April 08, 2007
It wasn”t so long ago that Lent was a serious business. Catholics who marked the season before Vatican II will recall complex rules of fast and abstinence, which forbade meat on Wednesdays as well as Fridays, and on the eves of major holy days. Indeed, it was only in the 20th century, by special papal indult, that Catholics were reluctantly permitted cheese. Less rigorous rules applied in Advent, which was (curiously) deemed a season of penance rather than shopping. Things were even stricter during the Middle Ages, when married couples were expected to sleep separately for 40 days (excluding Sundays”which today would just wreak havoc with Natural Family Planning). Indeed, children born at Christmas time, nine months after Lent, were frowned upon by the superstitious as the fruit of their parents” sin. Such strict rules, of monastic origin, still apply to Eastern Rite and Eastern Orthodox Christians. (Then again, in the Christian East there is not the same concept of “mortal sin,” so most people simply ignore them. Catholics of Irish descent or schooling realize that occasions of mortal sin lie at every bend in the road, like IEDs in liberated Iraq”so we tread carefully, shoot first, and ask questions later.)
While some of this seems excessive to us today, it did serve the purpose of emphasizing each sinner’s solidarity with Jesus fasting in the desert. It prepared us to take Holy Week seriously. And it made Easter something more than an uptick on the sales charts of the milk-chocolate industry. Instead, it was like the last day of a very bad school”a feast of liberation, an end to dreary rules, celibacy, and fish-sticks. You can see why this would inspire the brewing of Easter beer. The monks themselves were often the ones tending the barrels. Among the breweries of monastic origin or ownership which still produce a special Easter brew are the Belgian St-Feuillien, St. Bernardus and Grimbergen. Like Christmas ale, Easter beers are often flavored with spices or hints of fruit, but they are lighter and simpler, more like the lagers with which Americans are (all too) familiar. They go well with a roast pork, ham, or Easter Bunny Fricassee (for recipe, see my guide to the liturgical calendar and saints, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living).
There’s a deeper level at which it makes perfect sense to brew a special batch to celebrate the Resurrection. We find this insight in “Christ, a Quickening Spirit,” an Easter sermon preached by that most sober Christian, John Henry Newman. There Newman points out that Jesus was not raised by the Father from the dead, or newly infused (as at His conception) by the Holy Ghost. In fact, Jesus was immune to death. It could claim Him for a little while, long enough for Him to descend into the underworld and “harrow Hell,” reclaiming for Heaven the souls of all the just men who”d lived before Him. But as Newman wrote:
St. Peter says, that it “was not possible that He should be holden of death;” [Ps. 16:10. Acts 2: 24, 27) as if there were some hidden inherent vigour in Him, which secured His manhood from dissolution. The greatest infliction of pain and violence could only destroy its powers for a season; but nothing could make it decay…. immortal even in His mortal nature, clear from all infection of the forbidden fruit, so far as to be sinless and incorruptible. Therefore, though He was liable to death, “it was impossible He should be holden” of it. Death might overpower, but it could not keep possession; “it had no dominion over Him.” (Romans 6: 9) He was, in the words of the text, “the Living among the dead.”
At this point, you might be wondering what all this has to do with beer. The answer is yeast. That miraculous microorganism is responsible for turning a bucket of grain and water into beloved brew. Without it, nothing happens” there’s no inherent power in malt or barley to ferment itself. You need yeast to raise the spirit. Christ Himself compared the soul to a grain of wheat (John 12:24), and the kingdom of heaven to yeast (Luke 13:21). This yeast is the Gospel, which Jesus didn”t need to hear, as He didn”t require outside help to rise from the dead. We, on the other hand, need all the help we can get.
From The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey and Song, by John Zmirak.