A January 16 reflection from Michael McLoughlin in America magazine talked about the need for new wineskins that can hold new wine—in particular, the wine of change and redemption which Christ offers us in the New Testament.
The piece pointed us to notes that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had written for a sermon in 1954. They fit perfectly with the Gospel reading about wineskins for Martin Luther King Day 2023. Those notes show the civil rights leader’s wonderfully creative and connective mind; they spotlight a great blessing, and responsibility, namely receiving a gift.
Pope John Paul II cited receptivity as one of the key elements of the “feminine genius,” which he discussed in his 1988 apostolic letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.
Receptivity is a trait possessed by persons—and also by societies. The dictionary defines it as “the ability, willingness, or quickness to receive or accept ideas, requests, experiences, etc.”
This openness is powerful, not passive, because accepting ideas, heeding requests, and undergoing new experiences is often hard work. It disrupts the status quo and requires some kind of reset. We might call such willingness “reset-tivity,” and we should acknowledge that resets, great or not, are likely to be long-term undertakings that build upon an existing foundation.
The acceptance of new wine as a delightful gift requires the preparation and caretaking of new wineskins. Dr. King, in writing his sermon, pondered that there are times in history when circumstances are ripe for change, when a whole population is poised at a turning point that must be faced wisely.
It appears Dr. King had hope that America was entering such a time in the 1950s: People knew the status quo, in race relations and in the accompanying dilemmas of inequality and marginalization, was unacceptable. But he knew his message, which was coming from the Gospel itself, would require a long, hard journey of reconstruction. It could only happen if we love one another and hold on to the best qualities in ourselves.
As with persons, a society must be receptive and proactive in order to learn from, and integrate, the wisdom of Christ who desires to make all things new. One hopes a culture that has been evangelized to pursue wisdom will be open to the elevated, transcendent insights which God offers us in time.
Dr. King brought Americans a new insight about ways to overcome racial division in light of the need to overcome divisions in the human family based on income, class, power, pride, fear, and hatred. As he indicated explicitly later in his career, he knew the nation’s capacity for a sweeping overhaul would require unusual leadership–people with dreams, not merely with complaints or vague blueprints.
Our society has benefited from the seeds of Godly wisdom Dr. King planted, but it has not yet been sufficiently receptive to let those seeds blossom fully into the necessary institutional structures and practices, as well as personal habits of the heart. Those take time, talent, vision, and vigor to build.
We must rededicate ourselves to prepare new wineskins that can preserve and distribute the blessings of love, respecting the dignity of all and enriching the content of our character. Our present day seems to contain all the chaos and discontent that would signal big change ahead.
But the chaos also reveals flaws in our character. We need leaders who embrace the Good News as a guide for the path ahead. The public square is dominated by loud voices shouting bad news about our structures and ourselves.
Without faith and hope, without an appreciation for the power of new wine to renew us, many of us say the only way forward is to disrupt much of the progress we have made or to destroy institutions with ephemeral urges to start from scratch:
Dump the old wine! Do away with wineskins! They’re only crude satchels made of leather! Start fresh with some new elixir of happiness, maybe a new recipe, perhaps one stored in modern cardboard boxes with handy spouts!
Instead, we must have the humble self-confidence, patience, and common sense to prepare new wineskins, knowing what will work and dismissing what will fail. During the transitions of attitude and aptitude that inevitably emerge from time to time, we can continue drinking the wine of blessings already received; God will even see to it, as Jesus did at Cana, that we receive surprising, joyful previews of the new wine that will fulfill our faith. That should urge us on toward constructive, peaceful changes which benefit us all.
One website that discusses wineskins qua wineskins instructs us to be careful as we get ready.
“Due to their unique nature, a wineskin requires some initial care and maintenance for maximum use,” says an article posted at leaf.tv. It continues:
“A wineskin is made of organic material [such as goatskin]; it takes some preparation and maintenance by the owner. Before pouring in the first amount of wine to store, the wineskin must be heated, rubbed, inflated, rinsed with water, and filled with wine for five days, which is then discarded. Then, the wineskin can be used for storing drinking wine.”
Dr. King saw that true receptivity to the message he was preaching must engage both the mind and the heart–both the intellect and emotions, as he put it. We must personally greet the change promised in the Gospels by offering God our delight in the new hope he offers, in tandem with a society that is organically geared for stability, kindness, and effort.
Our imagination must be well-grounded, like Dr. King’s. Then we can toast to what we receive and share it with all who see that the table has been set for a feast.
Image from ClipSafari, an online collection of Creative Commons designs.