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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Cana and God's approach

Once, at a conference, I heard Fr. Diarmuid O'Murchu tell a joke that alluded to the gospel of this Sunday’s mass, the wedding feast at Cana in John 2. It seems there was a wedding in a small church in Ireland, see, and the pastor was to be out of town on an extended holiday, so the young curate was given the wedding to officiate. The young bride-to-be was a dance teacher, and the young priest thought it would be lovely touch if she and her new husband had a bit of a dance at the end of the ceremony, right there in the sanctuary in front of the congregation and the Blessed Sacrament, to symbolize everyone’s joy at their blessed union. The couple thought it was a lovely idea, too, so on the day of the wedding, right there in front of the priest, the people, and the Blessed Sacrament, the young curate invited them to the dance, and they jigged and reeled for a couple of minutes and headed down the aisle. There was much jaw-dropping and head-shaking among the older churchgoers, who gave the pastor and earful when he returned from holiday. The pastor called in the young curate and says, “Now, look, Father, what the devil did you think you were doing having the couple dance there in the sanctuary, in God’s house, right in front of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and all?” The nonplussed young curate retorted, “Well, Father, Jesus himself went to the wedding in Cana. Sure they had dancing there?” The pastor shot back, “Aye, y’omadhaun, but they didn’t have the Blessed Sacrament at the wedding in Cana, did they?”
I’ve never been a big fan of “supercessionism” or replacement theologies, in which the Christian covenant replaces the Jewish one, with Jesus as the new Moses, the apostles replacing the twelve tribes, and all that truck. Happily, Catholic and Jewish theologians have definitively come to a new place with regard to all that, with Rome moving beyond even Nostra Aetate to a new place in the 2015 document, "The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable." What’s going on is far more radical for both Christians and Jews. For us, the “reign of God” which is incarnate in Jesus replaces the whole economy of human intercourse, our instincts of self-preservation, rule by force and strength, and survival of the fittest. To believe that God became flesh in Christ Jesus is to believe that as God’s incarnate Word, Jesus was the best God could do to show us both what God is like and what we ought to be like. This is what it means to be mediator Dei, one being who is truly God and truly human. The paradigm of God’s dominion shifts from self-preservation to the wondrous fountain of life that is kenosis, or self-emptying; rule by force and strength is replaced by service; “survival of the fittest” is replaced by abundant life, teeming through spacetime, the life of the Holy One poured into a grain of wheat.
In the reading from Isaiah, the desolate and forsaken people of Israel, returning after long exile, hear the good news that “your builder shall marry you,” that God will rejoice in her like a bridegroom rejoices in a bride. Using names that play off of one another in Hebrew (it would read something like this for us: “No longer shall people call you ‘Forsaken,’ but instead, ‘Forsythia’! Not ‘Desolate,’ but ’Desired’), Israel reborn is renamed because she is a new reality. Anyone who has ever been surprised by love knows exactly what this is like, including the new names that come along with love, both informally between lovers and even formally, at times, in marriage. Love creates a new reality. The new names just articulate something that has happened much more deeply within us: we are radically changed. Love does indeed change everything. 
Doesn’t it stand to reason that, when God is the lover, things are transformed completely? Not just names, but the realities themselves. And the wedding feast at Cana becomes the first sign of the new encounter between God and humanity in Christ as John recounts it. The stone water jars, used for ritual purification (a religious rite) among the Jews, are filled with water which, without a word, Jesus changes into wine. Now, what was previously a religious law and legal prescription is impossible. Now there are a hundred fifty gallons of good wine where before there was just water for washing. There’s only one thing to be done: drink up! Here, in Jesus, there is a God who doesn’t want the wine to disappear at the wedding, and who doesn’t mind breaking a few laws of human religion in order for the wine to be made available for the joy of all. And these were people who, by the wine steward’s admission, were already drunk.
The young curate in Diarmuid’s joke saw that the joy of the new reality of the wedded couple was in perfect harmony with the God whose first irruption into our human enterprise was, by one evangelist’s account, at a wedding. The curate didn’t miss the reality of a personal God who is really present in people first, and in sacramental signs secondarily and differently. If love changes everything, and things aren’t changing fast enough, it might just be that we haven’t really fallen in love with this God who has admittedly fallen - ‘fallen from heaven,’ in a manner of speaking - for us. We wait around for all kinds of other lovers, we give ourselves to gods of our own making and religion that filters the true God through constrictive nets of power and control, but Jesus is the one who changes all that tawdry water into wine, showing us a God who offers us a way out of these hells, large and small, of our own making.
As Fr. Gene Walsh once said, “Jesus offers you two things: your life has meaning, and you’re going to live forever. If you can find a better deal, take it.”