Sunday, January 25, 2009

Third Sunday of Epiphany - Fr Andrew Davison

Today we come to the third part of the three revelations of Christ we celebrate at Epiphanytide. First the coming of the Magi and the revelation to the Gentiles, then the baptism in the Jordan and the revelation as the beloved Son of the Father, and now the wedding in Cana of Galilee, the first of his signs, by which he ‘manifests his glory’.

I am sure that you are familiar with this so let us, this morning; consider just one aspect of this miracle, this manifestation of Christ’s glory. I want to dwell upon the fact that it takes place, this changing of water into wine, at a wedding feast.

The fathers make a great deal of the fact that the setting is a wedding. A first thing they think it underlines, it reveals, is that marriage is a good thing: that God approves marriage, of love and of family. As Augustine puts it, the Son of the Virgin, who comes to the marriage, is the one who had instituted marriage in the beginning when he was with the Father. [In Verb. Dom. Serm. xli, in Aquinas, Cat. Aur.] This, he says, refutes those who speak ill of the marriage bed.

More than this, it shows that the incarnation is more than simply taking human flesh. God also took on human culture and religion. (We saw this at the circumcision on New Year’s Day.) When he came to his own he was not only coming to the human race but also to the institutions and to the religion he had revealed over the centuries before. And part of this is marriage. As the Prayer Book says of marriage ‘which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee’. He enters our world, not only into a human life but also into human culture. This revelation of God refutes those who would denigrate religion and human culture.

Even more remarkable, the one who is revealed, the guest at the marriage, is the true, divine bridegroom. This is because, as Augustine, again, reminds us, the incarnation is itself a marriage: ‘the Word is the bridegroom, and human flesh the bride, and both together are the one Son of God and Son of Man’. [Tr. Viii. C. 4, in Cat. Aur.] In the person of Jesus are married heaven and earth, divinity and humanity. Humanity is his bride ‘whom he united to himself in the womb of the Virgin’, that royal pavilion from which he proceeds, as the Psalm has it, as a bridegroom rejoicing to run his course.

Christ is revealed as the maker and lover of marriage, and as himself the bridegroom. What more can we say? That here at the beginning of his ministry he also reveals the end. This ‘first of miracles’ is the revelation of the final end of all things. At the end of the books of St John, as here at their beginning, is a wedding banquet: the marriage of the lamb. Right from the start we see the purpose or goal that Christ has in mind: the restoration of joy and of unity between God and human beings. It is for this, the joy that was set before him, that he would scorn comfort and even life itself.

It seems to me important that all is for the heavenly wedding feast because it shows that joy and celebration lies at the heart of things, at the beginning and the end of God’s work with us. And consequently, sacrifices, when they have to be made are for the sake of joy, and not joy for the sake of sacrifice. In Rupert Shortt’s new biography of Rowan Williams he describes another theological college as being fixated with what gets called ‘woundedness’. This was the badge of honour and the mark of achievement. But if Christ reveals the joy of the banquet to be his purpose, even from the beginning of his ministry, then this is the wrong way round. Sacrifice is for the sake of joy and not joy for the sake of sacrifice.

By the way, the nature of the life of the world to come is also revealed in this miracle. As CS Lewis perceptively put it, the yokel who thinks of the life of the world to come as a feast, a cheerful barbecue we might say, is closer to the truth, for all its lack of sophistication, than the philosopher who describes the world to come without putting a metaphysical foot wrong.

I’ve two more things to say. For St John Chrysostom, this miracle reveals Christ as the creator. In fact, for Chrysostom this is a general feature of his miracles. Jesus works with the material of the world, the material which he himself had created: ‘we see’ says Chrysostom, that ‘he performs most of his miracles upon subject-matter already existing’. He is not so much setting out to demonstrate his power so much as to show that he is the original creator of all things.

And finally, and this seems particularly important to me, this miracle, and most of his miracles, reveals the wonder of creation and sends us back to the world with renewed eyes.

Augustine says that this miracle, turning water into wine, ‘is no miracle to those who know that God worked it.’ That is because; the one who turned water into wine in the water pots turns water, year by year, into wine in the vine. As Augustine puts it ‘only the latter is no longer wonderful, because it happens uniformly.’ But by miracles such as this God seeks ‘to rouse us out of our lethargy and make us worship him.’ [Tr. ix]

Augustine says that it is no miracle that God should turn water into wine because every year he makes the vines produce grapes, and the grapes produce wine. For myself, I’d rather not bring this miracle down to the level of the vineyard but exalt the vineyard to the level of the miracle at the wedding.

The miracles are signs that open our eyes not only to see who Jesus us, but also to see the wonder of God’s provision for us in the world. The nets fill with one-hundred-and-fifty-three fish, but God of his bounty always fills the sea with fish. Jesus multiplies the loaves, and fish too, but God makes the grain to grow upon the hills.

Alison Milbank has written that Christian novelists often seek to make the world strange, so that we can return to it, and wonder, and by our wonder be led to God. The miracles too help to make the world strange again. This is the absolute opposite of all that demythologising of miracles that went on last century. That tried to make the miracles un-strange by giving them natural explanations. Really – they might typically say – Jesus just knew where to cast the net to find the fish sleeping in one bid shoal. What really happened was that Jesus poured some strong tawny port into the water jars and the resulting liquid tasted a bit like wine. Let us not make the miracles un-strange. Rather, the miracles should make all of life the more strange, more wonderful, more miraculous.

So then, in summary, God the Word, who is the creator of marriage, and the divine bridegroom, come into perfect union with our own humanity. Christ reveals at the beginning of his ministry that the goal is a final marriage feast, the wedding banquet of the Lamb. His miracle is an image of the joy which is for God the beginning and the end of creation. Christ is revealed as the creator, any by his miracles he reveals the wonder of creation. Most especially, the miracles reveal God’s wonderful provision, which is no less wonderful for the fact that it is accomplished through nature.

This is something that we could celebrate with a glass of wine over lunch. And then let us be amazed, let us be thankful to God, who has turned water to grape and grape to wine, so that our eating may be a symbol of the final feast and that there may be wine for this feast which we celebrate now – the Eucharist. The fathers made a great deal of the fact that there were six water pots, thinking that they represented the six ages of the world, with the final, sixth, age stretching from the time of John the Baptist until the end of the world. The Eucharist is the feast of the final age and of the age to come. And, truly, Christ has saved the best wine until last, until now: for the wine he gives us to drink is the wine of his own blood.