New Wine and New Wineskins

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One must put new wine into new wineskins. Also, no one drinking old wine prefers new wine, for he says, “The old wine is good..”

Luke 5: 38-9

Many years ago when first working with young people in formation situations, I became amazed at how quickly for them given ways of doing things became “traditions.” If during their first year the holiday menu contained certain items, then the following year or years it became very important to them to “follow the tradition” by including those foods. When new members would be added, they would be immediately informed of the traditions of the community by those who had joined a mere twelve months earlier. Most of us know the the aphorism: “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” We also are well aware that the greatest obstacle to overcome the suffering involved in deformative and damaging habits is a person’s refusal to give them up. It is striking to see how we unconsciously cling to our suffering rather than risk giving it up. Life is replete with experiences of the truth of Jesus’ saying:  “No one drinking old wine prefers new wine, for such a person says, ‘The old wine is good.'”

It is not easy for us human beings to distinguish between what is foundational and what is accidental, what is at the core of identity and what is merely a given temporary expression of it. We see throughout the gospels Jesus’ attempt to illustrate to those he is teaching that the Word he brings is both continuous and original. The greatest challenge, however, comes in dialogue with those for whom the current understandings have been a source of comfort, status, and power.

In the course of our own formation each of us appropriates the form traditions in which we live in various ways:  as mere imitation, as a source of self-identity,  for the sake of conformity and acceptance, as a source of status and power within the community of adherents. Form traditions, however, are also potentially the source of foundational wisdom directives that establish the milieu in which persons can come to know and to live out their own true originality. In their deepest significance, the given expressions of a tradition are of their nature partial and temporary. The external forms are always in service of the deeper truths of which they are contingent expressions. The mistake of those whom Jesus addresses in today’s gospel, as of the young people who reified the “long-standing” traditions of the community, is to confuse the accidentals for the foundational realities. This tendency, “the old wine is good,” to hold firm to what is passing, is a universal one.

St Paul writes to the Romans these memorable words:  “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8: 38-9)   The fact that everything created, including ourselves, passes away is an affront to our egos. We want a permanence that is not of the nature of things. What is permanent is the life and love out of which all comes and to which all returns. If we hold on and do not abandon ourselves to the flow of reality, we cannot know and experience the love that transcends every manifestation of it. To refuse change is, at the level of spirit, to die. We only live when we are willing to die to each and every thing that we take to constitute our life.

This means that to do God’s will is to release into the flow of life, to attend openly and willingly to what the rising and falling of all forms asks of us. In a recent address to the General Chapter of the Schoenstatt Fathers, Pope Francis spoke of two necessary pillars for the full living out of a charismatic call:  contemplation and “taking the pulse of the time, of reality, of persons.” Grounded in prayer and union with God, we are then called to attend to the current reality before us, trusting that God is present there, as always, and that our attending to that new mode of God’s presence will allow us to be servants of God’s will in ways that are both continuous and original.

The second pillar is constituted by the expression: “take the pulse of the time,” of reality, of persons. One must not be afraid of reality, and reality must be taken as it comes, like the goalkeeper when the ball is kicked and from there, from there, from where it comes, he tries to intercept it. The Lord waits for us there, He communicates and reveals himself to us there. They are not two different ears, one for God and the other for reality. When we meet with our brothers, especially with those who in our eyes or in the eyes of the world are less agreeable, what do we see? Do we realize that God loves them, who have the same flesh that Christ assumed or do we remain indifferent to their problems? What is the Lord asking of us in that situation? To take the pulse of reality requires contemplation, a familiar relation with God, constant prayer, so often boring but which ends in service. In prayer we learn not to look away from Christ who suffers in his brothers. In prayer we learn to serve.

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