Sermon Upper Church Epiphany 4 Wedding Feast at Cana
Poetry and the Scriptures share many resemblances. They each speak in different forms of language and so touch us in a whole variety of ways. Sometimes they can make us dance as we move with their rhythms and metres, and at other times, they can hold us in one place allowing us to stay longer than we ordinarily would on a particular point and allow us just to stop and to contemplate.
The poetic dimension of our gospel this morning, from St John’s account of the wedding feast at Cana, brings both of these dimensions together in taking us on a journey into the narrative of one of life’s most special occasions that of a wedding. The journey we are taken on is circumscribed within the week portrayed in the opening events of the Gospel. The wedding at Cana happens on day 3, that is to say, three days after meeting with Philip and Nathaniel as recounted in the preceding chapter. It is thus situated midway through the Johannine week, and Jewish weddings at the time would often last seven days, so to run out of wine half way through, was indeed a crisis at such a special occasion.
The situating of the feast at this point in the week is not incidental for St John. It places Jesus’s first major act narrated in the Gospel at the point of simple ordinariness. At this ordinary mid-point, the crisis happens, and in many ways it is a quintessentially ordinary problem, “they are out of wine”. This is, in many ways, an extraordinary juxtaposition with the Word made flesh of St John’s Prologue, the one through whom all things have their being, as Jesus is here depicted as coming into the world, because we have run out booze! It is almost comic, in a way, when you think about it. Such a high theology as St John, starts, publically at least, with an account of the first sign of who Jesus is and what he is here to do, by turning the alcohol taps back on for us.
And, in so situating this most dramatic depiction of the life of Jesus in such a context, John locates the glory of God made visible in Jesus in our humdrum world of flat tyres, toothaches, and broken boilers. This is an insight, I think, which the priest-poet George Herbert was so keenly aware of in his poetry. One need only think of his poems in the collection, The Church, the heaven in ordinary, and so on, to realize that something of great importance is being said to us in this coupling of the ordinary with the glory of heaven at the Wedding feast of Cana. The account even starts with a bit of a family squabble, with Jesus saying to Mary, Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come”, which I am sure many of us can relate to. It is almost as if Mary has lost track of the day of the week. Jesus reminds her it is only day 3, so the hour, of the glorious manifestation of Jesus is not yet, but the reluctance of Jesus to get involved is perhaps an acknowledgment of the humanity of Jesus that will later be joined in John’s Gospel with the sign of the glory of the divinity in his passion.
Poetry has this capacity, as with Scripture, to connect seemingly diverse things in ways which make us sit back and see things from a different perspective. This is something which is beautifully brought out by the American poet Richard Wilbur in a poem that he wrote for his son’s wedding which alludes to the wedding feast in John’s Gospel and relates it to his own family wedding. Let me read it for you. It is called:
A Wedding Toast
“St John tells how at Cana’s wedding-feast,
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
There were a hundred gallons at least.
It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.
Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That the world’s fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you.
Now, if your loves will lend an ear to mine,
I toast you both, good son and dear new daughter.
May you not lack for water,
And may that water smack of Cana’s wine.”
(Richard Wilbur, The Mind-Reader, 12)
Wilbur captures the heart of St John’s message here with this poem, in expressing the extraordinary abundance that God’s grace, the sweet excess of the new wine, gifts us with. But it is a gifting in the ordinary, or as Wilbur expresses it, “may you not lack for water, And may that water smack of Cana’s wine”. This “smack of Cana’s wine” is Herbert’s “Heaven in Ordinary”, it is the “meal and oil” of the widow from our first reading taken from 1 Kings, and they each express the deep intuition of St John’s account of the wedding feast at Cana that Jesus transforms us in the ordinariness of our human needs, on the day 3’s of our journey with the Lord.
So, whilst we may often wish that we were back on the mountain of the clear blue sky and endless vistas of the high peaks of day 7, it is in the ordinary valleys of our lives, in Wilbur’s “Life hungers” that the pour of plenty from Cana’s water-pots bring forth for us the hundred gallons of new wine.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Tony Carroll 29/01/23.