From torment to ornament

Holy Week is approaching, and with it comes some beautiful, somber hymns. One of my favourites is Go To Dark Gethsemane. There’s a line in the second stanza that always sticks out to me as particularly potent metaphor for Jesus’ trial in the garden: “O, the wormwood and the gall!” This bitter duo has made it into a few hymns, actually; they’re notably wrapped around the triumphant melody of All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name, too.

Some commentators speculate that the bitter wine offered to Jesus on the cross was infused with wormwood, though I don’t think there’s any definitive scriptural evidence to support that – and besides, he didn’t drink it anyway. Wormwood, a green-grey herbaceous perennial, is used as an image throughout the Bible to describe very bitter situations, and I suspect that’s likely what the hymn writer had in mind. 

Regardless of what was on the sponge that Roman soldier held aloft, wormwood has found its way into all sorts of strong drinks over the centuries. Vermouth, the famous fortified wine, is actually named after the stuff; vermouth being a French pronunciation of vermut, the German word for the plant. Vermouth generally evokes images of old Italian nonnos sitting on a sunny café patio somewhere, sipping a glass to stir their appetite. Hardly a scene of scandal and suffering.
Recalling the plant’s Latin name, though – artemisia absinthium – might remind you of another spirit with the opposite reputation. Absinthe, the anise-flavoured, potent green spirit that scandalized Belle Époque Europe. Legends abound about the ways absinthe fueled cultural decadence and drove artists to madness; the most notorious one being the fate of Vincent van Gogh’s ear, removed while on an absinthe bender.

Absinthe had such a nasty effect on Europe’s convivial culture because it contained wormwood, which contains hallucinogenic compounds, which, when consumed in excess, led to all sorts of psychoactive depravity. Or so the story goes, anyway. The trouble is, it’s just not true. There’s no scientific evidence that absinthe, or the wormwood therein, makes for a drink that’s more dangerous than any other. But like any other drink, it can certainly cause bitter havoc if we let it. Such is the case with all of God’s gifts, whether sex, money or spirits. 

Minor chords transposed
But these gifts can be redeemed, too! Absinthe is totally legal these days, and is beginning to shed its undeserved reputation. You can find a bottle where’er fine spirits are sold. If you find yourself one evening at some candlelit soirée, and you see a bottle on the counter, here’s something you can do with it:

Take a lowball glass out of the freezer where you’ve been storing it, and dribble a little absinthe into it. Just a dribble. Now, deftly roll the glass over and over so the absinthe coats the inside. Plop a sugar cube into another, taller glass, and shake one dash of Angostura bitters, and two dashes of Peychaud’s bitters onto the cube. Smush that cube with a muddler or spoon, until the sugar is mostly dissolved. Add two ounces of rye whiskey, and four or five ice cubes. Stir until cold. Pour this into the absinthe coated glass, leaving the ice behind. Take a small strip of lemon peel, twist it over the glass, and drop it in.

You’ve just made a cocktail called a “Sazerac,” which is the pride of New Orleans (well, maybe second to Louis Armstrong). It is bright, sprightly, alive. 

More importantly, you have in your hand a splendid stimulus for some theological reflection. In the Easter season of AD 411, St. Augustine preached a sermon on the nature of the resurrection body, in which he stated that the tormentum in our flesh will become ornamentum at the resurrection. Our torments will become ornaments; this strikes me as a great mystery. They’ll still be there, like the holes in our saviour’s hands, but they’ll be different, transposed, transfigured, somehow. All those bitter cups life brings us, steeped with wormwood and gall, will take on a new character in a new context, like a minor chord in a triumphant hymn, like that dribble of bitter absinthe coating the sides of your glass. Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine! 

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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