Epiphany Essay (2) – Party!

“Now there was a wedding at Cana…”

I have never had much for puritanical attitudes that smack more of that frontier religion that got imported into our country at the turn of the century than of the Gospel of Christ. The Rule of St Benedict, for instance, permits half a bottle of wine a day, or a hemina, which it says is sufficient for moderate consumption. And while the Epistle of Paul does frown upon drunkenness, one must read it in the light of what was prevalent in Greco-Roman culture as the preferred mode of partying. (Plato’s sometimes rowdy and bawdy Symposium, from which we get the name of the discussion group, is taken from the Greek word for “to drink together.”) So what to make of the wedding at Cana? Here–horror of horrors–is the first of the signs Jesus did: he turned water into wine. One cannot explain it metaphorically. To have more wine at the wedding party that got carried away must have delighted everyone no end. Jesus turned water into wine to keep the party going.

This is not a new insight. I must credit Fr. Joe Mock, one of my mentors, who brought this up at a discussion we had some years back, and who preached (or, as he insists, praught) on the subject at a wedding abroad. Fr. Joe, an Episcopal priest, recounts that when he spoke on this, someone came to him after the wedding and said, “I’ve never heard someone preach like that before. If he did, I wouldn’t have left the church!” (This was in Europe, by the way.) The second of the wonders we honor this day of Epiphany is indeed good news.
First of all, it reminds us of Mary’s role as a pointer to Christ. It is a role rediscovered by some evangelicals who have departed from the marioclasm (cf. iconoclasm) practiced by their brethren mainly in largely Catholic countries. While the understandable excesses of mariolatry often miss the point, honoring Mary–here described as Woman–for telling the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” is worth doing, as with all our forebears in faith in the great cloud of witnesses. And those who use this reference polemically forget that later on, in an exercise of what biblical scholars call a chiasmus, the same descriptor is used when Jesus commends the beloved disciple to her, and her to John.
Second, and this is where we return to where we began, this is good news because it reveals that God in Christ has come to ensure that we have life to the full. This sign is a scandal because we have super-human expectations at times of what Jesus can do. But what it says about Christ is what we must continue to celebrate on Epiphany and as our lives continue. He assumed our humanity, with all its foibles, its joys and griefs, meetings and partings, in order that we may participate in the life of the Triune God. If he assumed our humanity, we must conclude that he would celebrate as we do. I admit that it will be a while before I can fully come to accept this implication, but I have been getting hints and intimations of what this means over the past year.
To find Christ’s hand away from the “usual channels” or the “usual suspects” is a challenge for anyone, but it was more of a trial for me. I began last year working with an organization of evangelical Christians, from which I learned much both about how and how not to live the faith. At the same time, I was also observing the heavily secularized and, dare I say, hedonistic, field of the arts. In this sense, I wonder what they would have been in Jesus’ day, and I suspect that a number of artists would be treated with the same passionate disdain as sinners and tax-collectors. But would it not perhaps be better to see this is a reminder that it is beyond anyone’s purview to presume how God’s creativity continues to be manifest in the world, and how we have, in our frailty, seemed to have fallen short? (Peccavimus, I say.) But I will confess that I will not dare use “preachy shit” in those circles, as one old friend once chastised me for doing a very long time ago. Bishop Pierre Whalon warned against this kind of Christianity some time ago, and I will heed that warning and follow his advice.
Precisely because the sin of presumption, which Aquinas opined was one of the “sin[s] against the Holy Spirit,” is just too tempting to commit, I find it amusing that I am being forced at this point to wax theological about a scene which is getting far too interesting (and in a later essay, to be published elsewhere, I will have more to say). But it is to a party that Jesus came, a gathering of friends, family, and virtually everyone in Cana and environs, and who am I to say that I ought to be a party pooper!

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