You can’t fit new wine into old wineskins. That’s what Jesus said. Occasionally there comes a real life moment of clarity that gives flesh to such words of wisdom. Mine came on Christmas Eve which is perhaps appropriate for an epiphany. Despite planning otherwise, I was doing what no one should be doing at 10 PM on Christmas Eve. I was in my shop hand sanding. To put this in perspective, hand sanding is not fun. In fact, building things is quite fun, but finishing things is finicky, labour intensive, and almost never fun. There was a method to the madness. With only one income this year due to the pandemic, I had put my shop to good use, and hand-made all the Christmas gifts. Planning is always less complicated than the finishing of the plans because something always comes up. In my case, I had put some time aside for the finishing of my gifts, except that my brother showed up unexpectedly and burned up half my day, hours that I would have spent getting everything completed. So that was me, hand sanding and smoothing things, literally to the last minute.
Some gifts I had built much earlier and they were also getting a final hand sanding. On those, I had sealed the wood with old fashioned shellac. For those who don’t know, shellac is literally bug poop. Hence it sticks to everything which for some intents and purposes, makes it the miracle finish. For those familiar with French Polishing, a favourite for fine furniture, it is possible to pad on shellac with mineral oil as a lubricant. The funny thing about shellac is that the stickiness is not affected by the oil. The shellac sticks to the other shellac, and builds to a glossy surface as you burnish. The oil just keeps sliding around on top, and the shellac just keeps on sticking, it’s what it does. I used to be big on shellac. This was using up the last of an old can. Shellac is a very traditional finish, and I am a fairly traditional guy.
But with everything, there comes a time to change and upgrade, and nowhere better than when you identify something that is not working. My case in point, was sanding shellac. Though shellac dries quite quickly, it is often applied in a thinned coat because the resins can tend to clog up sandpaper. If you hand sand, you are literally going through sheets and sheets of sandpaper. It can be annoying. The best finishes break down into a dry powder which you can brush and blow away easily. They do not gum up, or ball up like bad finishes do. Up against these pieces, I had others on which I had used water based urethane. Water based is the new zero VOC technology but it has been about a decade coming into its own. It used to be quite pallid and flat as a finish choice. Hence, I often avoided it and stuck with the good old oil based finishes that took a long time to dry but looked quite lustrous in the end.
Now, I had no time for messing around, literally. I found that the water based finish dried quickly in the space of an hour which is good because an hour is about all I had. I was able to smooth the wood very nicely, and get things finished up for wrapping, which will take place very early tomorrow when everyone is still sleeping. It occurred to me, that there is no rule to keep me stubbornly using the same old finish next time around. The new one had proved itself and it is perhaps time to move on.
It’s hard to let go of old ways. They like the bug poop finish, stick to everything and are hard to get off. You may need some abrasion to help that along the way. When you get tired enough of old things not working you will be set for a change and it will be welcome at that point. And so it is with me, using the new waterbased finishes, also getting ready to welcome the birth of the Saviour, and thinking over what he said about old wine and new wineskins. He was of course, speaking about his message of change. Change of the human heart. Now that one is a hard one to pull off, and it may take God-Made-Man to accomplish it.
The illustration was apropos for Jesus’ time, when wine was a staple. It was stored in wineskins, and as the wine aged, the leather would stretch. They would stretch until the elasticity had reached its limit. After that, if you tried to put new wine into the skins, they would burst. They had no more flexibility to hold the new. Jesus was talking about his teaching of course. To accept it you had to be willing to put off the old ways. In old fashioned terms, to repent. Go forth and sin no more.
That thought picture makes this Christmas particularly welcome. I am ready to part with those gifts and to move on to better things. Waterbased urethane instead of oil, doing away with my attachement to shellac, trying some new tricks, a frightening prospect for any old dog. I am also ready for a new year. This one has been particularly trying, and it is that kind of abrasion that makes you rethink your life and be a bit more willing to change. For that, I will say a measured thank you.
There is a reason Jesus came as a baby. As a king, he did not look as impressive as those who came ready-made with sceptres and robes included. His kingdom had to be imagined, tried out for a first time, and partnered in. It took, and it will take those willing to cast off the old things that are not working so well, to try something new. I am one of those people who needs this message reinforced. When we go to midnight mass in a few hours, I will be thinking over the part of the Lord’s Prayer where we say “Thy Kingdom Come”. It’s what we are all waiting for at Christmas, and what the world really needs today. The current state of affairs is looking kind of broken. Welcoming the baby, is welcoming new ways, and ushering in a new kingdom where old things that didn’t work so well will pass away for good. It’s not the Christmas message I was planning for, but maybe that’s the point.
So Merry Christmas and here’s to new wine in new wineskins. It’s an idea whose time has come.