Blood: Agony & Allegory 3: Isaiah 63 in the Fathers

To see what the Fathers have to say about Isaiah 63:3, about God treading the winepress of wrath and staining his robes with the blood of his enemies, I have chosen to look at Robert Louis Wilken, The Church’s Bible, volume on Isaiah. Like IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, this is a chain of patristic passages, but Wilken also includes medieval writers, and his passages are longer. I find it easier to read than the former, and I do hope the project as a whole some day finds completion (if Wilken or someone from Eerdmans has wandered by, I volunteer myself to edit/translate a volume).

St Cyprian of Carthage writes:

In Isaiah the Holy Spirit bears witness to this same thing when he speaks of the Lord’s passion in the words: Why are your garments red, and your clothes as if from treading a full and well-trodden wine vat? (63:2). Can water make clothing red? In the wine vat is it water which is trodden by the feet and squeezed out by the press? Clearly wine is referred to here, so that by wine we may understand the blood of the Lord. What was made known later in the cup of the Lord was foretold by the proclamation of the prophets. It also mentions treading and pressing down, because one cannot prepare wine for drinking without the bunch of grapes first being trodden and pressed. In the same way we could not drink the blood of Christ if Christ had not first been trodden upon and pressed down and first drunk the cup that he would pass on for his believers to drink. (493-4)

St Cyprian has here not only confirmed Malcolm Guite’s statement that the Fathers interpret this blood to be that of Christ, he has taken us into the mysteries of God, to, in fact, the mystery of the Eucharist. The wine-dark blood on the garments is a type of the blood of Christ, which is itself the wine at the Eucharist. The life of the Church is caught up mystically in the death of Christ and rotates back to find itself prefigured in the words of the prophet.

Origen:

When they see his right hand dripping with blood — if one must speak this way — and his person covered with blood because of his valorous deeds, they inquire further: Why is your apparel scarlet, and your garments as if fresh from a full winepress that has been trampled down? (63:2) To which he answers: I trampled them (63:3). Indeed, this is why he had to wash his robe in wine and his garments in the blood of grapes (Gen 49:11). For after he bore our infirmities and carried our sicknesses (Isa 53:4), and after he took away the sin of the whole world (John 1:29) and had done so much good to so many, then he received the Baptism that is greater than any imagined by men, to which he alluded when he said: I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! (Luke 12:50). (494)

One last (Wilken includes several other commentators), St Gregory the Great:

Long ago Isaiah looked upon the garment of Christ, which was stained with the blood of the passion on the cross, and inquired, Why are your garments red, and your clohtes as if from a trodden winepress? (63:2). To which he answered, I alone have trodden the winepress, and of the nations no man is with me (63:3). He alone trod the winepress in which he was trodden, he who by his own power conquered the passion which he endured. For he who suffered unto death on a cross (Phil 2:8) rose from the dead in glory. And rightly is it said, And of the nations no man is with me, since those on whose behalf he came to suffer ought to have shared in his passion. But, inasmuch as that time the nations had not yet come to believe, in his passion he laments those who life he sought in that passion.

So we see here Christian vision transfigured in the light of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. Many people get uneasy about the violence of the Hebrew Bible, and they feel that somehow YHWH there is incompatible with the God and Father of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Yet the transfigured vision of Who God Is, infused with a grasp of His undying love that died for us, with a realisation that God is Jesus, that God is love, that while we were still His enemies, One of the Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us — this transfigured vision sees prophecy in new light.

One of the themes of Guite’s book, Faith, Hope and Poetry, is transfigured vision. We are invited not simply to look at but to look through. Poetry draws us not to stay our eye on the surface of the glass of the window of visible reality but to pass through it to the symbolic realm beneath. The prophetic, apocalyptic, and wisdom literature of Scripture invite us to do this most especially, for in these genres the revelation of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity is made unto us in the poetic mode, through images, through symbols, through ritual acts, through symbolic acts, through utterances resonant with multiple modes of meaning and richnesses of voice.

So we look at Isaiah 63, and at first, if we want to read the Bible as Christians, we see the Rider on the White Horse of Revelation. After all, as Miroslav Volf argues in Exclusion and Embrace, knowing that God as Christ will come to judge the nations with perfect righteousness at the eschaton is what can give us power not to take vengeance now.

This reading is not wrong.

Somehow, though, the imagery of wine and blood together, and the inevitable association of the divine figure of Isaiah 63 with God the Son, lead the Fathers to see the wine and blood as Christ’s blood, in Gethsemane, on the cross, in the Eucharist.

It is a feast of imagery, plentiful with divine truths.

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