Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Wedding At Cana

Walking up to preach at St John's this morning was an interesting experience. It was much a case of skating as walking. The streets of West Hendon were pretty much deserted: just me in my cassock and the odd person heading to Sainsbury to panic-buy. I thought that, whatever hymns we'd chosen to sing this Sunday, we should have included 'See Amid the Winter's Snow'.

That wasn't the most inappropriate thought, since there is a real sense in which today's gospel reading both looks back to Christmas and develops the message of Christmas.

At the daytime Mass on Christmas Day we read the familiar verses from the beginning of John's gospel, which had their climax in those words that epitomise the message of Christmas: "The Word was made flesh and lived among us". The Word of God, God himself, without for one second ceasing to be God - with all that this involves - lived a human life, like ours.

But, we might ask, why? Why did the Word become flesh?

As we read on in John's gospel we find, in the first part of that gospel (known as the Book of Signs), the reasons that the Word was made flesh laid out for us in symbolic form, through a series of 'signs' worked by Jesus. And the first sign Jesus works is at a wedding in Cana, Galilee. He changes water into wine.

There are a thousand things to be said about the eleven verses of the Fourth Gospel which describe Jesus' transformation of water into wine. They are rich in symbolism - almost the entire Christian gospel is summed up in those verses. The water is placed in jars used for a Jewish ritual of purication ritual and then transformed - here we have a sign of the rich fulfilment of the Old Covenant, God's promises to the Jewish people (John's gospel, in the first chapter, has spoken of Moses, and promised 'grace upon grace'). And wine itself is an image used frequently in the Old Testament of the abundant life God promises his people. The transformation of water into wine happens 'on the third day' - looking forward to the ultimate transformation (of death into life) which will take place on a subsequent third day. Jesus, rather rudely to modern ears, calls Our Lady 'woman' and talks of his 'hour'. Jesus will next call his Mother 'woman' on the Cross, when his 'hour' has come.

There are a million sermons that could be preached on today's gospel. I chose to preach about the fact that this miraculous transformation of water into wine takes place at a wedding. Again and again in the New Testament - as we were reminded in today's Old Testament reading - God's passionate love for his People is described in terms of a desire for marriage. God, like an eager young suitor, wants nothing more than to be bound to God's People forever in love. And at the end of the New Testament, in the book of Revelation - written by someone in the same tradition as the author of John's gospel but (and I'm sorry to the people of St John's for deflating the heritage of our patron) as certainly as one can ever be about these things, not written by the same person - Heaven is described as the marriage feast of the Lamb. Our God is a God of love. And just as the best symbol human beings have come up with for love is marriage, one of the best symbols we can come up with for the love God has for us is marriage. God marries his people. And Christ is the one in whom God marries his people.

At Cana there is a wedding. Not, on the face of it, Jesus' wedding. Yet Jesus makes it his own. In the story he becomes the focus of attention. So much so that when the steward talks to the bridegroom at the end of the passage and says "you have saved the best until last" it is, at best, ambiguous whether he is talking to the literal bridegroom or to Jesus. The author of the Fourth Gospel knows what they are doing. Here we have the fist Sign of the Word made flesh. And the God who has promised repeatedly in the Old Testament to marry his people has made good on that promise. Here, in this man, we have a marriage feast the like of which we could not have imagined.

The gospel begins and ends with love. The first of Jesus' signs is about love. His death is about love. His resurrection is about love. And, more incredibly, it is about love for the likes of me, and the likes of you. And that love is the reason the Word became flesh.

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