Monday, January 16, 2012

Homily for The Second Sunday after Epiphany

H-19  Epiphany 2 (Jn 2.1-11)

(Audio not available)

John 2:1-11; Romans 12:6-16; Exodus 33:12-23

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Most of us are not in a very good position to appreciate and to understand the Gospel Lesson appointed for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. The reason for this is that, from our modern and western perspective, we have very different understandings of marriage and wedding celebrations and their meanings, both symbolic and practical, than did the people of middle-eastern culture in first century Israel. That’s likely at least part of the reason so many of us enjoy movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Fiddler on the Roof, and even The Godfather, for such movies depict weddings that are richly steeped in cultural, ethnic, and religious traditions. Such weddings are huge, elaborate events, often lasting for days, and the marriages in these movies are clearly much more than the contractual agreement between two consenting adults, but they are the unions of families, the joining of cultures, customs, and traditions, even the forming of villages and communities.

So, for us to truly understand the Gospel account of the Wedding at Cana, it is necessary for us to embrace the rich cultural meaning of marriage and the wedding celebration in Jesus’ day. Weddings in Jesus’ day were massive feasts for the entire village. A wedding party could last an entire week, put everything else in the town on hold, and be the most important local event of the entire year. Somewhat parallel to our modern customs, there were many folkways and mores attached to the ancient village wedding: A contract between families, cut by mutual agreement over a sip of wine; A betrothal period of about one year in length when the bride prepared the home for the couple; And then the arrival of the groom, the procession to the wedding hall, and a grand feast. To neglect the invitation was to send a message that you did not want to be a part of the village. To accept the invitation was a show of friendship and loyalty. In some eastern cultures it was expected, and still is today, that the entire town or village would be invited and that each guest would be given a gift! This understanding is necessary for us to comprehend the magnitude of the disaster that almost befell the Wedding in Cana because they had run out of wine.

All this to-do about wine? Unfortunately, our American culture, largely shaped by puritanical pietism in its prudish restrictiveness and in its rebellious indulgence, has demonized the drinking of wine and of all beverages containing alcohol. Therefore, we miss out on the importance of wine in ancient world and of the goodness, joy, and blessing that it symbolized for people. Wine was understood as a good gift of God. It was a symbol of joy and happiness and of God’s blessing. Throughout the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments, wine was used and extolled in this manner, its use even being commanded by Jesus in the Last Supper. The bride’s family was responsible for providing the wine for the wedding. As much as a year before the wedding they would have been preparing the wine for the feast, from tending the grapes to their pressing, and then, they would have hired a wine steward to manage the wine to last throughout the entire wedding celebration, serving the good wine first, while the guest’s palettes were sharp, and then the less expensive wine when their tastes were less discerning. However you slice it, the chief job of the wine steward was to make certain that they didn’t run out of wine and cause a social disaster for the families of the bride and the groom. But in the story, that’s exactly what happened.

Now, I know that it’s hard for us to get our brains around this today, but running out of wine at a first century middle-eastern wedding was about the worst thing that could possibly happen. It would have meant humiliating shame for the entire family in the presence of the entire town or village. It would have meant the loss of respectability and even livelihood. This was the situation that Jesus was in midst of and was called upon by His mother to remedy. Mary said to Him, “They have no wine.” She might as well have said the bride is dead, as this was a seemingly hopeless situation that no man had the ability to resolve. But, Jesus response to her, similar to last Sunday’s Gospel account of the twelve year old Jesus in the temple, seems out of place, almost disrespectful. Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”

Well, to understand Jesus’ words, it is necessary that we remember that this account was recorded by the Apostle John, who was present at the wedding and was an eye witness. John uses the words “my hour” in his Gospel as code words for the Passion of Jesus: His crucifixion, suffering, and death. Thus, what Jesus was communicating to His mother was that it wasn’t yet time for Him to be manifested as the fullness of God’s glory by laying down His life in sacrifice for the sins of all mankind. Nevertheless, Jesus did respond to His mother’s concern that they had no wine. They had no wine; they had no joy; and they were helpless to restore joy to this otherwise festive occasion. The family was going to be humiliated. The marriage had a black mark on it before it even began. Though it was not yet the hour of Jesus’ Passion, nevertheless, Jesus did have compassion upon the people beloved by His Father in heaven and He acted to restore their joy and their relationships and their honor, and He acted to glorify His Father in this first of His signs recorded for us in the Holy Scriptures.

Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. The jars represented the Law of God. They represented His holiness and man’s uncleanness, for it was necessary for the guests to be ceremonially purified before they could partake of the wedding feast. Jesus commanded that these jars be refilled with water, to the very brim. This was to indicate that when Jesus would fully manifest Himself and glorify His Father by laying down His life unto death, His death would be for every sin ever committed and for every man, woman, and child who would ever live and die. When He commanded that the wine be taken to the master of the feast and he tasted it, He had to confess that the water in the jars was not water at all, but that it was the finest of wines. For, not only would Jesus fulfill the Law for us completely in the hour of His Passion, but He now offers us rich and abundant grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness freely through faith in Him.

This is why in one prominent cathedral in Manhattan the inscription around the baptismal font reads “This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory; and his disciples believed in Him.” As the wedding at Cana was the first of Jesus’ signs, so Holy Baptism is His first sign among us. Baptism is a sacramental miracle, an even greater sign than turning water into wine. The words inscribed near that font remind us that Jesus is still manifesting Himself to us every time we gather around font, pulpit, and altar.

The master of the feast was stunned and he remarked, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Indeed, when Jesus makes everything new, the new is even better than the old, even before the old became corrupted! Likewise, when Moses asked to see the Father’s glory, he was permitted to see only His backside, for no man can see the face of God and live. And yet, in the resurrection on the Last Day, we will all behold Him face to face. And so, even now, Jesus is present with us, though He remains veiled in Word and water, bread, and wine, but then, then we shall see Him face to face.

Thus, today we remember how Jesus restored to joy to a community of people and how the wine they enjoyed then was even better than what they began with. And by remembering this first of Jesus’ signs He performed through which He manifested His glory, we are brought to remember the many other ways Jesus manifested His glory amongst us, demonstrating that He was Emmanuel, God with us, then, now, and unto all eternity.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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