Fr John's Homily - The Wedding at Cana

20 January 2019 | General Interest


Marriage at Cana

Once again, Brendan Byrne SJ, scripture scholar, identifies that after the theological Prologue or introduction to John’s Gospel, chapter 2 moves to a very human family and community celebration of a marriage with Jesus and his mother present for the festivities: “From ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God’ to ‘There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee’: from the divine work of creation to a Galilean village… and to an event as humanly homely as a wedding where the wine runs out”!!

There was a time when I had a classroom/party trick, when briefly teaching chemistry, where I could turn water into wine into milk, but I wouldn’t recommend drinking the contents at any stage, given the mixture of acid, base, indicator, dissolved salts and precipitate! It did, however, momentarily improve the students’ fascination with the magic of chemistry!! I just don’t have access to the requisites these days. And this Gospel is not about magic, but rather a further revelation of the person of Jesus.

When I was young and enthusiastic, early on in my priesthood, I used to be happy to go to wedding receptions and celebrating with families and friends, late into the night, although my first wedding was of an old school friend 41 years ago this month, when I was a deacon, and the reception was after a morning Nuptial Mass at North Glen Waverley.  More recently, I celebrated the wedding of their son and soon their daughter, so they’ve remained good friends over the years.

In more recent decades now, I’ve slowed down slightly, and am not so big on wedding receptions (although personal invitations are as rare as hens’ teeth these days, and the weddings are less too!), and even weddings, at times, where the focus can tend to be less on reflecting on, and preparing for the future together, as on the immediate fuss, the flowers, the finance, the foostering around, and of course the photos, not to forget the limos, and the honeymoon!! I’ve long given up on rehearsals, as choreography has never been my specialty, but couples are welcome to organize their own. (I did acquiesce once, in San Antonio Cathedral, right next door to the Alamo, in Texas, 8 years ago this month, when I married a twin to a triplet, and they now have 3 lovely sequential children in Houston, the youngest named Isaiah!! The groom’s parents had to pay for the vigil dinner and the bride’s the reception).  

It strikes me that the practice beforehand usually lasts longer than the wedding ceremony! Then I have my slightly cynical inverse proportion theory, I have formulated mathematically: “The bigger the wedding, the shorter the marriage”!!  There has to be a question about the wisdom of how much is spent on a wedding, when it is all over so quickly (the wedding and reception, that is!), and life together afterwards is hopefully for life. That’s the ideal, anyway. Let it be said too that I am not playing down the importance of a public (and sacred – not scared – for those with a faith dimension), commitment by a couple, providing the opportunity for families and friends to celebrate, and also implicitly, to continue to care for and support the happy couple into the future. But, as the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his homily at the marriage of Charles and Diana in July 1981: “This is no fairytale”, and it certainly wasn’t for them, sadly played out to a voyeuristic public over the years they survived together.

Whilst it might be said: “What would celibate men in black dresses (although my dress here is white, topped by environmental green!) know about marriage?”, I guess too, that over 30 years of doing annulments, makes me reflect on the reality of the need for a couple to evaluate their relationship and commitment to life together, given the seriousness of the step they are taking. It rarely happens, but I admire a party to a wedding who has the courage to call it all off, once the ball starts rolling into the preparations for the reception and the big day.

It’s meant to be Luke’s Year, and here we are with John displacing him in the second week of the Church’s Year C.  And early in John the Evangelist’s account of Jesus’ public ministry, here is the first of Jesus’ signs, and called by one commentator, Epiphany III, the third revelation of Jesus, from Baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist, to the symbolism of universality and inclusion in the recognition of Jesus by the wise men from the East, way outside Jewish culture and traditions, to his acceptance by the ordinary people gathered for a natural human celebration of love in a marriage feast. Note, there’s nothing about the preceding ritual, presumably having occurred in the local synagogue. Jesus is not the celebrant, but a participant in the party as a guest, along with his friends. John’s reference to his glory being seen, is about recognition of him and following him in faith, as in his person, Jesus brings God’s Word (from John’s Gospel introduction) into physical human reality, in time and place.

The setting is in the village of Cana, and one can only presume there was a big crowd in attendance, perhaps the whole village, the festivities going on for some days, as was the custom back then. How else could they have got through all that wine, especially the extra supplies provided by Jesus, one stone jar said to contain 120 gallons (either Imperial or US!)?  There is symbolism here in the background, too, with John emphasising this as Jesus’ first ‘sign’, demonstrating his identity as sent by God, as the Word, but behind the scenes, so that only the servants and his disciples recognize this. It was not so much a matter of impressing the masses, as engendering ongoing faith in him among his growing band of followers.

Then there is the image of water for cleansing or purification, in the traditional Jewish rituals, but then the wine as a symbol of the new scenario introduced by Jesus himself, reflective of the lovely and tantalizing Old Testament images of heaven, as life with God in the new dispensation. The picture is painted of a gathering of the faithful around a table for a feast of fine wines and choicest meats, rich food (sometimes chosen as a funeral reading from Isaiah 25.6), as a reassuring metaphor for future life with God, in the ultimate or final fulfilment of the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus.

This Gospel is sometimes chosen by couples for their weddings, and it’s obviously more than appropriate, with the proviso to ‘enjoy wine in moderation’!! This is not about a big booze up, as we might say in colloquial terms, but about celebrating love and the importance of family and friends being supportive, and connecting the couple to a community, rather than just disappearing into the wild blue yonder, into the sunset, happily ever after.  There is no idyllic scenario for any marriage, and a fair bit of luck, as well as perseverance, compromise, apology, forgiveness where necessary, and growth in a loving and equal partnership.  

(One translation speaks of the guests getting drunk on the good wine before they get into the low quality stuff, but more polite translations seem preferable here!).

The primary message is about a call to faith in Jesus as the one to follow, as well as the obvious conclusion that one should do what your mother tells you, even if reluctant, as Jesus here first seems!! Interestingly, Mary has relatively low profile in John’s Gospel, and is never named, rather ‘the mother of Jesus’, appearing again at the foot of the Cross, along with John, the one Jesus loved, also not naming himself.

At the heart of it all, this is a very human story, with Jesus at the centre of it, enjoying and participating in the celebrations, obviously wishing the happy, loving couple well, whoever they were, for whatever the future held for them, as we do, when we gather to celebrate such important occasions, hoping the focus remains on the future together, as much as the present fun and festivities.

john hannon                                  20th January 2019


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