January 20, 2019
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Isaiah 62:1-5||Psalm 36:5-10||1 Corinthians 12:1-11||John 2:1-11|
by Paul Nancarrow
The month of January in 2019 gives us a rare opportunity to visit all the themes of the ancient Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany arose in Alexandria, Egypt in the second century of the common era, largely in response to Hellenistic religious festivals clustered around the winter solstice. Various Hellenistic and Gnostic rites noted the position of the star Sirius at the solstice, or drew water from the Nile for ceremonial washings and symbols of new birth, or celebrated the birth of the wine god Dionysos. Christians noted these themes, and fashioned their own feast by gathering from the Gospels stories of star, water, and wine connected to Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ baptism, and Jesus’ “first sign.” Because Epiphany falls on a Sunday this year, the lectionary gives us these three Gospels on three successive Sundays, a rare opportunity to observe all the elements of the original ancient Epiphany.
Another oracle of encouragement for the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Exile, this passage uses imagery of marriage to evoke the joy and vitality God will bring to the restored city. “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,” the prophet promises. The promise extends not only to the city under reconstruction, but to the entire region of Judea, the very land on which the people dwell: “for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.” In keeping with the marriage symbolism, the new relationship between the people, the land, and God results in new names: the city that was called “Forsaken” is now to be called “My Delight Is in Her,” and the land once named “Desolate” is to be renamed “Married.” The marriage symbolism is therefore a sign of creative transformation, as God takes up the wreckage of apostasy and idol-worship and Exile and transforms them into the potentials for new faithfulness and justice and peace in the restored community.
A preacher approaching this text today might want to broaden the notion of marriage from just “a young man” and “a young woman” to other combinations of age and gender; but the central move from “desolation” to “truly partnered” in the grace of God could still be the principal theme.
A different preaching strategy might be to connect this passage to the Gospel, in order to situate the wine-miracle at the wedding in the larger context of God’s creatively transforming work to restore justice and peace to all people.
The psalm is paired with the reading from John principally because the line “you give them drink from the river of your delights” helps to set the stage for Jesus giving the wedding guests drink so that they may continue to feast in joy. In this poem “feasting” on God’s abundance and “drinking” from God’s delight are particular signs of God’s larger love and faithfulness that “reaches to the heavens,” God’s righteousness and justice as high as “mountains” and profound as “the great deep.” God’s loving-kindness is portrayed here as filling all creation, and meant for all creatures – “you save both man and beast, O Lord” – as the base condition for any existence at all. Giving drink is therefore not a sign of special favor so much as it is a localization of God’s universal love and offer of right-relationship for all. This can help contextualize Jesus’ provision of drink for the wedding at Cana as a particular sign of his general mission to demonstrate God’s love for all people.
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts is the “odd text out” in this set, as it has nothing to do with weddings, feasts, drink, transforming water into wine, or thematic qualities of love or joy. Instead, it is the first of a series of in-course readings from 1 Corinthians that will continue through the post-Epiphany Ordinary Time until the beginning of Lent. What does connect this passage to the wine-miracle and the overall theme of the day is Paul’s insistence that each “manifestation of the Spirit” is given “for the common good.” Spiritual gifts and abilities are not given to individuals for those individuals’ enjoyment or accomplishment or (worst of all) pride, but are given so that the entire community might be strengthened and built up and sustained in right-relationship. In just this same way Jesus gave wine to the wedding feast, not for the aggrandizement of the couple, and certainly not to show off for himself, but so that this ordinary gathering of ordinary townsfolk could see and be seen as a sign of God’s loving-kindness for all given in the Messiah. The gift of wine is a “manifestation of the Spirit” given “for the common good.”
As a side-note, I am intrigued with how a process-relational reading of this text might shift attention away from “spiritual gifts,” the common focus of interpretation of this text, and toward “spiritual activities.” Verses 4-6 set three things in close parallelism: gifts given by the Spirit, services rendered to the Lord, and activities activated by God. It seems these are to be taken as different ways of speaking of what are more or less the same things. Our contemporary tendency to focus on “gifts,” however, has a tendency to reify these spiritual realities, to treat them as settled things or solitary possessions, which, once given by God, become a permanent part of a person’s identity or skill set. I think it much more interesting, and more generally in keeping with a process-relational view of things, to consider “activities,” energeia in the original Greek, “workings” that a person may do for a time, or in certain contexts, or at need: uttering wisdom, uttering knowledge, holding faith, healing the sick, speaking in an ecstatic language, and so on. These are verbs to be done, not nouns to be possessed; they are not so much things given by God as energies energized by God; they are, as verbs, more easily understood as being a coming-together of divine and human, a co-acting of God and a human person together to accomplish a divine aim. Such a focus on “varieties of activities, but the same God who activates all of them in everyone” seems more in keeping with a panentheistic, co-creative account of God and the world. I also think it could be a more helpful community prayer exercise to invite people to consider how they might be activated by God to do godly things in the world, than to invite people to take a personal inventory to see what gifts they might have been given as signs of special favor by God.
Some cults of Dionysos in Hellenistic Alexandria held that the wine god was born at the winter solstice, and that on the night of his birth water wells gave forth wine. Alexandrian Christians gave this water-into-wine observance a Gospel twist by including the story of Jesus’ wine-miracle at Cana of Galilee as the third element in their Epiphany celebration. Long ignored by the Western Church, this aspect of Epiphany is given at least a passing glance in Lectionary Year C when the Second Sunday after the Epiphany includes this passage from John as the day’s Gospel.
The wine-miracle at Cana is remarkable among all the extraordinary works of Jesus because it is the only one in which someone’s health or safety or life is not at stake. Unlike the healings or the exorcisms – or even the stilling of the storm or the multiplication of loaves – no one is in danger at this wedding party, and Jesus performs this sign simply for the joy of it. To be sure, in those days wine was generally safer to drink than water, inasmuch as the alcohol in the wine would neutralize most microorganisms found in water; but guests who didn’t want to drink water could simply have left the party and gone home. There was, strictly speaking, no need for this miracle – so its inclusion here has more to do with its value as a sign than as a practical relief of need.
Providing “good wine” at a feast is an echo of Isaiah 25:6-7, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.” This imagery of a feast of food and wine at which death is destroyed was taken up into the complex symbolism of the Messianic Banquet, and found its way from there into the Wedding Supper of the Lamb in Christian apocalyptic literature (see, eg, Revelation 19:9; Matthew 22:1-10). For Jesus to begin his public ministry, then, by providing “good wine” at a wedding banquet is a sign that he has come to fulfill the role of the Messiah. When his disciples “believed in him” because of this sign, it is more than a simple acknowledgement that he has remarkable abilities, it is a recognition of his vocation. Their recognition will be tested – and will waver – in episodes to come. But John implies strongly here that the disciples know that Jesus is the Messiah from the beginning, unlike in the Synoptics where that is a discovery confessed by Peter at the climax of the Galilean ministry.
The wine-miracle, then, is an outbreak of joy that serves as a sign of the presence of the Messiah. It takes something common and ordinary – water – and resituates it in a new context, a new set of aims and possibilities, that releases enjoyment as “the good wine” shared among friends and companions. The passage invites us to consider how ordinary activities and actualities of our lives might be resituated in the context of God’s aims and ideals for us, new possibilities God opens before us, and how striving to embody those ideals in our own actual occasions might bring about joy in right-relationships and shared well-being that signify the presence of the Christ among us. A preacher could point to ministry activities in the congregation or the community in which ordinary actions become occasions of extraordinary grace, and invite people to go out and engage such ministry as a joyful sign of Jesus.
The Rev. Paul Nancarrow, Ph.D. is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia. His studies have focused on process-relational interpretations of liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action in sacramental work and worship. He serves as Canon Theologian for the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, and has taught Theology for deacons’ ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia. He enjoys pondering God in Creation from the saddle of his bicycle on the backroads of the Shenandoah Valley.