A new wineskin; treasuring the old and embracing new possibilities

The Letter to the Hebrews, being read these days at Mass, contains stirring imagery that both console and challenge us. “The Word of God is alive and active, cutting more finely than any double-edged sword” (Heb 4:12).

What a dramatic image, alerting us to the real presence of God in the Holy Scriptures! Yet, I imagine that many Christians find it hard to take this truth to heart. How can words that are thousands of years old, have relevance today with war in Ukraine and inflation causing food prices to rise in shops?

It seems that the cutting edge of God’s word has become rather blunt and therefore ineffective!

But the Holy Spirit is very much alive and active, calling us to take seriously those further words of Jesus in the Gospel, that what we need is “new wine in new wineskins” (Mk 2:22). What does that entail for us today?

Presumably, the new wine stands for the message of Jesus, the good news expressed in his way of living in the Gospels. It disturbs the peace of so many of his co-religionists as they see him breaking the Sabbath, consorting with sinners, rubbing shoulders with lepers, and cleansing the Temple, among other things.

But what of the new wineskins? What could Jesus have in mind in presenting this image? I think it refers to a need for a community of disciples who will facilitate and promote his challenging message. We usually call it “Church,” but given that the Spirit blows where it wills, we could find that new wine in other bottles too!

The old community of Israel, that old wineskin, has grown rigid and hard, as seen in the growth of a stifling, oppressive legalism, symbolised in opposition to Jesus even healing on the Sabbath. The new community of the family of Jesus must be soft and flexible to accommodate the explosive nature of the gospel teaching.

Underlying this image is the fact that new wine is extremely active, producing gases that expand, pushing at the sides of the wineskin, threatening to explode if the wineskin does not go with the flow of this new energy.

The Church in every age must become a new wineskin, holding in trust the new / old wine of God’s loving message. It became new when Francis of Assisi started his movement of a return to radical gospel living. It happened again and again in the history of the Church, for example in the Second Vatican Council called by the saintly Pope John. And it is happening even now, in the Church of Pope Francis and his call for a Synod, proclaiming that the Church has to be a listening community before it can be a teaching one.

Here in Multy, in our own way, we have to imagine ourselves as a wineskin, treasuring the old ways but also embracing new possibilities, the explosive energy of the Spirit of Jesus. That message is truly intoxicating!

Kieran ofm