Saturday, January 16, 2016

When the wine gives out

Reflection for Epiphany 2, 2016

Reading: John 2:1-11

The first fourteen verses of John’s Gospel, a glorious prologue summarising the theme of the whole Gospel, close with these words:

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Hear the passion; hear the wonder in those words. The writer of the gospel has a vision of the purpose of God and what was being done in Christ.

A few verses later the demonstration of that glory of the Word made flesh unfolds at the wedding in Cana where the water is turned into wine – which brings to where we are now in this season of Epiphany when we try to understand the mystery of Christmas and awaken to Jesus as God with us and among us.  We think we know the story; we think we grasp the concept; but really, as John shows us, we barely scratch the surface. 

First, just one detail might be noted.  The amount of wine produced by this miracle is stupendous: it is calculated to be 120 gallons or 500 litres.  That is surely such an excessive amount that it might provoke us to wonder what is going on here; it sounds especially odd today against the dire warnings we regular hear about our student drinking culture.   But, and this is merely a possibility, is the excess really the point? Is it a way of John saying that once you tap into God (forgive the pun) be prepared for more than you can imagine?  Is it a way of John preparing us for the flood of grace pouring into the world by the Incarnation?  

As we start to consider this, are we also being prepared for John’s particular theological style where narrative always holds more than is declared?

I want to approach this (over) familiar text through two phrases and see if this oblique approach may be helpful.

The first phrase connects to the sequential arrangement for events early in the gospel and it is the reference to ‘on the third day.’  There are various ways that commentaries have explained that phrase but I want to suggest to you that for the early Christian community the third day was the day of the resurrection and John’s reference to the third day flags his reading of events and his shaping of the narrative in the light of that defining experience of the risen Christ.  I am suggesting that he is not giving us chronology but theology; he is revealing to us the turning-point of the glory of God in Christ.  Christ’s ministry is just begun, but already the story is formed by the resurrection that is still to come.

The second phrase that has caught my attention is the narrative catalyst ‘when the wine gave out’.  This phrase offers us the trigger for divine action (mediated through the intervention/action of Mary): in the shape of the narrative this is the social crisis that invokes divine grace to remedy the situation.  Again, like the ‘Third Day’ it anticipates events that are still to happen – particularly when Jesus says ‘my hour is not yet come’ – and we immediately remember Christ’s blood shed on the cross and  also recall the well-established associations with the Last Supper and the Eucharist.

At the literal level of the narrative the lack of wine is a social embarrassment. Is that adequate cause for divine grace to act? One may argue that it seems a trivial occasion for Jesus to provide a miracle and rather calls to mind the testimonies of pious souls who have declared God to have answered prayer when a parking space was urgently needed!  Divine action here seems so accidental rather than providential (i.e. “by the way they’ve run out of wine; will you do something about it?”).  There are questions worth asking about this.

If we imaginatively reach through the literal surface we might think of many ways in which ‘the wine gives out’ in our lives.  We may think of the times when we or communities have lost hope, experienced disaster or in some way come to what we may think of as the end of our tether.  The experience of the early Christians was that they lost all hope with the death of Jesus on the cross, but from the resurrection on the Third Day hope was unexpectedly, wonderfully and overwhelmingly restored.

To reflect on this story of the wedding at Cana is to catch a deeper sense of the passion of the gospeller himself: here is one with a passionate awareness that to be in the presence of Jesus is to be in touch with glory, light and life – life in abundance.  For you and I, in those times when ‘the wine gives out’, he recalls us to the One who is the source of life and joy.

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