Following the visit of the Gentile Magi and the Baptism in the Jordan River, the miracle at the Cana marriage feast is the third manifestation of the God-Man in the Church's liturgical celebration. To many commentators, this seems to be a miracle almost unique, in that it does not serve any critical human need. Other miracles of Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, raised the dead. But this miracle merely saved an ordinary family from social embarrassment. Is this situation, with no one sick, hungry, or dead, too prosaic to warrant Divine intervention? Recalling a wedding in my own experience when the caterer almost failed to appear, surely the Cana wine shortage cried out for God's help. No human need is beneath God's compassionate attention.
As St. John relates the event, the miracle seems almost like a parable in the constellation of symbols. The wedding itself recalls God's marriage covenant to Israel and Our Saviour's taking the Church for His bride. The transformation of water into wine reminds us of the Old Testament, with its types and shadows, giving place to the New Testament, in which the Word is made flesh. From another perspective it symbolizes sinners' being made into saints. Even the number of water-jars seems significant: six (as in the Days of Creation) frequently bespeaks incompleteness, just falling short of the mystical seven. And the presence of the Blessed Mother (not seen again in John until she stands at the foot of the Cross) is not without great importance. Both times Jesus addressed her as “Woman,” echoing Gen. 3:15, naming her as the New Eve, “mother of all living.”
At bottom, this episode is important because John tells us this was “the beginning of miracles.” The first half of the fourth Gospel is organized around an ascending series of six (that number again!) miracles. These form a crescendo of intensity and power, with the climax in the raising of Lazarus from the dead. John takes us from the gift of new and better wine to the restoration of life to a stinking corpse (his symbol for lost sinners). The seventh miracle, of course, is the resurrection of Jesus Himself.
The response to the miracles progresses in a counter-direction. The wine of Cana aroused pleasure and delight. “Thou hast kept the good wine until now.” But the succeeding miracles triggered growing animosity. The beneficiary of one miracle, the lame man of John 5, himself became a betrayer of Jesus. The hostility of sinners, like the power of God, found its climax in the desperation of the Jews: “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs” (John 11:47). We know the resolution of that quandary.
So John's magnificent Gospel carries us from “the beginning of signs” to “many signs.” The greatest sign, surely, still continues in the healed and transformed lives of all whom He encounters. LKW
THE LAST SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Today would not be quite complete if we did not sing Hymn 54, marked in our Hymnal “for the last Sunday after Epiphany.” This hymn reflects a fine point of sound liturgical usage and perhaps a bit of unpacking may be helpful in our enjoyment of the hymn. As St. Paul says, “I will sing with the Spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.”
The liturgical point is that from Septuagesima Sunday (which comes a week from today) until Easter Day, the Greek word “Alleluia” is not heard in the worship of the Church. That word, in Hebrew “Hallelujah,” meaning “Praise ye the LORD,” is our ultimate exclamation of joy. It expresses the joy unique to Easter, Resurrection-joy. The word is so joyful that we have never quite accepted a translation, but kept it in its Hebrew or Greek forms.
In Medieval worship, there was a little ceremony of “saying farewell to Alleluia” on this final Sunday of the Epiphany Season. Therefore this lovely hymn was written. In the first Stanza, a contrast is drawn between the worship of the Church in heaven, “the choirs on high,” where “Alleluia” is sung forever without interruption. But we are not in heaven yet, so our worship cannot realistically maintain this tone of elation. (Don't people who are “happy all the time” get on your nerves?)
For the time being (that is all our time here on earth), we are still sinners. By God's gracious justification, we are “simul iusti et peccatores,” righteous and sinful at the very same time. But Lent, beginning on February 17, calls us to face with courage the fact of our continuing sinfulness even in our justified state. The third stanza of our hymn states, “For the holy time is coming Bidding us our sins deplore.” That “time” is, of course, the holy season of Lent.
Stanza two plays on a contrast between Jerusalem and Babylon. Jerusalem is the true home of God's people, Babylon is the place of our exile, the exile brought about by our habitual sinfulness. But in a larger sense, Jerusalem is our heavenly city, our home of eternal destiny, and Babylon is fallen and corrupt world in which we live. As Psalm 137 reminds us, we cannot “sing the Lord's song in a strange land.”
So do not think it odd or peculiar that we refrain from singing “Alleluia” during that portion of the year when we recall that we still live in “the strange land” of our sinful existence. Instead, rejoice that most of the year, from every Easter until the next Septuagesima, God mercifully permits us to sing the “songs of Sion” in our earthly worship. “Grant us, blessed Trinity, at the last to keep thine Easter in our home beyond the sky.” Septuagesima and Lent are painfully typical of “this present evil age,” but Easter, Ascensiontide and Pentecost are the promise and down-payment of the world to come. LKW