Today is the feast of Transfiguration in the Orthodox Church. Jesus hiked up Mt. Tabor with Peter, James, and John, and was transfigured before them so that he shone with the uncreated light of the Most Holy Trinity. Transfiguration comes near harvest time, and so a tradition has been established to bless grapes and sometimes other fruits and vegetables. There is a deep symbolism here. Grapes take their flavor from their environment—the soil and the rains where they are grown. The ripened grape is a transfiguration of the earth. The grape itself is transfigured into the Eucharist, when fruit of the vine becomes the blood of our Savior.
Yet much of this symbolism is lost in our society. The grapes my priest blessed this morning came from a store. There is a connection to the people when grapes are brought in from local growers. “This is ours.” In a way, “This is us.” “We offer the fruits of our labors to God.” But what is the fruit of our labor when we buy a bag of grapes from the grocery? Self checkout?
We no longer live in an agrarian society. While traditions should not be changed just because the times change (some changes are not good), the traditions of the church have changed with the times. (After all, every tradition started as something novel.) It is only as the once mighty institution of the Orthodox Church has found itself increasingly operating at the margins of relevance that anxiety has fostered in many an allergy to any change whatsoever.
Fundamentalism is a response to a threat. There is a story from Vedic times in ancient India that illustrates this truth. A man asked a priest if it was acceptable to eat beef. The priest replied, “Only if it is tender.” The cow was a revered symbol of Hinduism in ancient times. It only became a sacred cow when the region was conquered by invading Muslim armies. (It is also at this time that the caste system became more rigid.) Threats create anxiety, and anxiety leads to the petrification of what were once more fluid cultural identifiers. As another example, in the Orthodox Church today, icons tend to look somewhat “medieval,” even if they were painted only recently. Ironically, one can find older icons that look more like the paintings of their times. The famous theologian and iconographer Leonid Ouspensky called such icons aberrations, but they were, in fact, the progression of holy art, which were arrested by anxieties about modernity. (Ouspensky also said there was no innovation in iconography, which is clearly and demonstrably false.)
But back to grapes. In some parishes, other fruits and vegetables are blessed along with grapes. This might be something that should be universally adopted, but only under the condition that the things one brings in to be blessed come from one’s own garden. This may help to re-establish the link between our labor, the earth, and our community, a link that tends to get lost in the markets of global capitalism. Thus I am proposing a kind of “lite” innovation that helps to strengthen what was intended in the blessing of the grapes itself.
Our liturgies are agrarian in context, and some aspects of agrarianism are important components of Christian identity and spiritual formation. Our connection to the earth was established in our original vocation in the Garden of Eden. We are “tillers” and “tenders” of the earth. When we dig in the soil with our own hands, we become more of the caretakers that we were in the beginning. Furthermore, we become better caretakers of the planet, which God intends us to be, rather than its abusers, which we more often are.
Buying from the store is a part of everyday life, but maybe it is not a part that should be blessed, at least not in its current form. God only knows where the grapes that were blessed this morning came from. God only knows if the calloused hands that harvested them belonged to a child who should otherwise have been in school. If nothing else, working with our own hands helps us to think about such things when we do shop at the store, and maybe it can help us to shop more responsibly—to shop more like Christians.
Global capitalism disconnects us from the earth and from each other. My children do not like to eat chicken roasted in the oven. They prefer their chicken boneless, skinless, and in a frozen plastic bag. They do not like to be reminded that what they eat was once alive. But perhaps they should be reminded of that as much as possible. Maybe if we reminded ourselves that we were eating things that once lived and scratched and pecked at the earth, we would take greater care when we do eat. Perhaps we would eat more like we would have in the harmony of Eden (minus the dead bird, of course). Such eating would bring us a little bit closer to the New Heaven and the New Earth of the Kingdom of God.
I have nothing against a global market, per se. “The market” is just a system for the distribution of resources. Trade across borders can be a good thing. In can enrich the lives of the exporters as well as those who purchase the goods. (I mean, olive oil!). But our global markets today have become omnipresent and omnipotent systems, justifying their dominance by nothing more than the tautological insistence that they must exist as they are. Global trade today often comes at the expense of local cultures and local flavors. Something holy is lost in this. The once innumerable varieties of seeds, adapted over generations to flourish in their local environments, form a polyphonous song of praise to the Creator God’s infinite glory. Now, field after field of Roundup Ready soybeans chant to scientific ingenuity in cold and lifeless monotone.
So I think we could stand to be a bit more deliberate in thinking about how the Feast of Transfiguration ties into the transfiguration of the earth in the harvest, and we need to be more deliberate in strengthening those ties. Or to put it differently, we should pay more attention to the ways modern life has severed so many of our once taken-for-granted ties to the church in the rhythms of daily life and the yearly agricultural cycle.
This has got me thinking that I need to recover the garden I once kept, to clear away the weeds, till the soil, and plan for the next growing season. My children need to learn, and in more than just a conceptual and abstract way, that food comes from the earth and sky and rains God has given us; they need to learn how food is transfigured by the power of God, joined to their own labor, into nourishment and life.
In light of the above, we might add another layer of meaning to the already packed symbolism of the blessing of grapes described in the first paragraph. If at the Feast of Transfiguration, we would bring the fruits and vegetables from our own backyard harvests, we might begin, in a small way, to transfigure the dominance of the global market itself, to make it more like the God who loves us and who died on a cross to save us from our own wayward arrogance and pride. In this way, our buying and selling might become more human, more humane, and more holy.