NEWSLETTER – January 2009

Epiphanies of glory

On the first two Sundays of the year we celebrate the coming of the Magi with their symbolic gifts for Christ, and his baptism in the Jordan – moments that show us the divine significance of Jesus. The Orthodox churches add a third 'wonder', the wedding at Cana (John 2.1-11); so here are some thoughts on this, based around their traditional chants for the season and some other verses.

Zion, adorn the bridal chamber; welcome Christ, the King of glory;
the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.

Bring a bottle.’ It all started at a party, a wedding Jewish-style, a three-day affair with food and games and dancing, just like the one where the bridegroom arrived at midnight while half the bridesmaids had gone off to buy oil for their lamps. Jesus was there with his mother and his friends, content to be a guest, to take a back seat (my time has not yet come), to share in the talking and the jokes and the laughter - our 'homely and courteous Lord', as Mother Julian called him. No doubt he told a few stories to make people think, as he was to do throughout his coming ministry; no doubt he was a good listener too, who made people feel he was giving them his full attention and not looking over their shoulder to see if he was missing out on something more interesting as the elderly aunt went into graphic detail about her bunions.

Other gospel passages show us that Jesus enjoyed parties, and sharing meals, with all kinds of people; their everyday lives mattered to him. He rejoiced with those who rejoiced, over the birth of a child; he wept with those who wept. As our wedding service says, he adorns and beautifies marriage, and indeed every human relationship, first and foremost by his presence - which is why Cranmer wisely chose the wedding at Cana as the starting-point for the preface about the nature of marriage in the Prayer Book wedding service. This wedding was one of those moments of epiphany, manifesting his glory (as John puts it), revealing and showing-forth the things of God. And the first thing that it reveals is his true humanity, and what it might mean for us to be truly human, to know life in all its fullness.

But then there is a crisis in the catering arrangements, and Mary decides that her son must do something about it (which is strange, for she has not seen him perform miracles before). He is reluctant, but she sweeps aside his protests - do whatever he tells you, she instructs the steward. And so the wedding becomes a sign that Christ not only shares our human joys, but blesses them, increases and multiplies them, and changes them. In the words of the collect, he transforms the poverty of our nature by his grace - the plain water of everyday experience into a more potent brew, the natural into the supernatural, God’s gifts in creation into the means of his grace, the new wine of the kingdom. Not just a bottle or two, but over 100 gallons, to keep the party going with a swing. Here, then, is a sign of divine generosity, prodigality - as the old song says, my cup’s full and running over.

But a word of warning here: this miraculous transformation does not happen by magic, and more than the wedding blessing guarantees wine and roses for ever and a day; we have to continue to work at our relationships, in marriage or friendship, particularly when the wine turns back into water, or goes sour. Relate counsellors say that much of their work is in helping couples to come to terms with high and unrealistic expectations (fuelled by the 'wedding industry') of eternal romance. Of course, there are also many marriages where love deepens and matures over 50 or more years, like a rich wine; as the gospel story reminds us, sometimes God keeps the good wine until the last.

But it is not just our relationships that are transformed by the presence and the blessing of Christ: in Christ you make all things new. As at the baptism of Jesus, which is our theme next week, so this first miracle takes on a cosmic significance; it is about revealing God’s new creation, disclosing his loving purpose and plan to unite all things in heaven and on earth.

Today at Cana he draws wine out of water, a sign of the union of earth and heaven.
He who wraps himself with light as with a garment
has humbled himself to take our nature upon him.

So Cana leads us on to the picture of the heavenly bridal banquet at the end of time, of which our participation in the bread and wine of holy communion is a foretaste:

Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Blessed are those who are called to the banquet of the Lamb.

The banquet of the Lamb, slain before the foundation of the world, is the new covenant in Christ’s blood, the final sacrifice and offering on which our eternal life depends. The six stone jars of water for the ceremonial washing form part of the Jewish rituals of the old covenant; by changing them into wine, Jesus points us ahead to the cross, and to the water and blood that flowed from his side.

In one of the Orthodox hymns for Good Friday, these strange words are sung:

Seeing her own Lamb led to the slaughter, Mary his mother followed him with the other women
and in her grief she cried, “Where are you going, my child? Why do you run so swiftly?
Is there another wedding at Cana, and are you hastening there, to turn the water into wine?”

Water into wine; sorrow into joy; fasting into feasting - Jesus comes not just to be alongside us, but to change us, to turn winter into summer. Robert Herrick's carol includes the verse,

Dark and dull night, fly hence away
and give the honour to this day
that sees December turned to May.
If we may ask the reason, say:
We see him come, and know him ours
who with his sunshine and his flowers
turns all the patient ground to flowers.

His touch turns winter into springtime, as he reveals the Father’s glory and life bursts into blossom. How does he reveal the Father’s glory? Not by throwing a switch so that one moment he is a man, like us, the next a god, unlike us. Such a person would be unbelievable, and no saviour. He shows us God by being as perfectly human and as perfectly open to God as it is possible to be. In other words, be reveals divinity by being most truly and perfectly human. That is why, according to St John at least, his cross is the greatest revelation of his divine sonship, where he shows himself dying for us, as vulnerable and as exposed as a human being can be.

God’s glory is revealed, then, not by separating the human and the divine, but by uniting them, bringing them together. He lifts us to heaven, and makes us more like his heavenly Father; he shows that the human and the divine and not opposed, for ever set against each other, but are very close.

This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory;
and his disciples believed in him.

With our prayers and good wishes for 2009                                            Michael

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