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Saint John, Wine and Snakes

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Why the Snake in the Chalice? 

Q: From my position in the choir loft I am in a direct line of vision with a painting of Saint John the Evangelist. The painting depicts Saint John holding a chalice with his right hand, and his left hand touching his chest. Out of the chalice is rising an unmistakable green snake! Its position is such that it looks as if the snake has just bitten or will bite Saint John’s left hand.

Why does Saint John have a snake in his chalice? I’ve asked many people, and nobody knows.

A: In at least some religious houses on December 27, the Feast of Saint John, the religious superior blesses wine which is then drunk at the meal. The old Roman Ritual contained a blessing of wine for this feast. This commemorates the legend that once, while at Ephesus, John was given a cup of poisoned wine to drink. Before drinking, he blessed the cup and the poison departed the cup in the form of a serpent.

According to Francis X. Weiser in the Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (Harcourt Brace), as late as 1952 Catholics in Central Europe brought wine and cider to church for blessing on the feast of St. John. They then took it home and some of them poured a bit of the blessed wine or cider into every barrel in the cellar.

The blessed wine is called by some the “love of Saint John.” In some places the bride and groom at a wedding are given a sip to drink. In other cases a sip of the wine is given to a dying person as a sacramental.

Blessing of a Home

Q: I would like information on the proper way to have a home blessed. What does it entail and who performs it?

A: The Roman Ritual (Book of Blessings) provides blessings of a home for two occasions. One is the blessing of a new home which can be done at any time. The other is a blessing for homes during the Christmas season, especially on the feast of the Epiphany, and the Easter season.

The directives for both situations say a priest, deacon or layperson may perform the blessings. If a layperson gives the blessing, the person is to use the rites and prayers designated for a lay minister.

The Book of Blessings directs that the blessing should not be given unless those who live in the home are present—you don’t just bless empty living quarters.

How do you arrange for the blessing? You call your parish priest and simply ask if he will come and bless your home. You can make as much of the occasion as you or he wishes. You can offer some refreshment or invite him for dinner if you wish. If he is blessing a number of homes at the same time, he may simply want to perform the blessing and move to the next home.

In the event a priest or deacon is unable to come to the home, I see nothing to keep the head of the household from blessing the home in the presence of the family.

Kneelers in Church

Q: When did kneelers come into common use in churches?

A: When asked your question, liturgist Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., replied, “I would refer you to The Postures of the Assembly During the Eucharistic Prayer, by John K. Leonard and Nathan D. Mitchell (Liturgy Training Publications), regarding the practice of kneeling at prayer.

“Regarding kneelers as furniture, I would presume they were relatively late. Originally there were no pieces of furniture for the ‘circumstantes’ (those standing about), simply a chair for the president. As a concession to the infirm, stone seats began to be attached to pillars, or to the walls. By the end of the 13th century many churches in England appear to have some wooden benches—often called pews.

“When kneelers began to be attached to the pews, I do not know. Pews become common as printing becomes more common and we pass from a manuscript culture [where books were rare and more often heard than read] to a print culture [with wide distribution of books]. People line up in pews in churches as words line up on a page.

“As public worship expresses who we are as a community in the presence of God, I find it interesting that Leonard and Mitchell say, ‘It is not for no reason that the Orthodox have been characterized as “the Church standing,” the Roman Catholics as “the Church kneeling” and the Protestants as “the Church sitting.”‘

“‘These basic bodily postures communicate a great deal about the self-identity of these Christian communions. Though none of these postures is exclusive to the Church that it characterizes, each one tells us something about basic attitudes: standing as praising God with upright bodies, kneeling as an act either of adoration or of penitence, and sitting as an act of receptivity, listening and participating in a common meal. Each posture certainly has its advantages, and each makes a great deal of difference in the self-understanding of the Church.'”

What Is Excommunication?

Q: What is excommunication and what are the grounds for it?

A: There are two kinds of excommunications. One takes place by a public statement of the proper authority—John Doe is excommunicated because ________. We call this an imposed or declared excommunication. The second kind of excommunication is incurred ipso facto or latae sententiae. That means if you commit a certain crime or sin (and if all the conditions under law are present), you are by that very fact excommunicated.

All excommunications are meant to be medicinal. They are a kind of shock therapy intended to make sinners aware of the seriousness of their sin and their spiritual condition and call them to conversion.

An excommunicated person (Canon #133) is forbidden: 1) to have any ministerial part in the celebration of the sacrifice of the Eucharist or any other ceremonies of public worship; 2) to celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals and to receive the sacraments; 3) to exercise any ecclesiastical offices, ministries or acts of governance.

Some other provisions of the law forbid the exercise of certain privileges, outlaw the reception of any dignity, office or function in the Church, and invalidate acts of governance.

Automatic excommunication is incurred for the following sins: 1) apostasy, (ipso facto) heresy, schism (Canon #1364,1); 2) violation of the sacred species (Canon #1307); 3) physical attack on the pope (Canon #1370,1); 4) absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the Sixth Commandment (Canon #1378,1); 5) unauthorized ordination of a bishop (both the one ordaining and the one ordained are excommunicated) (Canon #1382); 6) direct violation by a confessor of the seal of confession (Canon #1388); 7) procuring an abortion (Canon #1398); 8) recording by a technical instrument or divulging in the communications media what was said by a confessor or a penitent in sacramental confession whether performed by oneself or another (added in 1988).

Because excommunication is a medicinal penalty, it must be absolved when the person truly repents. Sometimes remission of the penalty is reserved to the Holy See, for example, when a confessor directly violates the seal of confession. The usual place to begin the process for removing the excommunication is in the Sacrament of Confession or with the authority who imposed the excommunication.