During the three years Judy I lived in Germany, we had the privilege of
visiting many of the grand cathedrals of Europe, from Amsterdam to
Vienna. One cannot adequately describe with words the majestic masonry,
complex carpentry, stunning stained glass, imperial pulpits, powerful pipe
organs and artfully-crafted altars. Each and every edifice, displaying a
rich heritage of faith, surrounding visitor and worshiper alike with the
symbols, sights and sounds that give testimony to the great sacrifices
made by generations long gone for their faith. We worship here in a
building not unlike many of those, though on a much smaller scale, still
designed to lift our eyes to the heavens and our spirits to God.
The Gospel of John in many ways is like a cathedral, masterfully crafted
by a sculptor of words and filled with symbols of various shades and
shapes. Like an elaborate stained glass window or intricate Michelangelo
fresco, one rarely sees all the meanings contained therein at first glance.
The story of the wedding at Cana is a prime example of John's artwork.
If we look close enough, we can see the fine touches of a true artisan.
The opening reference to the third day, the uncommon presence of Jesus'
mother, the failing wine, the jars of purification, the servants who do
Christ's bidding--these are more than mere details designed to embellish a
good story like gold trim on a china plate. They are the painter's choice
of brush strokes, the writer's poetic devises, the photographer's creative
lenses, the tools of the artist skillfully used to do more than to tell a
story, they reveal the unseen realities of the invisible God now
powerfully present in the world in a new way.
We can read this story as narrative history if we choose and discuss
questions like: whose wedding was it, how many days did wedding feasts
last, why was Jesus there, why was his mother there, how did they make the
wine, did it or did it not contain alcohol, what did they serve for
dinner, did the fork go on the left or the right, how do you fold the
napkins, and other theologically critical questions. And when we are done
with all our questions and explorations, we will understand more about
Jewish weddings in first-century Palestine, the process for making wine in
antiquity, the social obligations of hosts in eastern societies and other
such matters which I know thousands and thousands of people out there are
just beating down the doors of the church to find out! We will know all
the details but fail to comprehend the story. It is like doing cranial
biopsies, no matter how many brains you dissect, you will never, ever be
able to comprehend the mind of a teenager.
There is another option. We can read this story as one would worship in
a great cathedral--with a sense of awe and wonder, or as a lover of art
walks through the Louvre, or a naturalist hikes through an old-growth
forest. In other words, we can and should read John as a divinely
inspired work of art itself, as a window to the divine which enlightens us
with its rays of shimmering beauty. Through it we may just catch a
glimpse of God.
I learned two things about art from Alfred North Whitehead, a
mathematician turned theologian and philosopher late in life. First, I
learned to see art as a "purposeful adaptation of appearance to reality".
That is, art interprets reality which sometimes is contrary to
appearance. The sun appears to rise and set, but we know that the reality
is that the sun is stationary and it is we that revolve giving it the
appearance of movement. Art seeks to make appearance match reality, to
reveal the truths about the nature of things, especially that which is
unseen, which lies beyond our observation, measurement and analysis.
John reveals to us in the unseen in his first chapter what has been
missed by his contemporaries: that the creative essence of God became
flesh in Jesus. In other words, in Jesus, God and humanity were joined
together and the two became one flesh. What better way to express the
unseen reality of this union than through a wedding! Thus where Matthew
and Luke have birth narratives, John has a wedding feast. But did you
notice that the bride, the star of any wedding, is not mentioned in this
story? Why not? Because this wedding is not about a man and a woman, it
is about Jesus and God. This is his equivalent of angels singing to
shepherds and stars appearing to magi. The unseen reality of Jesus Christ
is revealed in the story.
Second, Whitehead says that art unlooses a depth of feelings where
consciousness fails us and unites our experience with all others'. Thus
we can feel the pain caused by the merciless bombing of Guernica in the
Spanish Civil War when we see the grossly disfigured faces and bodies of
Picasso's famous painting of that event. Michelangelo's depiction of
creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel fills us with awe and wonder
over the power of God and the life that the touch of God gives to
humanity, to us. And Shakespear evokes within us the passion of young
love in Romeo and Juliet. Whether a painting, sculpture, song, dance,
drama or story, art is at its best when it puts us in touch with the
experience that defines who we are as human beings.
I doubt that very many here can say that they have experienced the union
of God and humanity. A few in our midst made it down to either the
Holiday Bowl or that other bowl game two weeks ago and report that it was
a heavenly experience. For many of those fans, that may be about as
religious as they will ever get! Those of us who had to watch the game on
TV may have had a great time, but it is not the same experience as being
Most of us, I am sure, have been to a wedding. We know what weddings are
like. John does not have to describe the scene, he only needs to say,
³there was a wedding², and immediately images fill our mind of brides and
grooms before the altar, of confetti and cake, of song and dance. While
weddings in first century Palestine certainly would be largely foreign to
our experience in terms of customs, in terms of feelings and emotions, the
difference would be little if any. Mothers still cried, the old remembered young loves, the young dreamed of finding their own Prince Charming
or Sleeping Beauty. Not that much has changed over the centuries.
You see, we can read this story as history, as someone else's story, as
someone else¹s wedding. Or we can read it as our story, as the portrayal
of the universal experience when humanity encounters the divine. This
wedding is not just an event from the pages of history, it is a wedding to
which we have received an invitation, to which we are called to witness.
So I invite you to put yourself among those witnesses, imagine yourself
in one of those spectacular cathedrals at a wedding where the covenantal
vows that unite God and humanity are exchanged in a ceremony of
commitment. Imagine that you have been touched by Jesus, that you have
heard him speak to you, that you have drunk the wine he prepared, that you
have experienced this wonderful, mystical union. What would your response
In the story of the wedding at Cana I see at least three marks of this
union between God and humanity.
First of all, there is the celebration. This marriage calls for a
festive occasion! The word of God has become flesh, celebrate! The light
of the world has been revealed, rejoice! Sing choirs of angels, sing in
exultation! Feast people of God at the banquet table of the Lord. Drink
from the cup of life!
At first glance, the idea of Jesus turning water into the wine as his
first miracle seems rather odd, almost offensive. Miracles are supposed
to have some dramatic effect on peoples' lives, healing the sick, feeding
hungry the hungry or calming threatening storms. But providing up to 180
gallons of wine to a group, which, according to the story, has already had
too much to drink?! Doesn't that strike you as odd? But if we can set
aside our sober, puritan sensibilities, however, and see wine in the cont
ext of the wedding celebration as a symbol of all good things in life, the
fruit of the earth, the essence of life, then it makes perfect sense.
When I moved to Germany I was rather shocked to learn that they drank
beer in the church. I just don't mean that church members drank beer, I
mean in the church they drank beer. Not on Sunday morning grant you, but
on festive occasions and evening gatherings, the pride of Germany
breweries was served openly and freely. On more than one occasion I saw a
deacon or two partake a little too much, but I cannot honestly say that
church members there had any more problem with alcohol than church members here.
That is not to say that I advocate the serving of beer in church! But I
did gain from that experience a new appreciation for viewing Jesus from
the perspective of a different culture and the value of recognizing the
limits of the cultural norms we bring to our reading of the bible.
To turn water into wine is to affirm that there is indeed a time to "eat,
drink and be merry." We North Americans would do well to learn from other
cultures the importance of taking time to enjoy life now rather than
spending all our energies to get ahead so we can enjoy it sometime in the
future. John tells in the story, ³enjoy now.²
There are of course other meanings one can give to wine in this text, for
how can we talk about wine and a feast without calling to mind the Last
Supper? Whether John made the same connection we cannot know, but
regardless, the image of the wine as the blood of Christ adds a further
dimension to this story. Thus the pronouncement of the chief steward,
³you have kept the good wine until now², is a sort of blessing upon the
start of Jesus' public ministry, much as one would offer a toast at a
wedding reception for the newlyweds.
The second mark of the union between God and humanity is grace. The
announcement of Mary, ³They have no wine², is most embarrassing. All
these guests from all over and nothing to serve. ³The party is over,
might at well go home, they have now wine.² But Mary, who pondered all
those things in her heart a few weeks ago, knows there is more to this
Despite his apparent rejection of his mother¹s suggestion to do something
about it, Jesus does not disappoint Mary. He tells the servants to fill
six jars with water, jars used for purification rites. Note the irony of
using these religious symbols for something so profane, so worldly. It
would be like using the baptistery for a hot tub--sounds fun but I do not
know anyone who would do it. It would be sacriligious.
Many have read into this use of these jars a judgment on religious
institutions which preserve rituals but offer little to satisfy deeper
longings. Martin Luther King's dream of equality for all people in this
society is no more fulfilled by celebrating his birthday tomorrow than the
kingdom of God is established by attending church today. We have to live
the dream, act on our beliefs, put our faith in action.
Jesus did not hesitate to act though no one asked for help. How often do
we decline to act because it is not our job or because we were not asked?
Yet Jesus responds, freely and abundantly. He does not ask why the host
was not better prepared or whether he or she deserves any assistance.
Though the vessels of the religious institution are empty, God can still
use them. This is grace, what cannot be bought or earned or created with
rituals is given freely by God to all who need it.
The third mark of this union between God and humanity is the revelation
of Jesus Christ. While we call the turning of water into wine a miracle,
John doesn¹t call it that. He calls it a ³sign², a sign that reveals the
glory of Christ. In John miracles are not supernatural wonders, but
events which point to something else, which point to the presence of God
This is not a story about magic tricks, being a good host or how to
impress your guests. It is a story about the grace of God so abundant
- on the third day, when the old wine failed, God provided new wine;
- on the third day, when everyone thought the party was over, God says
the celebration has just begun;
- on the third day, when everyone had given up hope and gone home, God
opened the tomb.
This is a story of what God brings to us on the third day of our lives
when old rituals fail, when nothing works anymore, when we have lost hope
and there is little left to celebrate. When we witness the union of God
and humanity in Jesus Christ, and we drink the cup of God¹s grace, we cannot help but be filled with
celebration, with joy with hope, and wonder. The good wine of God is not that which comes from the best grapes, aged to perfection which wins all
the awards for best clarity and bouquet, rather God's good wine is that which gives life, which quenches the deepest thirst, and which intoxicates
with life's abundant riches and beauty. It is a powerful and beautiful thing.
Drink of it, all of you. Do not sip it with social politeness, but drink
deep, discover the abundance of God's grace that fills our empty vessels
with life. Celebrate God's gift to us!