Mead: Remedy for Self Righteousness

Last Saturday night, I stood in a pulpit and urged my congregation to go home and drink a bottle of wine. I was preaching at Chipping Congregational Church. It was packed out for the chapel anniversary. So why would I make such a comment?? I must admit, I half-expected a rebuke from the older and wiser folk present; as it happened, they understood the point I was making, or decided I was a lost cause and kept quiet.

I was describing some of the false gospels and heresies that started to invade the New Testament church. My text was from Acts 20:29: I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. One such heresy was asceticism ("Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” Col 2:21) and I suggested that anyone like me who abstained from alcohol but did so thinking that it made them holy or worthier of salvation was sadly mistaken. It would be far better for such a one to go home and finish a bottle of wine than to remain teetotal but self-righteous.

To ensure that I was not too smug about my own abstinence, I located a bottle of mead from my cupboard the following Monday. Some good folk had bought me it last summer and it had lain there unnoticed and ignored. I opened it and poured it into a pint glass. Mead is an ancient beverage made by fermenting honey with water, sometimes with various fruits, spices and grains. It was quaffed by the Greeks and Romans as well as by the Saxons on our own shores. Monks excelled at making it, the holy men of Lindisfarne becoming quite famous on its account. The Roman writer Columella’s recipe is here:

Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius of this water with a pound of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.

-De Re Rustica, circa AD 60. 

As far as I am aware, mead was not consumed by peoples of the Bible, but honey, its chief ingredient was: 

My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste. (ESV, Proverbs 24:13).

Although the flavour was sweet and its smell wholesome, being so unused to alcohol I could only manage a third of the pint. The remainder was poured on the flags to either cleanse the surface or feed the ants, I couldn’t decide which. The (rinsed) empty bottle was gainfully reemployed as a container in which clematis cuttings might take root. All in all, a profitable afternoon: one bottle of mead, partially unwasted; a set of cuttings, nicely housed; a soul liable to self-righteousness, momentarily defeated.