So this week’s entry should be part of the “So this priest walks into a pulpit” blog since it is the sermon I preached yesterday. I know you enjoy my stories and reflections, but I hope you will tolerate this divergence from the norm. Below is the Gospel reading that the sermon is based upon.
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:1-11)
So what was the best party you ever went to? What made it so memorable? Was it the music? The food? The dancing? The wine? Well, no matter how great it was or how long it raged on, it probably can’t compare to the party in today’s Gospel. I know that might seem hard to believe, a epic party in the bible? But you can rest assured that wedding party in Cana put most of our parties to shame.
In order to really understand that you must remember that in Jesus’ time many people lived hand to mouth. If a laborer didn’t work, his family might not eat that night. Even among more prosperous people, frugality was the rule- no food was wasted. Moreover, there was really no such thing as the weekend. People didn’t have much leisure time at all because they had to spend most of their time working to make sure they had something to eat.
But when it came to weddings all the discipline and frugality flew right out the window. Even among the poor and working classes weddings were an absolutely over the top affair. Families would scrimp and save for months or even years in order to entertain their guests in proper style. For unlike today the wedding feast was not simply a matter of a mere single evening. Oh no, back then it was to last for a full seven days. Now I think that even the most stalwart party-goer among us has to admit that seven days of eating, drinking and dancing has to make for one heck of a party.
So I ask you to picture the scene- the party is in full swing, people are talking loudly, they are laughing, singing and dancing. They are feasting on course after course of fresh and delicious food and they are drinking the wine like there is no tomorrow. And it is there, amidst this celebration of all the good gifts of life- it is there we find Jesus. And what does Jesus do- pay his respects and then just sit as a wallflower? Not hardly. After a little maternal goading, he jumps right in turning water into wine so that the party might continue.
Not surprisingly, throughout the years many theologians have been a bit uncomfortable with the notion that Jesus might be responsible for something so profane as aiding and abetting a rocking party. And so for centuries many have tried to spiritualize and sanitize this sign. They have argued that both the wedding and more importantly the wine, was nothing more than a metaphor and not meant to taken literally. Instead they represent something like the new age that Jesus is ushering in or an abundance of spiritual life and gifts. And, given the highly spiritual focus of John’s Gospel, there is probably some real truth to such a point of view.
But what if there is also a more literal and more physical dimension to what Jesus is trying to tell us here? What if, for this once, even in the highly symbolic Gospel of John a vat of wine, is nothing more than just a vat of wine? Is it truly beyond the realm of plausibility to believe that Jesus simply wished that this celebration of life should not only continue, but be enhanced? What if the real message of the miracle of Cana is the idea that Jesus is OK with the idea of us enjoying life. What if what Jesus is really trying to say here is that he wants us to drink, not just any old wine, but the really good stuff?
Naturally, this stands in sharp contrast to many of our preconceptions about what religion is all about. Many people seem to think that religion is a purely spiritual affair. That it is about taking us up and out of this world or even more pronounced, that the world and its pleasures are nothing more than the source of temptation and sin. Does that sound familiar to you? Well, while this view may be prevalent, it is also woefully incomplete.
Remember where we find Jesus in this passage- not teaching, not preaching, not facing temptation in the desert or praying alone on a mountain, we find him at a wedding… at an earthly celebration of life and all its pleasures. And does not frown upon it or condemn it? On the contrary, he blesses it by creating an abundance of the finest wine. While this might seem incongruous to some, it actually makes perfect sense. For as the prologue of the Gospel of John has already declared, the Word has become flesh. Jesus came to join us in our human existence which means that everything in our existence is now sanctified.
No longer do we have to divide our existence into the material and spiritual components. By closing the gap between GOD and humanity Jesus has reunited them. To put it another way, all of GOD’s creation, including the joy and wonder of our bodies, has become an opportunity to know GOD in an incarnate way. Thus true and sacred life is not relegated only to ineffable and spiritual planes… it is right here, all around us, enfleshed and material, just waiting to be seized upon and enjoyed. For in coming to enjoy the good things in this life we might then also draw closer to GOD.
This echoes what the Psalmist declares “They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.” (36:8) Well guess what, this whole good earth is GOD’s house.. and all of its abundance has been given to us so that we might delight in it.
Of course, we should not go off the deep end and interpret this as some sort of divine endorsement of drunkenness and hedonism. Scripture tells us countless times that there is more meaning to be found than just in this material existence and that we must not make an idol out of pleasure. But we if we open our hearts and minds to what Jesus is showing us in the vats of good wine then we will find that the pleasures of this world do not have to lead us away from GOD but instead can become vehicles to help us draw closer to our Maker.
The challenge is to learn to recognize and appreciate all the goodness of life that GOD has set before us. In that sense we are very much like the steward in the Gospel. When Jesus’ wine is brought to him, he tastes just how wonderful it is but has no idea where it has come from. The same is true for us. For even when we slow down enough to appreciate the good things in life, we don’t usually connect them back to GOD. Instead, like the steward, we are hurriedly busying ourselves with the routine chaos of daily life and in so doing we fail to notice that in that delicious meal or side splitting laugh, we have not just experienced a moment of pleasure, we have actually encountered something divine.
Think about that for a moment. In the joy that we find when dance, or eat, or take that first sip of coffee, or sing or crack open our favorite bottle of wine or beer- we have not just experienced physical pleasure, we have also drawn closer to GOD. That is quite a revelation. That changes everything. When we learn to look at life this way what we find is that our whole world becomes richer and more vibrant. For by coming among us and sanctifying our existence Jesus has made it possible for us to find divine meaning in even the most ordinary pleasures of daily life. GOD is no longer relegated to the distant heights of heaven or cloistered within the walls of the church- instead GOD is all around us, inviting us to drink the divine wine of gladness not just on Sunday’s, but each and every day of our lives.
For by becoming one of us Jesus has invited us to join him, not just in the desert of temptation, or the garden of despair or in the agony of the cross, but also in the revel and joy of the wedding feast and there join him in drinking the good stuff. AMEN