One of the most surprising things of my adult life has been to meet Christians who don’t drink alcohol. Such a position, frankly, boggles my mind. Indeed, “boggling” might be inaccurate, as I’m not even sure my mind can get to the stage of being boggled about this topic. It’s just so remote from my understanding of the world, such a view just bounces right off of my mind.
As a child growing up in a very Germanic part of Kansas, every person I knew drank. Well, that is, the adults did, and kids were always given sips of whatever the adults were drinking. Not only was my mother’s father’s mother a bootlegger (gin) in the 1920s, but I remember each of my grandparents in the 1970s and 1980s always having cold beer in the fridge, awaiting any visitor to the house. It would have been terribly rude not to offer someone a drink. The beer, sadly, was generally Coors, but such was life in a state neighboring Colorado. And, because the farmers (good, wholesome Kansas wheat farmers) upheld the commandment to rest on the Sabbath, the men–at least on my father’s side–spent Sunday afternoons in the one pub in Odin, Kansas, across the street from the Catholic parish. While I’m sure some of my relatives and their friends drank to excess, I certainly never remember drunkenness–drinking was done in moderation, socially, as a part of the culture.
When I arrived in Hillsdale, way back in fall of 1999, I was simply stunned to meet students who thought drinking a sin, and a rather serious one. Really? Jesus drank, I replied, in total earnestness (now, 12 years later, I give this same answer with intentional mirth and mischievousness).
“Oh no, Dr. Birzer,” came the equally earnest response from my tea-totaler Christian students, “Jesus’ first miracle was to create really strong grape drink at Cana.”
Perhaps to my shame, I just started laughing the first time a student told me this. Obviously, their answer was given in total innocence. Any parent (and I assume ALL of us have done this from time to time) who has ever left out a sippy cup of grape juice knows, with certainty, that fermentation begins almost immediately. But, additionally, why the very same people who claim a literal interpretation of the Bible on almost everything, always exclude “turning water into wine” and “this is my body and this is my blood,” is also beyond my view of the world. No, of course, I’m told, it really was strong grape drink, and what Jesus meant to say was “this is a symbol of my body and a symbol of my blood.”
Hmm. . . but the earth was certainly created in six days?
Importantly, can any person who’s traveled to any part of the Christian or Jewish Mediterranean imagine a world absent of olive oil, bread, or wine? Should it surprise any modern Christian that these three very important parts of ancient Mediterranean culture have become, at least in part, sacred in the rites of the Christian Church? Should we be surprised that Jesus’ first miracle was one of social graces? Not driving out demons, not raising the dead, but creating an abundance (filled to the brim) of the best wine at a Jewish wedding feast?
Tomorrow, June 5, is the feast of the patron saint of the father’s side of my family, the feast of St. Boniface. St. Boniface was beheaded 1,257 years ago, while attempting to preach to a group of Germanic pagans. Not only is he a vital figure in the history of western Christianity, he’s equally important in broader Anglo-Saxon history and western civilization.
Christopher Dawson, the brilliant English-Welsh Roman Catholic historian of the twentieth century, argued that understanding the life and teachings of St. Boniface was the key to understanding the origins of Europe.
When encountering a Hessen tribe worshipping an oak tree dedicated to the Norse god Thor, St. Boniface promptly grabbed an axe and cut down the tree. According to legend, the tree exploded into four parts at the first touch of the axe’s blade. Much to the surprise of the chagrined Hessians, Thor remained aloof and the intruder went unpunished.
“But when he had made a superficial cut, suddenly the oak’s vast bulk, shaken by a mighty blast of wind from above, crashed to the ground shivering its topmost branches into fragments in its fall,” a posthumous account recorded. “As if by the express will of God (for the brethren present had done nothing to cause it) the oak burst asunder into four parts, each part having a trunk of equal length.”
Awed, the Barbarians were ready to listen.
Legend tells that in the spot of the felled oak, an evergreen instantly sprang forth from the ground, and Boniface’s followers placed candles on it so that Boniface could preach the Gospel late into the night, thus creating the tradition of the Christmas tree.
Closely studying the exploits of the intrepid saint, Dawson proclaimed St. Boniface “a man who had a deeper influence on the history of Europe than any Englishman who has ever lived.” In his Medieval Essays, Dawson took this even further. His many accomplishments almost give Boniface “the right to be called the founder of medieval Christendom.”
Perhaps providentially, every significant moment in Boniface’s life corresponded with a further Islamic incursion into Christian Europe. “During the generation before the birth of St. Boniface the whole of the Christian East had been conquered” and Byzantium almost fell. When he was a “monk at Nursling in 711-713[,] Spain was being conquered by the Saracens, and while he was beginning his mission to Germany the Saracens were beginning their invasions of France.”
Boniface’s genius came from his realization that Christian Europe would need a Christianized German people to serve as a barrier to the growing Islamic threat in the South. He also needed the protection of the powerful Martel family in the Frankish regions. Each, then, would allow the classical documents, classical tradition, and Christian scriptures to remain protected in the relative safety of the British Isles. Boniface was a diplomat as well as a spiritual figure, who attempted to infuse Christianity into barbarian culture.
The work of St. Boniface did more than any other fact to lay the foundations of medieval Christendom. His mission to Germany was not an isolated spiritual adventure like the achievements of his Celtic predecessors; it was part of a far-sighted programme of construction and reform planned with all the method and statesmanship of the Roman tradition. It involved a triple alliance between the Anglo-Saxon missionaries, the Papacy, and the family of Charles Martel, the de facto rulers of the Frankish kingdom, out of which the Carolingian Empire and the Carolingian culture ultimately emerged.
Like all good men, Dawson argued, Boniface surrendered his own will and became “a servant rather than a master of his age. . . accepting every charge and never attempting to impress his personality on the course of history.”
Though eventually martyred for his selfless and Grace-filled efforts, St. Boniface succeeded in creating what we would now recognize as the beginnings of Europe, a synthesis of the classical, Christian, and Germanic.
His contributions in the formation of Christian Europe are equaled only by St. Gregory the Great and St. Benedict. Fulda, established by Boniface, remained a center of European evangelization long after Boniface’s martyrdom.
As the Archbishop of Canterbury eulogized in the year of Boniface’s death, 754, “We recall the wondrous—nay, the ineffable—grace of God and render thanks that the English people were found worthy, foreigners as they are, to send this gifted student of heavenly learning, this noble soldier of Christ, with many pupils well taught and trained, to far-off spiritual conflicts and for the salvation of many souls through the grace of Almighty God.”
Since his death, Boniface has been celebrated by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans, and he is regarded as a patron of Germans and brewers.
Happy and Joyous Beer
In my family, my brother, Todd, has carried on the family legacy of brewing, though, of course, it’s now perfectly legal. After two decades with Hewlitt Packard, Todd has taken up farming almost full time in western Oregon. His company, Food Forest Foods, strives to offer a proper stewardship over the land. As he explains:
At Food Forest Foods, we manage our land for the very long-term, and farm on land protected permanently in an agricultural trust. For the past twenty years (and this year), the land has been managed by the best natural and organic growing methods. We strive to farm in a way that builds ecological capital, values life diversity and, to the extent possible, is self-reliant for energy and soil fertility.
I’ve had the opportunity to see him at work. He’s brilliant. And, so is his produce.
Last year, Todd graciously shared some of his produce with me. Though I liked it all, I especially like his home brew, “Charles Carroll’s Catholic Draught” and “Russell Kirk’s Conservative Brew.” Thank you profoundly, brother Todd.
When I became really interested in brewing a few years ago (sadly, my interest has remained theoretical), I was amazed to find how noble the history of brewing is. Many styles of beers exist because of the efforts of good and hardy monks across Catholic history. Indeed, many beers celebrated various parts of the liturgical cycle and were brewed in preparation for various Catholic holy days and seasons.
One of my favorite stories comes from the history of Negra Modelo, certainly one of my favorite styles of beer. Robust and rich, Negra is a singular type of Viennese beer, first produced in 1926. When the Nazis took over Austria in the 1938 Anschluss, the family that produced Negra had to flee, and they found sanctuary in Mexico. They brewed beer, and the Nazis hated them–wow, what more could someone want in the twentieth century!?!? God bless them.
My great-grandmother, my brother, and the monks of western Europe have all followed in the footsteps of Our Lord, the greatest of all wine makers.
Not lepers, not the dead, not the possessed were the recipients of Our Lord’s first miracle–bestowed upon a newly-married couple and a family, saving each from social embarrassment and allowing the celebration to resume, not with second-rate wine, but with the finest wine. Presumably the finest wine ever produced–at least until the consecration of the wine into the blood on a Thursday evening, friends gathered, a kiss to betray, and the redemption of the world set in motion.
So tomorrow, by all means, please, please, please, raise a glass to St. Boniface, to the many, many monks of history, to my great-grandmother, and, frankly, to life.
And, thank God for the gift of enjoyment, and thank Mary for telling her son to change water into wine and let the celebration continue.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.