Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Blessing Grapes in Winter?

Don't you hate it when you stumble over something "new," only to discover that everybody else already knows about it?  We had that experience this morning, thumbing through an online edition of a post-Tridentine priest's handbook, where we stumbled upon a Transfiguration custom hitherto unknown to us.

"What's all this, then," we murmured, as we worked through the Latin.  "Blessing of the grapes?"

Two minutes of googling revealed that, yes, a Transfiguration blessing of the new-grown grapes is indeed a custom with deep roots, practiced both in the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. Fr. Zuhlsdorf gives a translation from the modern Roman rite, which is almost identical to the older one:
V. Our help is in the name of the Lord.
R. Who hath made heaven and earth.
V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with thy spirit.
Let us pray.
Bless, we beseech Thee, O Lord, this fresh [or "new"] fruit of the vine, which Thou hast graciously brought to full ripeness with the dew of heaven, abundant rain, and calm and fair weather [or "serene and tranquil times"].
Thou hast given them for our use; grant that we may receive them with thanksgiving in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the True Vine, who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost,God for ever and ever.
R. Amen.
(And they are sprinkled with holy water.)
The older version does not include "the True Vine," although it is a worthy addition.
Zulhlsdorf also offers a lovely meditation on the rite, with a focus both upon the grapes themselves and upon the "dew of heaven," an image of the Holy Spirit.

What has this to do with the Transfiguration?  It is a little hard to tell at first.  Clearly, the blessing of the grapes is a bit of a summer harvest festival; the question is whether it has anything to do with the strange events on Mt Tabor.  The Orthodox Church in America makes a connection thus:
The feast of the Transfiguration is presently celebrated on the sixth of August, probably for some historical reason. The summer celebration of the feast, however, has lent itself very well to the theme of transfiguration. The blessing of grapes, as well as other fruits and vegetables on this day is the most beautiful and adequate sign of the final transfiguration of all things in Christ. It signifies the ultimate flowering and fruitfulness of all creation in the paradise of God’s unending Kingdom of Life where all will he transformed by the glory of the Lord.
Okay.  Fruit, as it ripens, is metamorphosed -- that is, transfigured (St. Mark's word, although -- preacher taken note -- not St. Luke's).  And at the End, all of us may hope to be likewise changed.  It's certainly preachable.  Those who nurture especially strong antipathies to sanctification and eschatology might not like to go this route, but they should really read some other blog.

Then comes the big problem for modern-day Lutherans.  Although, on our calendar, the Transfiguration is clearly indicated (at least in LBW) on its traditional date of August 6, it is almost uniformly celebrated on its alternative date, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.  In other words, it is no longer a summer feast, but a winter one.  Here in the northern hemisphere, at least, the grapes are a long freaking way from "full ripeness."  Anything we were to bless come Sunday would be shipped from South America and purchased at the Super Krogers.  The connection between God's work in bringing our crops to fruition and God's work in transforming us and our world is a bit more difficult to sustain.

Does this mean that, by deciding back in the 1970s to arbitrarily and un-ecumenically transfer a Feast of Our Lord, we have deprived ourselves of a sweet and useful tradition?  Hint:  the answer is yes.

Still, the tradition can be saved, if we want to save it.  Ideally, we could all simply give up the annoying custom of observing the Transfiguration on Quinquagesima.  This solves the problem in a straightforward and ecumenical fashion.  Failing, that, though -- if we really desire to let our liturgical life be governed by those accursed Celebrate inserts -- we need to exercise creativity.  We should probably not bless wine, since its metamorphosis is as much a human work as a divine one.  Ditto raisins.  But perhaps we could bless some winter fruit -- beets or squash.  Or we could simply bless the foreign grapes, rejoicing that they are in season somewhere.  

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