Darkness into light
Absence into presence
Scarcity into abundance
Sickness into health
Blindness into sight
Death into life
Water into wine…
These are items on the menu of the feast of abundant life to which we are invited by a divine host, an occasion to enjoy a rich spiritual banquet prepared for those who are open to come and see, to believe and to follow. When these things happen, they are signs that the Messianic age, long expected by the people of Israel has begun…that the Messiah is here. John the Evangelist launches his testimony to the work of salvation that God is accomplishing among us in Jesus with the story of a feast, a wedding at Cana. As it unfolds, we hear John’s witness to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in an account of the first of his signs or miracles, a story rich in symbolism and allusion. Like any masterfully crafted work, it is powerful to draw us into its drama. But, like grand opera, great literature and fine art, its epiphanies are more accessible if we know a little of the background and purpose of the action. Turning water into wine may be the first thing we think of when we hear Wedding at Cana because it is one of the most familiar and amazingly compelling of Jesus’ miracles and so has found its way into popular parlance as an expression for turning things around in an unexplainably amazing way. But if we look a little closer, the miraculous action is not in and of itself the principal focus of the telling. It is a sign-the first of the signs Jesus performs that points us in a new direction to a greater truth about the works of God and works of salvation that Jesus the Word made flesh is doing among us. Like the disciples and the wedding guests, we are invited to come and see, to believe and to follow Jesus.
The first thing we are told about this week long wedding feast in Cana is this: the mother of Jesus was there. Only then: and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.
Many guests, very likely the whole town, would have been present for such a celebration. There are 6 large empty water jars sitting empty outside along the wall that would have been used for Jewish rites of purification. The scene is set. The wine runs out and the festivities are threatened with an abrupt and socially disastrous end, but as we will see, this circumstance is the catalyst for an occasion of epiphany.
In the exchange between Jesus and his mother, we begin to see what the evangelist is telling us…why the mother of Jesus is so central to the action of the story. When Jesus addresses his mother as woman, it is not, as we might hear those words today, a put down or rude or angry, but, rather, a signal to the reader that the narrative has shifted to another plane, and that this dialogue is about more than a breach of wedding hospitality. Jesus is downplaying and disengaging from their human relationship, and showing us their new roles. Mary is representative of his followers at the beginning of his ministry, as at the foot of the cross at the end of his earthly ministry when his hour had come and Jesus also addresses her as woman, she represents the Church. Her “willingness to rely on Jesus’ sovereignty prepares the way for the miracle.” Do what he tells you, she says” ( from Raymond Brown, Anchor Bible Commentary on John’s Gospel, Vol.1) As is typical of John’s Gospel, Jesus is guided in his actions by a voice we cannot hear, a divine directive and power that can answer natural present need with supernatural timeless response. God’s grace is present in Jesus and given in miraculous abundance. The evangelist is sending us signals to pay close attention to what happens when Jesus directs the action. What is empty is filled to overflowing, what was water becomes the finest wine, what is an expected sequence of events is reversed, and those who witness the transformation in the presence of Jesus become believers.
Something completely out of the ordinary is happening here. This story is about a celebration of covenant more ultimate than marriage. Biblical references to weddings often symbolized messianic fulfillment that would lead to new covenant. They speak of a new age, an age when God’s Anointed will enter history to restore Israel. John’s imagery steers us to see that this new relationship and covenant between God and God’s people in Jesus has occurred. Our covenant is baptism and that all follows from that commitment as it does in the Gospel narrative.
The ritual water jars for rites of purification represent Israel’s past. When Jesus fills them with an extravagance of wine, another potent symbol of the arrival of the messianic age, John testifies to the new vitality and added dimension Jesus’ ministry brings to ancient religious practice pointing to a new quality of purification.
All of these symbolic details combine in John’s telling to proclaim the actual presence of the Messiah, about the profusion of grace to be experienced in Jesus’ presence. This first sign points to the fulfillment of all of the prophecies and eschatological hopes of Israel. It is, as Raymond Brown calls it, “the inaugural act of God’s promised salvation. By means of this sign, Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.”
In many ways, we are like those heavy, empty stationary jars on the outskirts of the party…dormant vessels… until we encounter Jesus and are transformed into disciples through believing in him. Until we come and see and experience an encounter with the Word made flesh, we live by the wayside, content with the status quo, our gifts like so much dried sediment that has settled down to the bottom over time – untapped potential, dark like a lamp unplugged. The mortal earthen vessels of our lives are available to be filled with the new things God is doing among us, to be touched by his life and to know transformation as miraculous as the one that occurred in the jars at Cana. If we think of the Church as one of these vessels to be filled with the plentiful wine of saving grace to be drawn out and served to a world thirsty for God’s salvation, an image of our mission might begin to form for us. Our ministry is like Mary’s: to be aware of need and to bring it to Jesus’ attention, offering our emptiness, and trusting in him to use whatever is at hand in our daily circumstances to transform it and to open the eyes of our faith to see the miracles that occur when God’s Word made flesh is present with us. Disciples of Jesus make new things happen. New relationships grow out of the soil of the new life he offers us. Miracles of abundant life occur all the time. Those awe-inspiring experiences of connection, of prayers answered, of deepened awareness of spiritual gifts and insight, love’s joys, forgiveness and acceptance are all wine poured into our experience from the Lord’s generous hospitality.
Our ongoing work is to invite others into Jesus’ company by asking them to Come and see. And, as someone said, The Lord will take it from there. The good wine – the glory, the presence, the belief, the grace of salvation– are here in the Church abundant and ready to be drawn from the jars and served to a world thirsting for these things. A curious Bible student once asked St. Jerome if the guests at Cana drank all the wine that Jesus made. Jerome replied, “No, we are still drinking it.” (From Ann Svennungen,)
This weekend our nation celebrates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His work had power and was transformative, because it was rooted in fearless and faithful adherence to the example of Jesus. King was a man of intense belief. He drew strength and purpose from the words of the prophets…often Amos, who proclaims, The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when…the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it (9:13). In a sermon delivered at the Washington National Cathedral just four days before he was murdered, Dr. King took his text from the Book of Revelation: Behold I make all things new; former things have passed away Think especially of the mission of this parish as you hear King’s words: “Now whenever anything new comes into history it brings with it new challenges and new opportunities. First, we are challenged to develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution…Through our scientific and technical genius, we have made this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood….We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”
King dispelled as myth the notion that only time can solve the great problems such as racial justice. There are those who say: “Why don’t you slow up? Stop pushing things so fast. Only time can solve the problem. And if you will just be nice and patient and continue to pray, in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out….Somewhere we must see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this shared work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right…And I submit that nothing will be done until people of good will put their bodies and souls into motion… Thank God for John who centuries ago out on a lonely, obscure island called Patmos caught vision of a new Jerusalem descending out of heaven from God, who heard a voice saying, ‘Behold, I make all things new; former things have passed away.’ God grant that we will be participants in this newness … to bring about a new day of justice and brotherhood and peace. And that day the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy…”