Choral Evensong 6th January 2019
Epiphany and Cana: Manifestations of Jesus
The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Jesus to people well beyond his own family and society. Epiphany tells us that this God, born as a baby, worshipped by kings, given gifts, is a God for everyone. The kings may seem to not have a great deal in common with the adult Christ’s first miracle in John’s Gospel. But this is not the case. When the kings lay gold, frankinscence and myrrh at Jesus’ tiny feet, they do so to indicate that he is the Lord of all creation. The miracle of the wine at Cana tells the same story in a different way. Both narratives – the baby and the kings, and the man at the wedding feast – tell us why and how Jesus is as tender as he is powerful.
There is also an echo of the Old Testament in the story of the Kings’ gifts, as we hear in our poetic reading from Isaiah today.
Isaiah provides literary background for the star that guides wise travellers seeking God’s truth:
‘Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.’
And what of the travellers themselves?
8 Who are these that fly like a cloud,
and like doves to their windows?
… to bring your children from far away,
their silver and gold with them’
And why does this take place, as a longed-for act of reconciliation between God and God’s people, and as a sign that God is the God of the whole world and all creation? This passage of Isaiah concludes:
‘for the name of the LORD your God,
and for the Holy One of Israel,
because he has glorified you.’
Because God glorifies his beloved people through his own light, pulling them towards him as a holy and loving magnetic force, the people gather, the beauty of creation is bestowed upon its creator, there will be peace, there will be hope, and most of all, the light of life itself. And this light, that shines in the darkness, will never be extinguished. The light of hope is the light by which we walk with Jesus. It is the light through which we ask God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to illuminate our inward spiritual vision so that we may live shine more brightly as Christians.
As the kings bow low before Jesus, we can ask in a new way, ‘Who is Jesus?’ We receive an answer: the Lord, who holds true power, brings mercy, healing, and love to all. Jesus is Emmanuel: the God who dwells with his people, as a real person.
The Wedding at Cana, described in the Gospel of John, is also posing the same question, ‘Who is Jesus?’ and we receive the answer: the Lord, who holds true power, who is the source of life itself. The one who turns water into wine.
What might this mean?
Cana’s wine is a moment of delight and surprise. Jesus takes mere water, poured into gigantic stone pots used for ritual washing, and turns it into a delicious vintage that keeps the party going. There is way too much water, and way too much wine. This is the liquid version of feeding the 5000, where there is so much bread, so much nourishment, and plenty to spare. This is a story of revelation, a sign that Jesus is a person through whom abundance flows.
It is also a story of humiliation turned into abundance. The master of the feast, the steward, is responsible for ensuring that there is enough wine to go round. He has failed. There is shame and humiliation in this. We learn little about him, but we do know that he hasn’t done what was expected of him. Jesus quietly gets on with the business of not only quietly restoring his dignity, but offering the best gift there is, rather than merely replacing like for like, which would have been miracle enough.
The sensuality of this narrative is important for us to experience, too. Jesus offers the best wine – it’s meant to be a sign of pleasure as well as a sign of transformation. Isaac Watts wrote of the union between Christ and the Church, between Jesus and us, his beloved people:
Let my Beloved come, and taste
His pleasant fruits at his own Feast.
I come, my Spouse, I come, he cries
With Love and Pleasure in his eyes.
Jesus’ wise mother, his introduction to this feast, leads him into performing his first miracle with an observation, ‘They have no wine.’
Jesus responds to his mother, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and me?’ This first of the seven miracles in John’s Gospel lead up to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Another way of interpreting Jesus’ rhetorical question to Mary is something like, ‘Mother, it is time to start telling people who I really am, isn’t it.’
It’s crucial to notice that the next time Jesus will address his Mother Mary as ‘Woman’ is in John chapter 19, when Jesus bleeds on the cross, dying and humiliated, and he speaks to her in his agony, ‘Woman, here is your son’.
At Cana, with this miracles, once the wine has been tasted and enjoyed, there is a huge reversal of power and a major moment of irony. John tells this story with a raised eyebrow and a glittering eye of invitation to the reader, so that we can enjoy this epiphany. The steward doesn’t know where the wine came from; the servants do. They are now insiders who have unique insight into who Jesus might be and why his gift, the flowing of abundant life and the surprise and delight when mere water becomes good wine, is not just for the people at the top table, but for them. These servants are a bit like the shepherds when Jesus is born. The angel appears to them first. They have no status but are the first to find out where and what and who God is when God comes to earth as a baby boy. Now Jesus, an adult, a wedding guest, with his strong mother’s encouragement and wisdom, is inviting the servants with little status to be the first to see what his transformation can do.
His first miracle, water into wine at a wedding in Cana, will lead to his ultimate purpose. This inexplicable gift, defying physics and exceeding expectation, is not a trick or magic or a clever display. It’s a beginning that will only conclude when all of us are transformed, and when we behold the glory of God spoken about by Isaiah and by John. That’s because Cana will lead to Jesus Christ’s real, genuine, epiphany to us which is the core of our being and the core of our faith: the crucifixion and resurrection. God sacrificed his very self so that we might be free as his own children, welcomed into his own wedding feast as guests of honour, where there are no masters and servants, only bonds of friendship that extend to absolutely everyone, regardless of status or rank in life.
In the Old Testament book of Proverbs, Wisdom, a female personification of God’s ways of working with humanity, prepares a lavish feast. She invites people to drink her wine and eat her bread. That is to say, Wisdom invites everyone to God’s table. As Jesus brings the message of abundance to the feast at Cana, Jesus shows us who he really is: he is the host at the table, and the table always has a seat ready for each of us to enjoy the feast. Where can we find more chairs? How will we choose to make a bigger table together? How can we be more like the God of abundance who says to us, come and drink this good wine of the Good News together, and feast together, and be my beloved guests? When we welcome one another, we taste that wine of Cana and we know that our Lord, born in a stable, worshipped by shepherds and kings, raised by his strong mother, motivated by love alone, is the Lord who is gracious and the Lord who invites us all to enjoy nourishment beyond all we can ask or imagine in our hearts, our souls, and our bodies. Amen.
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