Book Review: Can You Drink the Cup?

Book Review: Can You Drink the Cup?

Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Catholic Priest and theologian wrote a whole book about Matthew 20:20-23. The book was titled: “Can you drink the cup?” At 107 pages, it was like most of Nouwen’s books, an easy read.

Nouwen tells us of his ordination to the priesthood in 1957 in Uttrecht, Netherlands. It struck me because the only time I have taken communion from a common cup was on a visit to Uttrecht. Nouwen tells of receiving a gift from his Uncle, a retired Priest at the time, of a beautiful chalice.

Nouwen uses the metaphor of drinking wine. I enjoyed reading this book on many levels. I received my Henri Nouwen books from the library of my cousin, Gail Biller, an Evangelist in the Community of Christ, a thorough devotee of Nouwen’s works and a devout teetotaler. Reading her highlights and underlines and quote marks brought a smile to my face and added a layer of irony to the text.

Nouwen sees the Christ cup as a cup of sorrow and a cup of joy. Describing the cup of sorrow, Nouwen writes:

“Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” Jesus asked his friends. They answered yes, but had no idea what he was talking about. Jesus’ cup is the cup of sorrow, not just his own sorrow but the sorrow of the whole human race. It is a cup full of physical, mental, and spiritual anguish. It is the cup of starvation, torture, loneliness, rejection, abandonment and immense anguish. It is the cup full of bitterness. Who wants to drink it? It is the cup that Isaiah calls ‘the cup of God’s wrath. The chalice, the stupefying cup, you have drained to the dregs,” (Isaiah 51:17) and what the second angel in the Book of Revelation calls ‘the wine of retribution” (Revelation 14:8), which Babylon gave the whole world to drink.”

Nouwen uses the metaphor of drinking from the cup and suggests a paradigm for living: we need to hold the cup, lift the cup, and drink from the cup. For Nouwen, holding the cup, means examining the cup and examining our lives. “We must know what we are living,” Nouwen says. “A life that is not reflected upon is not worth living.”

Nouwen quotes Matthew’s version of the story of James and John’s desire to sit at the right and left hand of God. Matthew puts the request in the mouth of their mother, Zebedee’s wife. Of course the earlier gospel of Mark made no such reference. Mark also has Jesus asking about not just drinking the cup but being baptized with the baptism of Christ? Matthew simplifies it by focusing only on the cup. Luke ignores the entire incident. Matthew’s version thus becomes a better vehicle for Nouwen’s simple metaphor of holding the cup, lifting the cup and drinking the cup.

As a member of the Community of Christ, I could not help of thinking of our recent counsel on the question of examining our lives. President Steve Veazey offered counsel to the Community of Christ in 2010 in what is now section 164:3a-b of the book of Doctrine and Covenants:

3 a. All church members are urged to examine the depth of your baptismal commitment. Having been baptized and confirmed, become fully immersed in the servant life of Christ.

b. Live the meaning of your baptism daily as you grow in the skills and qualities of discipleship. Actively and generously support the ministries of the church, which was divinely established to restore Christ’s covenant of peace, even the Zion of your hopes.

In examining life, Nouwen expected not only a cup of sorrow, but a cup of joy. He writes “the cup of life is the cup of joy as much as it is the cup of sorrow.” Nouwen is able to write about drinking wine as perhaps only a European can. He captures, the casualness, naturalness and joy of life that comes in the sharing of a glass of wine.

Nouwen says: “Lifting the cup is an invitation to affirm and celebrate life together. As we lift the cup of life and look each other in the eye, we say: “Let’s not be anxious or afraid. Let’s hold our cup together and greet each other. Let us not hesitate to acknowledge the reality of our lives and encourage each other to be grateful for the gifts we have received.””

I am reminded that Steve Veazey also shared this: “If you truly would be Community of Christ, then embody and live the concerns and passion of Christ.”

Nouwen says: “Nothing is sweet or easy about community. Community is a fellowship of people who do not hide their joys and sorrows but make them visible to each other in a gesture of hope. In community we say: “Life is full of gains and losses, joys and sorrows, ups and downs – but we do not have to live it alone. We want to drink our cup together … as part of a fellowship of mutual care.”

This last part may be a foreign concept indeed to many in Community of Christ, but one well worth considering as we will no doubt continue to legislate the the policy of being strongly discouraged against drink. Nouwen suggests that “refusing a drink is avoiding intimacy.”

In Mark’s telling of the aftermath of the question, can you drink the cup? Jesus said: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’”

Nouwen explores the theme of emptying, of drinking to the dregs. For he sees it as a way of making room for eternal life. “Drinking the cup of salvation means emptying the cup of sorrow and joy so that God can fill it with pure life. … We have to drink our cup slowly, tasting every mouthful – all the way to the bottom! Living a complete life is drinking our cup until it is empty, trusting that God will fill it with everlasting life.”

While Nouwen begins in familiar themes about Christian vocation he concludes with a return to the familiar theme of love and intimacy with the Holy Spirit: “Drinking the cup that Jesus drank is living a life in and with the spirit of Jesus, which is the spirit of unconditional love. … That intimacy gave Jesus the strength to drink his cup. … That intimacy has a Name, a Divine Name. It is called Holy Spirit. Living a spiritual life is living a life in which the Holy Spirit will guide us and give us strength and courage to keep saying yes to the great question.”

Can you drink the cup?