“You Have Saved the Best Wine Till Now”: John 2:1-11
A Sermon Given at St. Augustine’s Seminary, Toronto
January 17, 2007
Dr. Joseph Mangina, Wycliffe College
We all know what a tragedy is, don’t we? A tragedy is a story in which the world is fundamentally in contradiction with itself, where fate, or the odds, or the gods, are hopelessly stacked against us. Oedipus didn’t set out to kill his father or marrying his mother, he was simply the victim of Chance. Romeo and Juliet weren’t responsible or the hate that consumed their families, though they did become its victims. Things become a little more complicated in the greatest Shakespearian tragedies like Othello, Hamlet, and King Lear, for in these cases the protagonists do seem to be at fault; Othello is insanely jealous, Hamlet fails to act, while Lear is the victim of his own overweening pride. These are complex figures, each of them great in his own way, and yet with a greatness that’s proved only as they try to go against the grain of the universe, and the universe wins. In tragedy the world always stands ready to crush us. The moment of illumination comes when we realize just how puny we are in the face of forces like death, fate, the law of God, forces that lie beyond our power to control.
Likewise we all have a sense of what a comedy is. If tragedy describes a world where
the odds are stacked against us, comedy tells of a world where the odds are in our favor. In comedy the universe comes across as basically friendly to the human project. Oh, men and women have their foibles, and sometimes our grandiose opinions of ourselves need to be cut down to size; think of Falstaff or Don Quixote. But unlike tragedy, comedy lets us down gently. In a comic world we are moved not to pity and terror at the spectacle of human suffering, but to laughter at the absurdity that is human weakness. “It is not funny that anything else should fall down,” wrote G.K. Chesterton; “only that a man should fall down … Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.” That’s why Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp is one of the great comic figures of all time, because as we laugh with and at the Tramp we are laughing with and at ourselves.
Now the question arises, is the Christian gospel, the story the church proclaims in its
preaching and celebrates in its liturgy week by week, more like a tragedy or a comedy? Evidence can be brought in on either side. On the one hand, the gospel seems to be like a tragedy in its deep perception of the reality of evil. In Christianity—at least in Augustinian Christianity, and today we find ourselves at St. Augustine’s Seminary!—in Christianity, I say, humans are not simply weak or ignorant but fundamentally flawed. “And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). As sinners we do set ourselves against the grain of the universe, and we and others suffer for it.
On the other hand, the great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said that
Christianity is “beyond tragedy.” For Christians, after all, it is not Fate or Necessity that is in charge of the world, but the God of love, a God who providentially guides the universe to its intended purpose. Moreover one of the classic marks of a comedy is that it culminates in a wedding; think of Much Ado About Nothing or The Tempest, or for that matter Four Weddings and a Funeral. The Christian story, too, ends with a marriage feast: “And I saw the holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband... Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” Yet as a friend of mine once commented, what comedy ever had a bloody judicial execution at the very center of the play? It would seem that the gospel has elements of both comedy and tragedy, and that it is greater and more mysterious than either one.
All of this is a very long prologue to some thoughts on today’s gospel lesson, the
story of the miracle at Cana. At one level the story is very simple. Jesus, his mother, and his disciples are invited to a village wedding feast. Unaccountably, the host runs out of wine—an unforgiveable shortcoming in a culture where hospitality was so highly valued. Mary comes to Jesus and informs him of the situation: “They have no wine.” Initially Jesus hesitates— “What is that to me and to you?”—but when he does act he acts decisively. He tells the servants to fill six large jars of water, and when they draw it out and bring it to the steward it has turned into excellent wine. The story concludes with a comment by the evangelist: “This was the first of the signs which Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and showed forth his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
The exchange between Jesus and Mary has always caused trouble for commentators, and for good reason: there seems to be a disconnect between Mary’s question and Jesus’ answer. Mary simply says “they have no wine,” suggesting that there is something Jesus should do about it. Jesus’ reply is cryptic: “My hour has not yet come.” What is this “hour”? In John’s gospel, the “hour” is of course the event of Jesus’ glorification, the hour when he is raised up on the cross and thereby glorifies the Father. Only the Father can determine when that hour will be. But He does determine it; in the Fourth Gospel that hour comes on with all the fatedness of a Greek tragedy, so that when Judas Iscariot slips out into the night, Jesus knows that his destiny has come upon him: “Now is the Son of man glorified, and in him God is glorified” (John 13:31). These things must happen because they have been willed by the very Author of the drama.
But that hour is not yet. It is still early in Jesus’ ministry; he, his mother, and his
disciples have been invited to a village wedding celebration—whose, we aren’t told,
perhaps some relatives of Mary’s; the evangelist doesn’t think this question is very
important. It is enough that there is a bride and bridegroom, a wedding and a feast. But in a tradition shaped by Israel’s Scriptures no wedding can ever be simply a wedding. The wedding is one of the most common biblical figures of the relation between the LORD and his people, as we see in today’s reading from Isaiah:
You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delighs in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.
A wedding, you might say, is an eschatological occasion. But that means that it is a comic occasion. It points ahead to the end of the story—to the time when the wounds of history are healed, when there will be laughter and singing in the streets of Zion, and when the blessings promised to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel will be shared in abundance by all God’s people. Laissez les bons temps roulez, as they say in old New Orleans, or as they say in Jerusalem: Mazel tov.
One way of thinking about Jesus’ dilemma, then, is to ask whether it is appropriate
to celebrate the ending of the story in the midst of the story. On the one hand, the story must not be brought to its conclusion prematurely; no glory without the cross. On the other hand, Jesus is already the Lamb of God, already the One on whom the Spirit has descended. Perhaps the best commentary on the Cana story occurs just a little later in the Fourth gospel, where John the Baptist says of Jesus: “He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled” (3:29). These words echo Jesus’ own words in Luke’s gospel, “Can you make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” (luke 5:34). If the LORD is incarnate among his people, in other words, how can they not celebrate?
In his great book The Identity of Jesus Christ, Hans Frei deftly summarized Jesus’
mission by saying that it was to “enact the good of men [and women] on their behalf.” Jesus is always for those he comes in contact with. He wills the good even for his enemies. He forgives their sins, heals their diseases, casts out demons and makes people whole. It is this divinely-willed good that almost all the miracles in the gospels are meant to display.
But the great sign given at Cana is a little different from these other miracles. Here
Jesus neither heals nor exorcises nor forgives, he simply gives joy. “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 inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This, I’d suggest, is the unexpected comic dimension of the gospel. The God of Jesus Christ is not one who simply wants us to work hard and play by the rules, to measure out our lives in coffee spoons and then move on to the infinite bordeom of heaven. If that were the gospel, really—who would want it? It is unfortunately the case that all too many people, both outside and inside the Church, imagine that’s what it’s all about. The miracle at Cana shows us a different kind of God, a God who enlivens a village wedding feast with his presence, a God who turns water into wine—lots of wine—lots of very good wine. Later in John’s narrative, Jesus says that his whole purpose in coming was “so that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” In this way, the wedding at Cana points us to the very heart of the gospel we preach.
Of course, we must not preach the gospel as comedy in any easy or simple-minded
sense. To do so would be to fail to take into account our all-too-human resistance to
God’s offer of life. To take but one rather painful example: if our situation were purely
comedic, then this gathering could proceed directly from telling the story of the miracle at Cana to the celebration of the Eucharist. That, of course, is exactly what we cannot do. The degree of communion between our churches is very great, but it is not so great that we can actually come together at the Lord’s table to receive his body and blood. Here human tragedy seems to trump divine comedy, nor is there much prospect that the situation will change any time soon. And that is not even to mention the situation of the world outside the Church. “The world is a wedding” is a very fine sentiment on paper; compared to what’s going on right now in Iraq and Darfur, it seems terribly naive.
All this is true; and yet it would go against the grain of this story and of the whole
biblical witness to see it as the whole truth. The bridegroom has come among us, indeed
he is still with us. Like John the Baptist, the Church hears his voice and its joy is full. It is
this shared conviction that joins St. Augustine’s and Wycliffe, Anglicans and Roman
Catholics, beyond any of the differences that still divide us. Already today we have
discussed our common roots in the faith of Israel, we have prayed together, and in just a
short while we will sit down and break bread. My hope is that these activities will serve
as a sign of the real but imperfect communion we share—and can any communion be
imperfect if it is communion in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?
“This, the first of his signs, Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” Amen.