For the entire creation.
Give me the wine. And the joy, for a little while.