Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.  [Matthew 9:17]

Nobody drinks aged wine and immediately wants to drink young wine. Young wine is not poured into old wineskins, or they might break, and aged wine is not poured into a new wineskin, or it might spoil. [Gospel of Thomas 47]

History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today. [Henry Ford]

History is a people’s memory, and without a memory, man is demoted to the lower animals. [El Malik el Shabbaz (Malcolm X)]

WineskinAfter some decades of bandying about the phrase “New Wine”, meaning the “Exciting, relevant, latest, greatest thing that God is doing” I have been brought short in my tracks by a reading from the Gospel of Thomas. The assumption I have held is that new wine (meaning new content) is better than old, and that new wineskins (new forms) are better than the old.

However I enjoy wine enough to understand that generally speaking, aged wine is finer. The party animals of Jesus’ day, concur. It is mellower, smoother, and the product of nature’s processes. New wine is generally an easier product as it does not take up space for extended periods of time. So old wine is a symbol of quality, and stands against the cheapening contemporary trend towards profit making and comodification we find in any “eminently quaffable Vin Lite“.

I have assumed all along that Jesus stands for “New Wine”, a revelation of Grace, and against the Old, the dispensation of Law. Also I assumed that with the new wine it was necessary to use new wineskins. This for example meant that if you had a revelation of the “Charismatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit”, (non condo bondo shondo, rikki tikki ninga nuum), you should then create spaces in your “liturgy” for that.

So no longer did you adhere to the program of the hymn-sermon-hymn sandwich, but you made room for spontaneous prayer, song, insights, prophesies, readings, dance etc. and tried to go with the flow not merely the established pattern. So, in the church, acoustic guitars replaced the organ in the 70’s, then in the 90’s came the U2-charist, and rave worship, for example.

But now I am not so sure. Maybe Jesus was in fact pro-Old wine. His concern in Matthew seems to be with the wineskin more than the wine. Certainly he rejected the religion of the Pharisees, but that was primarily a stand against hypocrisy and the righteousness of law. And when he says “both are preserved” is he referring to old wine and new wine, or old wine and old wineskins?

Thomas’ rendition makes me even less certain of my old assumptions. The first half, “Young wine is not poured into old wineskins, or they might break” seems to be concerned about old wineskins, while the second half “aged wine is not poured into a new wineskin, or it might spoil” is mostly concerned with old wine. So is Thomas confirming Jesus’ preference for the old?

RedFrom my current point of view, where I embrace traditions with a new understanding that tradition is not bad of itself, in fact we are in the West very affected by the “cult of the new”. Henry Ford, a preeminent symbol of modernity, shows us in the above quote just how debased our thinking can become when we put Progress on the throne of life.

In more contemplative traditions, this tendency is far less apparent. What matters here is the acknowledgment of centuries-old practices, rituals and creeds. The novel and the current are seen as mere eddies at the edges of the broader main stream, and are of little concern.

So, I have come to see the following concerning tradition:

  1. It is not bad merely because it is old. This view, that of “contemporary chauvinism” is a relatively new phenomenon, prevalent for perhaps only just over a hundred years.
  2. Much of the enduring content of faith is that which has stood the test of time.
  3. The main thing to ask about a tradition is the question of quality, not the measure of time. 
  4. Truth appears in all traditions. I for one consider myself heterodox; an Orthodox view tends to see ONE tradition, for example Catholicism, as the one true tradition.  

Malcolm X, growing up in the whirl of baby-boom, racist America, rejected the culture and spirituality that resulted from Fords vision. He embraced radical Islam, and he lived and died for his faith. He reminds us of the power of remembering. To re-member means to bring together afresh.

So perhaps Jesus was suggesting that as we move towards a future, the quality of the life for which we hope, will be found in our gathering and re-integrating that which is noble, fine, and mellowed, whilst allowing culture and spirituality to naturally evolve and emerge. Both what is new and what is ancient need to be finding their right places alongside one another.