Second Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon for Second Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday, January 17 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Is 62:1-5; Ps 36:5-10; 1 Cor 12:1-11; Jn 2:1-11

I think that Johanna mentioned, when she preached on Epiphany, that the Orthodox church celebrates three events on that one feast—the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the wedding at Cana, the first miracle recorded in John’s gospel—all considered as forms of Christ manifesting his identity to the world. In the Anglican church, we spread them over three weeks, but retain the sense of a connection between them.

If you think about it, though, the miracle at Cana is a rather odd manifestation. In both Mark and Luke, Jesus’ first miracle is the healing of a demoniac in the synagogue—a very public and dramatic event, clearly linked to Jesus reading from the scroll of the prophets, a good plain mission statement. There is no clear first miracle in Matthew, just a paragraph describing Jesus healing a great many people all around Galilee. But in John we have this quite different story, in which the first miracle of Jesus is the fixing up of an apparent catering failure, and one which is, moreover, performed so covertly that most of the beneficiaries of the miracle have no idea it’s even happened. Not, one might think, the most effective way to declare a public identity.

The story of Cana lingers, though, because there are powerful symbols at play here. Wine, water, weddings—all of these come into the story carrying great metaphorical weight. We are in the presence of the prophetic metaphor of God as the betrayed lover, beseeching us, disloyal and beloved humanity, to return. We are in the presence of the Song of Songs. And we are thrown forward to Jesus’s descriptions of himself as the water of life, as the true vine whose blood is true drink, we are thrown forward to the water and blood which flow from his side on the cross.

The text says nothing about who is getting married, and on one level that is quite right and proper. A wedding of named persons is not a metaphor, but a social event, and the focus here is not on the social event. I have seen depictions in which the presumed bride and groom are so generic that they are pretty much indistinguishable even from each other; they are humanity, simply. But the church, in its irresistible impulse to connect everything, has also developed streams of tradition in which the groom is John, the beloved disciple, or the bride is Mary Magdalene, or indeed John and Mary Magdalene are marrying each other. And there is something valuable in these legends as well—not only because these are two figures long believed to have been particularly personally close to Jesus, and so particularly suitable to enact this story about an intersection of human and divine love; but also because those two, along with Mary his mother, would, at least according to John’s gospel, stick it right out to the foot of the cross. This tradition places the cast of the crucifixion here at this wedding, with the water and the wine, and reminds us again that this is a story, finally, of the lifting up of Christ upon the cross, and the drawing of the world towards him, that reconciliation of God and humanity, that reunion which a human wedding may, in some degree, slightly and partially shadow.

And this is what is really going on here. The incarnate Word does not perform this miracle primarily to avoid embarrassment for the wedding planners; rather, he is activating a set of symbols, he is placing a world of language in motion, he is producing a narrative which is meant to seize and reshape our imaginations, both to make us think forward towards crucifixion and resurrection, and to explain in advance what that great act will mean. That, hard as it is for us to understand, when this man is nailed to a piece of wood by the powers of his day, it is in fact the final triumph of love, a love which our human loves faintly foreshadow. That this is something more like a wedding than a final death, for in that moment the Word of God will be united with every part of our human suffering, will go right down into the most abandoned places of our despair and fill them with light, will take our humanity into God’s own life forever. That we will be made into something new, transformed like the water, transformed like the wine and the bread which become the body of God, and enter our bodies and change us towards divinity.

It may be that it is only those who live in those abandoned places, in one way or another, who do quite understand this. Only the slaves understood where the wine had come from; for most of the guests, the cheerful social event goes on, unremarkable. And the early church was known to all right-thinking people as the religion of slaves and women, the poor and the powerless, the worthless nobodies. That is how the church began, and what it is meant to be.

For this, all the partying aside, is a story for the worthless, the uncounted. The starving civilians of besieged towns in Syria, the refugees around the world, the residential school survivors, the poor and the homeless, the disabled, the gay and lesbian and trans Christians who have been betrayed once again by the church in the decisions taken at the international Primates meeting this week. This is the church, the real church, the church of the little ones. If we are not that church, we are nothing. It may be the guests and the wedding party who get the wine and the festivities for the time being, but is the outcasts who understand it is they who know now that a greater time is coming, that this is not just about water and wine, but about the transformation of the world.

And it is a transformation in which we are not passive players. The story is set in motion by Mary, who does not so much make a request as simply identify and state a problem, and although this seems to be one more example of Jesus’s consistently prickly behaviour with his family—his response to her might be paraphrased as “Not my circus, lady”—she seems both untroubled by this, and confident that he will do, well, something or other, though she doesn’t know what. “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the slaves. She doesn’t know quite what will happen next, but she’s pretty sure something will, and it’ll be good.

And here is another important point—the slaves are essential in this. The huge stone jugs are empty, at first. It is they who fill them with water, probably a slow and onerous task—they who perform the basic human work which sets the stage for divine action. Presumably, had Jesus so chosen, he could have made wine simply appear in the dry jugs. But he did not so choose; he had the jugs filled by human hands. It would have involved a long time of fetching water to fill all those huge jugs; and apparently, this is how it had to be, how it was best that it should be. It is not only water which is transformed, but work, and tedious menial work at that, the work of the unvalued, the unseen. The worthless, the unimportant, are made part of the process upon which the miracle depends.

And so we go on, doing the work we are called to, the various works which must be done with all our various and peculiar particular gifts, the diverse complex multiple selves we were created to be, behind the scenes at the party, knowing that God, as Isaiah promises, will not keep silent, will never rest, that God’s work is continuing and we are called to be part of it. And we do not know what God will do. It may not be what we expect, and it may not happen when we hope or expect, and it may involve a good deal of heavy lifting on our parts first. It can be very hard, the waiting and the working, the uncertainty, it can be very painful.

But the transformation will come. The water will be wine, the wine will be the blood and life of God joined to our life. And we will all, every uncertain, exhausted one of us, be called by a new name, and that name will be “beloved.”