My grandfather was Head Brewer at the Guinness brewery in Dublin. Even before my teenage years, I wanted to acquire (and be allowed to acquire!) the taste for Guinness. And especially the exclusive directors’ brew that my grandfather always had in a keg at his home.
Inevitably, Guinness was a regular topic of conversation at Sunday Lunch round the table in my grandparents’ house. The trouble was, I really didn’t like it. But then, as an acquired taste, I wasn’t expected to like it. So when I was finally allowed to drink beer, I started with a bottle of ‘ale’, which my grandfather said was ‘refreshing’, though I never saw him drink it.
Eventually I acquired the taste for Guinness. To be honest, it was long after I started drinking it. I would never have admitted to finding it bitter and hard to swallow, but that’s how it was for me to start with. And sometimes a bottle of Guinness today can still taste unpleasantly bitter but mostly I enjoy it.
I was reminded of this on holiday a few weeks back when I decided that I needed to acquire the taste for proper marmalade. Marmalade with chunks of bitter Seville oranges. I’d just bought some fine cut rubbish from the local supermarket and found it sweet and insipid. Really just sweet orange jam. So I went back and bought some proper stuff. And I began to enjoy it.
The trick, as with Guinness, was to embrace the bitterness. (And the unpleasant texture of the boiled orange skin.) Only then could the richness and fullness of the whole flavour be appreciated.
I was reflecting on acquired tastes and why anyone would ever bother to acquire a taste for something that is initially bitter or unpleasant to experience. Yet obviously people do – Guinness, marmalade and much more.
Part of the answer is that people tell you it’s good. The taste is worth acquiring. It’s worth getting over the initial bitterness.
When Jesus says, in John’s Gospel, that he has come to bring us fullness of life, this gives me a clue as to what he may mean. He encourages us, and enables us, to taste life to the full, experience life to the full.
At the heart of this is embracing the bitterness, the harsh realities of life. When we do this we also taste the richness, and the sweetness of life, and at the heart of it the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The bitterness of death mixed with, and transformed by, the sweetness of resurrection and the promise of the coming kingdom and the healing of creation.
So let us acquire a taste for life. Life in all its fullness.