Last revised: February 11, 2016
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SECOND SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY — YEAR C
RCL: Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
RoCa: Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; John 2:1-11
The day’s lections raise the theme of marriage: the First Lesson with the metaphor of God’s People as married to the land, and the Gospel Lesson with its setting at a marriage festival, “The Wedding of Cana.” Marriage, as the most basic of covenant relationships, points beyond itself to the more general theme of covenant as what God offers us for true freedom.
We might ask: what is the purpose of marriage? Is it solely for the benefit of the couple? Girardian anthropology teaches us that, in the context of social relations which are dominated by scapegoating tendencies, covenant relationships seem to benefit the covenanting parties over against other groups. St. Paul talks about the Law corrupted by the power of sin. Law is a covenantal relationship that becomes corrupted by the power of sin, i.e., the victimage mechanism, so that it becomes yet another way to divide among peoples. Marriage is similarly corrupted.
But that’s not what covenant relationship is intended to be. The way in which I might most simply ask about this is: Is marriage more of an “us against the world” relationship, or an “us for the world” relationship? The power of sin pushes us more toward the former, and God is persistently inviting us to live the latter. In Jesus Christ, we come to know that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. In covenant relation with God through Jesus Christ, we are for the world.
Link to the outline of a sermon on the theme of what makes for “Celebrating Holy Communion.”
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 189. In a section entitled “Images that Run Together,” Alison notes the coming together of two major images, the risen victim, or Lamb of God, and the wedding banquet. He writes:
Throughout these pages there have been two imaginative poles, two principal images, which have given us hints for the understanding of something of the things that are above on which we are to fix our minds: the vision of the open heaven with the risen victim — the slaughtered lamb standing or seated at the right hand of God — and the wedding banquet. In fact these two images permeate the whole apostolic witness: shortly after John the Baptist points Jesus out as the Lamb of God, and shortly after Nathanael is promised that he will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man, Jesus works his first sign, in Cana of Galilee. The sign is that the bridegroom of Israel has arrived, and the one who was an abandoned and repudiated woman is beginning to be able to enjoy a wedding banquet where flow a wine and a rejoicing quite unthinkably greater than that imagined by those who had made the wedding preparations. (Cf., Isaiah 62:1-5; that this interpretation is according to the mind of the Church can be seen by looking at the readings for the second Sunday of the year in cycle C, where the Isaiah passage and the wedding at Cana are juxtaposed.) I do not need to mention the number of times that Jesus speaks of the kingdom in terms of a wedding banquet in the synoptic Gospels, for we have looked at several of those passages.
What is indeed interesting is the running together of these images in the book of Revelation, the book where all is centered around the heavenly vision of the slaughtered lamb. Let us look at the passage:
And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord our God, the omnipotent, has begun to reign! Let us rejoice and leap for joy and give God the glory! For the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride is made ready for him, it has been given her to dress in resplendent pure linen (and the linen is the works of justice of the saints). Then [the angel] said to me: “Write: blessed are those who are invited to the wedding banquet of the lamb.” And he said “These are true words of God.” (Rev. 19:6-9)
The two images flow into one alone: the wedding banquet of the lamb. And this confluence of images has as its effect precisely that we should learn to imagine the things that are above, that we should allow ourselves to be nurtured by this imagination which will empower us to re-create that wedding banquet. On the one hand we have the gratuity of the invitation made to good and bad alike, allowing us to stand loose from concern about how appropriate our participation might be, because the invitation, and it is insistent, comes from One who delights in us just as we are. On the other hand this same standing loose, this same unconcern, gets through to us in the degree to which we allow ourselves to be possessed by the news that God is entirely without violence, is utterly vivacious, creative, effervescent, that we are empowered for the construction of a story of life in flexible imitation of the risen victim. This is a story which we construct in hope, and by which we construct hope, creating belief, in the midst of the crushing darkness of the dominion of death. That is, the apostolic witness itself shows clearly that the inner dynamic which runs through it reaches maturity precisely in this fusion of images which come together to form a single vision of heaven.
But there is more: the banquet is not only a banquet, but it is a wedding banquet, and the guests also constitute the bride. That is, the rejoicing is not only that of guests, but of one being married, and here is where the image of heaven is, without any shame, marital. The wedding which is celebrated includes the completely loving interpenetration of bride and groom, in a relationship which makes of them one thing, a relation of infinitely creative fecundity, freed, of course, from all the tensions, rivalries and complications which surround and diminish our experience and living-out of things erotic. Paul points this out when he explains marriage in Ephesians 5, comparing the conjugal relationship to that between Christ and the Church, but please notice that he doesn’t start from the conjugal relationship in order to explain heaven, but it is the heavenly relationship, that of heavenly self-giving and interpenetration in love, which is his starting point so as to understand the earthly reality of marriage. It seems to me that this image is also to nourish our hope-fired imaginations: it is the story of the ugly duckling, of Cinderella, made, much to her surprise, capable and worthy of a relationship of loving exchange with her swan, her prince, quite beyond her expectations. When Paul says that, at the end, everything will be subdued to Christ, who will be submitted to God, “so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28), it is to be understood within this interpenetrative vision. Since we are formed from within entirely by the Other who has called us into existence, since “the other is consubstantial with the consciousness of the ‘self,'” (1) at the end we will be entirely possessed by the God who possesses pacifically in an interchange that is ever more fecund and creative. We will be married participants, all our desires fulfilled, in that effervescent creative vitality. (pp. 189-191)
1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 216. We cited this section last week on “The Revelation of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity” (pp. 209-217). The climax of this argument is the notion of a reciprocal bestowal of love between the Father and Son such that it is constitutive of another person, the Holy Spirit, whose mission is “to unite people with Christ and with one another” — which is the point at which Schwager cites 1 Cor. 12:4-13 as illustrative. Here is a larger context for that citation:
Thanks to the clear perception of several distinctions within God himself, the question about the one origin (unica spiratio) of the Holy Spirit from the reciprocal love between Father and Son can be more easily approached. Since what the Son gives back to the Father is distinct from the principle by which he is a person, he can distinguish his love from himself and let go of it. It is not identical with him in an undifferentiated way; it is in fact not even the fruit of his own person alone, for it is attracted by the other side, by the generous goodness of the Father. The Father too distinguishes his love for the Son from the principle by which he generates and constitutes him. He too, then, can let go of his love as his own. Here again, it is not merely the fruit of his own working, for it is related to the Son, insofar as he is already constituted and it is attracted by his thankfulness. The reciprocal love is therefore not put together from the Father’s own love and the Son’s own love, but both let go of their love as their own, so that it becomes one common love. The Father loves the Son on account of his thankfulness, but the Son is thankful because he sees the love of the Father. Thus the Holy Spirit is the free-moving love itself. (2) The reciprocal love between Father and Son can therefore be freely active and become its own person, because both let go of it as their own.
In the history of salvation, something common and moving freely between Father and Son is seen first of all in the message of the kingdom of God at hand. Jesus announces it entirely as the kingdom of his Father and at the same time speaks completely in his own name (“Amen, I say to you”). The word of proclamation belongs entirely to both and at the same time is detached from both: “Everything is given over to me by my Father; no one knows the Father, only the Son and that one to whom the Son wants to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). This word, which arises completely from the reciprocity of the Father and Son and speaks of it, originates from within their intimacy and is addressed to other, human hearers. The word of proclamation shows itself thus as the first figure in salvation history by which reciprocal love (Holy Spirit) becomes manifest.
Full reciprocity and commonality is revealed even more clearly in the last three acts of the drama. The Son gives himself to the Father in dying, the latter answers in the resurrection, and both together send out the Spirit. Thus the three different forms of bestowal are already repeated within each act, even if in a differing way. The Son can only entrust himself completely in dying because he is already gripped in his depths by the God who is not a God of the dead but of the living (Mark 12:26ff. and parallels). It is precisely in the act of surrender to the Father, which includes the Father’s communication to him, that the Spirit springs up for humankind (“streams of living water” [John 7:37-39; 19:34-37]). Even the resurrection is not a one-sided deed of the Father, for by it he answers the Son who “with loud cries and tears offered up prayers and supplications to him who was able to save him from death” (Heb. 5:7). The immediate common fruit of the request on the part of his Son become man and of the heeding of the heavenly Father is the pneumatic body of the risen one as “life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:44ff.), which is communicated to humankind (Acts 1:2; 2:33).
The model of reciprocal bestowal proves, then, well suited to bringing out the innermost dimensions of the dramatic salvation event. At the same time it becomes clear how reciprocal love flows into such an event of release that we can no longer speak of two acts in opposing directions, from Father to Son and from Son to Father. Each one lets go of his love as his own in favor of the other, so that this love can be constituted as the one common love and can become a person.
Because the Son himself is, at one and the same time, receiving and actively letting go and because the Holy Spirit is pure letting go, the Father is able to communicate himself through them to creatures without the distinction between creator and creature being abolished. Communication takes place at the level of these persons and their free existence and not at the level of the one essential being. Since, further, the Holy Spirit according to his entire personal character is reciprocal love, letting go of itself, it is to him that the mission in salvation history falls: to unite people with Christ and with one another. This throws light on the statement that he creates the one body with many members (1 Cor. 12:4-13). His particular nature makes it also comprehensible that Christ can live as the most inner being in the faithful: “I have been crucified with Christ; no longer do I live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:19ff.).
We next ask, in whom does the Spirit work? Here there arises a problem which can show up again the consequences of the two complementary trinitarian models. If one thinks in a linear way from the viewpoint of the procession and mission model, then it is natural to suppose that the Holy Spirit only unites those people with Christ who have already heard of the crucified and risen one and believe in him (for the Son precedes the Father). That axiom with such difficult consequences, “outside the church no salvation,” seems to go together with this view. In distinction to this, we have seen that one must speak of Christ already on the cross identifying with all humans. This is essentially brought about by the Spirit. (Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 214-216.)
2. James Alison, “On learning to say ‘Jesus is Lord’: a ‘Girardian’ confession”; based on his address to the 2000 COV&R meeting in Boston, this essay is now chapter seven in his book Faith Beyond Resentment. I share the opening section that uses 1 Cor. 12:1-3 as a point of departure:
a tale of two spirits
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were heathen, you were led astray to dumb idols, however you may have been moved. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:1-3)
The whole of what I want to say is in this passage. Many of us are used to a cheap reading of these words. All we need to do is avoid saying ‘Jesus is cursed,’ which it wouldn’t occur to most of us to want to say anyhow, and instead to say, or to sing, repetitively and maybe obsessively, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ This would be a way of proving to ourselves that we have the Holy Spirit, and are on the right side.
Now of course, this is nonsense. The devil can quote Scripture, and Paul is proposing for us something much more dense than a merely verbal test of our orthodoxy. This passage suggests that there are two forms of cultural life at work. In one of these, people are moved by spirits which incline us to dumb idols, and which issue forth in someone being cursed. This is the cultural world in which social belonging and religion lead people to maintain their group unity by fixing on someone or some group who can be thrown out, anathematised, cursed. The semi-conscious group dynamic of ganging up against someone — the ‘however you may have been moved,’ with Paul’s implication that there are evil spirits at work here — leads to a sense of unity. And the unity needs ‘the cursed one’ to be able to maintain itself.
Paul is suggesting that there are some people who have been trapped into understanding Christ’s death and resurrection from within that cultural mentality, making of Jesus the ‘cursed one’ which the group needs to maintain its unity and its sense of goodness.
The other form of cultural life, which moves beyond being trapped, knows that no form of social and cultic belonging can survive the perception that our victim was in fact God himself, present in Jesus.
When our expulsion of him was revealed for what it was, at the resurrection, far from our being given a superior crutch by which to keep our world of moral and social order intact, what we received turned out to be the explosion of our cultural order, a major question mark over any of our attempts to shore up social unity, and the beginning of an entirely new way of human being-together, gradually constructed without the need for a sacrificial victim.
Now it would be easy enough to demonstrate that for far too long, Christianity in both its Protestant and Catholic ‘orthodoxies’ has relied on an explanation of salvation which does in fact fall straight back into saying, with many a polite circumlocution: ‘Jesus is cursed.’ All the bastardised Anselmian substitution theories which tend to underlie seemingly attractive presentations of the Christian faith in fact turn on God cursing Jesus so that we can be ‘saved.’ Jesus as cursed comes to be the necessary bit of the formula which allows the sleight of hand by which salvation is proclaimed without making any real difference to the social and moral enclosure within which we live. Cursed Jesus is simply the guarantor of an independent and pre-understood definition of good and evil into which we are required to fit as best we may.
I mention this en passant, rather than trying to argue with it. It is one of those things which cannot really be argued against. For those who hold it, it has a dangerously sacred status. For those who have moved beyond it, it needs no arguing against.
What I am interested in is something different. I am interested in sharing with you what I hope you will agree to call an experience of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit which allows the words ‘Jesus is Lord’ to become not a slogan, but a gasp at the three-dimensional wonder of Yahweh in our midst as one of us, with all the mystery of the Lord’s vulnerable revelatory power intact. (pp. 147-149)
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 179-180, within the section “The Church as a Structure of Agape Based on the Imitation of Christ Crucified,” pp. 174-182.
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from January 18, 2004 (Woodside Village Church).
5. Brian McLaren suggests that for Paul Body of Christ is somewhat akin to Jesus’ Kingdom of God, especially when we understand that our phrase “body politic” had synonyms in the Roman Empire. He explains in The Secret Message of Jesus:
As we began to see in the preceding chapter, Paul himself a boundary crosser does much to translate Jesus originally Jewish message so that non-Jews from around the Roman Empire can understand it as a live spiritual alternative.
For example, the empire of Rome was frequently depicted as the body politic, and Caesar was head of the body. Paul picks up the image and speaks of the body of Christ, with Christ as head.
Even Pauls oft-repeated language of Jesus being Lord resonates with kingdom language: the pledge of allegiance in the Roman Empire was (in Greek) Caesar ho Kurios Caesar is Lord. To say Jesus is Lord is to declare ones allegiance to a different empire or kingdom, which is one reason that the early Christians were persecuted: not for their religious beliefs but for their lack of patriotism and national loyalty in refusing to say the expected pledge of allegiance to Caesar.
When you read Paul not just looking for overt kingdom references, but with this more general kingdom-consciousness in mind, his letters begin to sizzle and boil with resonance. Instead of the kingdom message of Jesus being downplayed, we realize its there in powerful, unmistakable ways but translated into different imagery. (pp. 96-97)
In his book on evangelism or “spiritual friendship,” More Ready Than You Realize, McLaren summarizes in Chapter 17 with eight “factors.” The third factor revolves around the Body of Christ:
3. The Communal Factor: Expect conversion to normally occur in the context of authentic Christian community, not just in the context of information.
Spiritual friendship isnt just about you. You are part of something bigger, something Paul called the body of Christ. In a real way, Jesus is still here in the flesh, but now, instead of looking at the world through one pair of eyes, he sees through millions, and instead of touching and smiling and laughing and crying and welcoming and listening through two eyes and hands and ears, Jesus does so through one body composed of thousands and thousands of us. So one of the best things you can do for your friends who dont yet know and love Jesus is to introduce them to your other friends who do.
Jesus said that the love your unconvinced friends observe between you and your fellow disciples will be the most telling evidence possible for his legitimacy. They will sense his Spirit alive in you all, and Paul put it this way (in 1 Corinthians 14) they will fall down on their faces and say, God is really among you! (pp. 141-42)
In his book on spirituality, Naked Spirituality, the Body of Christ plays a prominent role in helping to introduce the topic. When postmodern folks speak about spirituality, McLaren suggests that they are pointing to four characteristics:
- That secular science, politics, and economics dont have all the answers for them.
- That organized religion doesnt have all the answers for them either.
- The word spiritual signals for them an inner sensitivity to aliveness, meaning, and sacredness in the universe.
- Spiritual people seek practical ways to nourish that sense of integration and communion. (pp. 13-14)
Which he follows with a beautiful summary paragraph:
The truth is that these four characteristics of spirituality are also at the heart of true religion, as the etymology, or origin, of the word religion makes clear. The root of the word is lig-, which you see in the word ligament. It means to connect, to join together, to unite, to bring everything together in one body or one wholeness. And of course re means again. So you might say that good religion is about connecting us together again. Most deeply, it is about binding us together into one body with God, acknowledging that different religious denominations and families have differing ways of describing and relating to God.* It is also about bonding and uniting us again with one another and with all creation the trees and the mountains and the animals, with the stars and space and wind. In this light, true religion and naked spirituality are two names for the same thing: seeking vital connection. And seeking vital connection, it turns out, is another name for love. So, we might say, both spirituality and religion are, at their best, two names for love. (pp. 14-15)
There is an endnote (marked by the *) which brings us back to The Secret Message of Jesus and the Body of Christ:
Its interesting that two of the key metaphors in the New Testament seek to capture this connection. Jesuss term kingdom of God (which I explore at length in my book The Secret Message of Jesus [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006]) portrays a connection or community that includes God and creation. This beautiful whole is, in this way, bigger than either God alone or creation alone and comprises both. Similarly, Pauls term body of Christ connects God-in-Christ and humanity-in-creation, bringing them into a larger communion again not a simple union or fusion where one is absorbed in or reduced to the other, but where one and the other experience an at-one-ment, a one-anotherness, in which otherness remains, but doesnt divide. (note 5 on p. 14, with the note itself on p. 252)
6. Richard Rohr, Things Hidden. In his book on reading Scripture, that is so much a Girardian reading that he titled it after Girard’s own magnum opus, Chapter 10 on “Mutual Indwelling” uses Paul’s Body of Christ as one of its core teachings. He writes,
The whole movement of the Bible is toward ever-greater Incarnation and embodiment, until the mystery of mutual indwelling is finally experienced and enjoyed even here in this world and this life. It then becomes the banquet that we call eternal life or heaven. For Christians, Jesus, the Christ, is the ultimate symbol of this divine goal, pattern and embodiment: When Christ is revealed, and he is your life, you will be revealed in all your glory with him (Colossians 3:4). Henceforth we know our true and lasting life in the new force field that Paul calls the Body of Christ and not in individual or private perfection. It becomes more important to be connected than to be privately correct.
Paul’s notion of the body of Christ has a material and cosmic character to it, and begins in this world (which is why we believe in the resurrection of the body and not just the soul). Yes, there is a new heaven but there is also a new earth (Revelation 21:1). What more fitting meaning could the Second Coming of Christ have except that humanity becomes a beautiful bride all dressed for her husband? (Revelation 21:3). Union is finally enjoyed, and God’s win-win story line has achieved its full purpose. What a hopeful end to history! What an apokatastasis, or universal restoration (Revelation 3:21)! What a victory for God and for humanity!
What the full biblical revelation has given us is the history within the history, the coherence inside of the seeming incoherence. If you dont get this inner pattern, then religion becomes simply aimless anecdotes just little stories here and there, with no pattern or direction. They come from no place and there is no place they are going. You have to know where the text is heading, or you do not know how to thin slice and look through the appropriate lenses.
What we are saying is that the clear goal and direction is mutual indwelling, where the mystery is Christ within you, your hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). In this mutual indwelling you no longer live as just you, but you live in a larger force field called the body of Christ (Galatians 2:20). As Charles Williams said, the master idea of Christianity is co-inherence. But it takes a long time to allow, believe, trust and enjoy such wonder.
Only in the final chapter of the Bible can it say, Now God lives among humans, they have become Gods people, and he has become their God (Revelation 21:3). Only at the end does the New Jerusalem descend from heaven to earth. (pp. 211-13)
He ends the chapter and the book with reflections on the Eucharist (including one of my favorite Gil Bailie moments where he elaborates on the meaning of the actions in blessing the elements) that climaxes with this poem from Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), Hymn 15 in his Hymns of Divine Love:
We awaken in Christs body,
As Christ awakens our bodies
There I look down and my poor hand is Christ,
He enters my foot and is infinitely me.
I move my hand and wonderfully
My hand becomes Christ,
Becomes all of Him
I move my foot and at once
He appears in a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous to you?
Then open your heart to him.
And let yourself receive the one
Who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
We wake up inside Christs body
Where all our body all over,
Every most hidden part of it,
Is realized in joy as Him,
And He makes us utterly real.
And everything that is hurt, everything
That seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged
Is in Him transformed.
And in Him, recognized as whole, as lovely,
And radiant in His light,
We awaken as the beloved
In every last part of our body. (pp. 219-20 in Things Hidden)
7. N. T. Wright, Simply Christian, in the penultimate chapter on “Believing and Belonging, Wright brings in the Body of Christ in commenting,
Many people today find it difficult to grasp this sense of corporate Christian identity.We have been so soaked in the individualism of modern Western culture that we feel threatened by the idea of our primary identity being that of the family we belong to especially when the family in question is so large, stretching across space and time. The church isn’t simply a collection of isolated individuals, all following their own pathways of spiritual growth without much reference to one another. It may sometimes look like that, and even feel like that. And its gloriously true that each of us is called to respond to Gods call at a personal level.You can hide in the shadows at the back of the church for a while, but sooner or later you have to decide whether this is for you or not. But we need to learn again the lesson (to take St. Pauls image of the Body of Christ) that a hand is no less a hand for being part of a larger whole, an entire body. The foot is not diminished in its freedom to be a foot by being part of a body which also contains eyes and ears. In fact, hands and feet are most free to be themselves when they coordinate properly with eyes, ears, and everything else. Cutting them off in an effort to make them truly free, truly themselves, would be truly disastrous.
In particular, it would deny the very purpose for which the church was called into being. According to the early Christians, the church doesn’t exist in order to provide a place where people can pursue their private spiritual agendas and develop their own spiritual potential. Nor does it exist in order to provide a safe haven in which people can hide from the wicked world and ensure that they themselves arrive safely at an otherworldly destination. Private spiritual growth and ultimate salvation come rather as the byproducts of the main, central, overarching purpose for which God has called and is calling us. This purpose is clearly stated in various places in the New Testament: that through the church God will announce to the wider world that he is indeed its wise, loving, and just creator; that through Jesus he has defeated the powers that corrupt and enslave it; and that by his Spirit he is at work to heal and renew it.
The church exists, in other words, for what we sometimes call mission: to announce to the world that Jesus is its Lord. This is the good news, and when its announced it transforms people and societies. Mission, in its widest as well as its more focused senses, is what the church is there for. God intends to put the world to rights; he has dramatically launched this project through Jesus. Those who belong to Jesus are called, here and now, in the power of the Spirit, to he agents of that putting-to-rights purpose. The word mission comes from the Latin for send: As the father sent me, said Jesus after his resurrection, so I am sending you ( John 20:21).
We shall consider presently what that means in practice. But first, notice this. From the very beginning, in Jesus’s own teaching, it has been clear that people who are called to be agents of Gods healing love, putting the world to rights, are called also to be people whose own lives are put to rights by the same healing love. The messengers must model the message. Thats why, though the reason for Gods call of the church is mission, the missionaries that is, all Christians are themselves defined as people who have themselves been made whole. (pp. 203-204)
In Surprised by Hope, in the last chapter on “Reshaping the Church for Mission 2,” Wright is steering a middle course with a theology of the Eucharist from the perspective of a theology of new creation. The body of Christ in the Eucharist provides necessary foundation to Paul’s “body of Christ” in 1 Corinthians 12. Wright writes,
In between the quasi-magic ritual, on the one hand, and the bare memory, on the other, a more historically grounded view reminds us of how the Jewish sacred meals (not least the Passover, from which the Eucharist takes its point of origin) were thought to function. To this day, when Jews celebrate Passover they dont suppose they are essentially doing something different from the original event. This is the night, they say, when God brought us out of Egypt. The people sitting around the table become not the distant heirs of the wilderness generation but the same people. Time and space telescope together. Within the sacramental world, past and present are one. Together they point forward to the still-future liberation.
What happens in the Eucharist is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, this future dimension is brought sharply into play. We break this bread to share in the body of Christ; we do it in remembrance of him; we become for a moment the disciples sitting around the table at the Last Supper. Yet if we stop there we’ve only said the half of it. To make any headway in understanding the Eucharist, we must see it as the arrival of Gods future in the present, not just the extension of Gods past (or of Jesus’s past) into our present. We do not simply remember a long-since dead Jesus; we celebrate the presence of the living Lord. And he lives, through the resurrection, precisely as the one who has gone on ahead into the new creation, the transformed new world, as the one who is himself its prototype. The Jesus who gives himself to us as food and drink is himself the beginning of Gods new world. At communion we are like the children of Israel in the wilderness, tasting fruit plucked from the promised land. It is the future coming to meet us in the present.
This perspective is a far more helpful way to talk about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist than trying to redefine the old language of transubstantiation. The problem with the old language was not that it was the wrong answer but that it was the right answer to the wrong question. It was right to insist on the true presence of Christ but wrong to explain that presence in terms of the philosophies of the time, the Aristotelian distinction between substance and accident, and the supposed power of the priest to alter the substance (the inner, invisible reality of an object like a piece of bread) while leaving the accidents (its outward properties like weight, color, chemical makeup) apparently untouched. That was one way of saying what needed to be said in language that some people in the Middle Ages could understand, but it has produced all kinds of misunderstandings and abuses.
A far better way is provided by the New Testaments language about new creation. Take Romans 8 as a good starting point: creation is groaning in travail as it waits for redemption. But one part of the old creation has already been transformed, is already liberated from bondage to decay, namely, the body of Christ, the body that died on the cross and is now alive with a life that death cant touch. Jesus has gone ahead into Gods new creation, and as we look back to his death through the lens he himself provided that is, the meal he shared on the night he was betrayed we find that he comes to meet us in and through the symbols of creation, the bread and the wine, which are thus taken up into the Christ story, the event of new creation itself, and become vessels, carriers, of Gods new world and the saving events that enable us to share it.
Within this framework, that of a true Easter understanding of creation and new creation, we can understand the Eucharist most fully as the anticipation of the banquet when heaven and earth are made new, the marriage supper of the Lamb. (Some liturgies have tried to express this but sadly have often collapsed back into mere talk of heaven, which is precisely not the point.) It is the breaking in of Gods future, the Advent future, into our present time. Every Eucharist is a little Christmas as well as a little Easter.
This is not magic. Magic seeks to gain by cunning, and for personal power or pleasure, what God gives by grace, to faith, to promote holiness and love. The resurrection of Jesus and the promise of a world made new provide the ontological, epistemological, and above all eschatological framework within which we can understand the Eucharist afresh. Let us not rob ourselves of the hope that comes forward from Gods future to sustain us in the present. Gods new world has begun. If we dont see it breaking into the present world, we are denying the energizing foundation of Christian life. (pp. 274-76)
Jesus responds to his mother’s request in what appears to be a cold an aloof way. His hour has not come. Nevertheless, the stewards are instructed to what he asks them.
The six stone jars used for the Jewish rites of purification are of a size more suitable to the temple than for a home in Cana. In any event, they refer to a very prominent part of Jewish life in the first century. They were pre-occupied with the problem of impurity.
This story, then, is really about the collision between the ministry of Jesus and the conventional religion of his time. We could say, lest we think this has something to do with the Jewishness of this religion, that there is always a collision between the ministry of Jesus, or the spirit of the Paraclete that Jesus left us, and the conventional religions of the time. This is paradigmatic collision.
The stone jars are not for wine, but for ritual washing. And note they need filling; they are depleted. Jesus is not rejecting the jars and what they stood for; he is filling them. You could say that he is filling the rituals with meaning and then transforming them.
Three notes in passing: (1) the gentleness of this transition from one dispensation to another. Not a rejection, but filling it and transforming it. A continuity and a discontinuity at the same time. (2) The devout Jews of the time were habituated to these rituals and clung to them, not only because they order life but also because it gave them an identity. So when Jesus begins to offer an alternative, he runs into the fundamental human phenomenon of our clinging to such rituals. (3) This all takes place in furtherance of a marriage. That is to say, the daring boldness of permanent, life-long commitment. The root of the word “troth” is the root of the word “truth.” We discover truth in troth.
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 189; same as above for the First Lesson.
3. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on the text in 2013, “Strange Wedding.”
5. Russ Hewett, pastor of MeetingPlace near Bangor, Maine, offers this blog on the Wedding at Cana, “Six Stone Jars.”
6. N. T. Wright; John for Everyone, Chs. 1-10, pp. 19-27; Simply Jesus, Ch. 10, “Battle and Temple,” Ch. 11, “Space, Time, and Matter.” One of Wright’s key points about Jesus is that he saw himself as coming to replace the Temple as the primary place where heaven and earth meet — a “thin place” in contemporary spirituality. John 2 makes this point more clearly than any other place in the Gospels, with John placing the demonstration in the Temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. And he ends his account with words from Jesus that makes his replacement of the Temple explicit:
“Destroy this Temple,” replied Jesus, “and Ill raise it up in three days.” “Its taken forty-six years to build this Temple,” responded the Judaeans, “and are you going to raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the “temple” of his body. (John 2:19-21)
The Wedding at Cana introduces this theme through Jesus’ replacement of water in the ritual jars with wine. The purification process controlled by the Temple authorities is being liberated by Jesus for truly life-giving possibilities. And the notion of a “sign” itself glimpses this whole process. Wright writes,
The word [John] uses for “clue” is “sign” (verse 11). He is setting up a series of signposts to take us through his story. The signs are all occasions when Jesus did, you might say, what hed just promised Nathanael that he would do. They are moments when, to people who watch with at least a little faith, the angels of God are going up and coming down at the place where Jesus is. They are moments when heaven is opened, when the transforming power of Gods love bursts in to the present world. … The whole point of the “signs” is that they are moments when heaven and earth intersect with each other. (Thats what the Jews believed happened in the Temple.) (John for Everyone, p. 21)
All signs point to the intersection of heaven and earth through the death and resurrection of Christ. And where will the presence of God remain on earth after Jesus ascends? In the Body of Christ, the Church, as the Paraclete comes to reside with followers of Christ. The dwelling places that Jesus prepares for us (John 14) is the new mode of God’s presence on earth in God’s people through the Spirit. God dwells in us as we dwell in God. This cannot all happen without Jesus being lifted up, beginning on the Cross and continuing in the Resurrection and Ascension. Only the truth that comes through Jesus letting himself be sacrificed to our scapegoat mechanism brings God’s presence among us in its full truth as Love, not wrath.
2. “Its substance can be stated quite simply: the Holy Spirit is the mutual love of the Father and the Son. Notice that it is not said that the Holy Spirit is the result or term of this mutual love. He is the love itself” (Coffee , 471).