Written by Joe Lenow, Rector of St. James’ Episcopal Parish in Lothian, Maryland.
Joe is Pastor Larry’s son.
“Why are your robes red, and your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?”
“I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year for my redeeming work had come.”
There’s an image that’s been seared into my memory by too many adolescent re-watchings of 2000’s Gladiator: it’s Russell Crowe with a sword in each hand, spattered with the blood of his enemies, declaring vengeance against those who have wronged him. I think of that whenever I read this passage from Isaiah—the hero of Israel coming over the horizon, seen hazily at first but approaching to tell the people they have been liberated from those who would conquer and oppress him. The day of vengeance has come: his robes are darkened with the blood of Israel’s persecutors, stained like the robes of one who has been treading on grapes in a giant tub to make wine. The grapes of the Lord’s wrath have been pressed: the enemies of Israel have been defeated; the people have been freed, restored to the worship of the Lord.
I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the fact that this image has been associated with Jesus from some of the earliest days of Christianity. Those themes are there in the life of Jesus, of course. At the Annunciation, traditionally observed March 25, Mary sings that God “has shown the strength of His arm, He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.” St. Paul writes in Romans 6 that we have been crucified with Christ, our “old self” put to death so that “we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” Revelation 19:13 is most explicit in connecting Jesus to this passage in Isaiah: “He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.” But this image is so violent, so grim; is this really how we’re supposed to imagine the All-Merciful Redeemer of the world?
Here’s the thing: when early Christian writers turned to this text, the part that interested them most wasn’t the warrior—it was the grapes. It was the grapes pressed to the point of bursting, their juices poured out on the pavement to make wine. It was the juices that get everywhere, staining everything they touch. And it was the solitary figure, bearing the weight of God’s redemption alone as he works in the presses. For the early Church, this passage from Isaiah is an image of Eucharist: God’s victory over sin and death is accomplished by the Savior who treads the winepress alone, but just as importantly, is the grapes—by the one who, pressed by weight of the world’s darkness, redeems us by giving himself to us as wine. This image tells us that we do see the wrath of God on the Cross, and there is a victory accomplished there. God makes no compromise with evil; the violence and oppression that so define the world around us today are given no quarter in the Kingdom of God, but are annihilated totally. Whatever is sinful in us, the “old self” about which Paul speaks, is put to death fully and finally on the Cross. But the manner in which Christ accomplishes this is unexpected: by giving himself as the grapes to be crushed by the weight of the world’s sin; by pouring out his own body and blood, giving himself to us in bread and wine and nourishing a new life in us. What we need is to be cast down, overcome by the power of God. That’s what makes us truly free.