17 January 2010

Love must be dynamic, it can never be static

The Wedding at Cana ... a modern icon

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 17 January 2010: The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

11.45 p.m.: The Eucharist, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Isaiah 62: 1-5; Psalm 36: 5-10; I Corinthians 12: 1-11; John 2: 1-11

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

We are still in the Season of Epiphany. In some places there may still be some snow on the ground, but the trees, the cards and the decorations are down for some time now.

In some parishes, there is a tradition of keeping the crib in the Church until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation, which often marks the end of the Epiphany season.

Three Gospel stories in particular are associated with Epiphany.

The first, and the most popular must be the story of the wise men bringing their three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child. With these gifts, they acknowledge Christ as three-fold prophet, priest and king.

In the diversity they have acquired in popular culture as the three kings they also symbolise the nations acknowledging Christ as the King and Saviour of the World, and not just fulfilling promises for one people alone.

Some of these concepts – such as the kings of the world acknowledging Christ’s glory – are reflected in this morning’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah, alongside Isaiah’s wedding image, which is at the heart of our Gospel reading – but let me come to that in a moment in or two.

The second Epiphany-time story is the Baptism of Christ by John in the Jordan. Having been acknowledged by the nations as priest, prophet and king, Christ is now recognised publicly for who he is by God the Father and the Holy Spirit in that Trinitarian moment at the waters.

And again, those waters of promise, those waters of life, ripple though our Psalm for this morning.

The Wedding Feast of Cana in a mural in the Episcopal Cathedral of the Holy Ttinity, Port-au-Prince, which was destroyed in the earthquake in Haiti last week

The third popular Epiphany story is the Wedding Feast of Cana. In this Epiphany moment, Jesus – who has been recognised by the nations, and by God, by heaven and by earth – is now recognised for who is by his own family, by his disciples and by his own people.

He is Lord and Saviour now, according to heaven and earth, and is seen as such by those who dwell in heaven and on earth.

Clifford Longley, the former Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Times (London), is now a columnist in The Tablet. Last weekend, the headline on his column read: “I’m not alone in finding the Church’s reliance on miracles strains credibility.”

Of course, he was talking not about Gospel stories, but about the Vatican’s reliance on miracle claims in the process of deciding who to recognise or not recognise as a saint. But sometimes it takes a miracle for us to face up to reality. And, whatever a person’s individual opinion may be about miracles, I think most people find the story of the Wedding at Cana a captivating one.

I think we have all been to weddings. We all enjoy weddings – not just the sacred part in the church, when the wedding vows are exchanged, but all the secular parts of a wedding too: the romance, the dressing up, reconnecting with old friends and making new friends, the food, the drink, the dancing, the dash of perhaps being in another place, even a strange place – and, for those who are single, the folk-promise that going to a wedding can be the making of another.

Weddings are also the promise of miracle: for there is nothing more miraculous than life and love.

If you can’t believe in water turning into wine, then you have to be filled with wonder and awe at how life is created time and time again, every day, across the years, across the centuries and the ages. And you have to wonder at the miracle of love, how people go on accepting each other unconditionally, to the point that the circumstances are created for life itself to be created.

It is the miracle of life and love that God asks us, invites us, creates us, to be his partners in creation.

And – while most people, when they read our Gospel story for this morning, think first about the story of water turned into wine – there is another miracle in this story too that reflects that miracle of life and love, relationships and creation.

The wedding takes place “on the third day” – so we are already invited as readers to expect new life and new promise.

The wedding – like weddings I’ve enjoyed in Greece – probably lasted for three days, which emphasises that sense of anticipation and promise. And, you may not have noticed this, the job title for the chief steward or toast master is ἀρχιτρίκλινος (architríklinos) – the master of the three couches, the three resting places: do you see how our expectations are being heightened?

The Wedding at Cana ... another modern icon

After at least three days in Cana everyone heads home a different person. Everyone has been transformed. Verse 12, the verse immediately after this reading, says:

“After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.”

Everyone goes home a new person, a person he or she had not been before those wedding vows were exchanged.

One woman heads off with her husband as a new wife. But she is also as a new sister-in-law, a new daughter-in-law, perhaps even a new step-mother. Another woman goes home as a new mother-in-law, and so on.

Among the men there is a new husband, but also a new son-in-law, a new father-in-law, someone who had never before been a brother-in-law … and so on.

And those relationships are dynamic; they are not static. The new sister-in-law is about to become a new aunt, the new brother-in-law an uncle, the new mother-in-law and father-in-law hope to become grandparents for the first time.

And so a wedding never ends when the guests go home. As dynamic relationships they demand and create action and response.

And the relationships never end even when the marriage ends. Even if the couple who were married at Cana were divorced many years later, their parents-in-law remained grandparents to any of the children born to the man and woman.

A man and woman can divorce each other, but they can’t divorce their children from their uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents.

And when relationships are good, when they are dynamic rather than static, when they are blessed and loving, when there is unconditional acceptance, then they become a reflection of, a sacrament of, God’s love for us.

To be healthy, emotional individuals, we need a variety of healthy and wholesome relationships.

Not everyone has a happy, lasting, exclusive and intimate loving relationship with one other person. But we are certainly healthier and holier people when the relationships we have are healthy, wholesome and loving.

When I have been a good son or father, a good brother or husband, a good nephew, uncle or cousin, and – of course – when I have been a good friend too, then I hope I have reflected God’s love for those who glimpse it, God’s love for them in relationship, God’s dynamic love for them expressed by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And when I have failed in those relationships – as a father, as a brother, as a husband, as a nephew, as an uncle, as a cousin, as a friend – then it is not God who has failed, but I who have fallen short of others being able to have a glimpse, to grasp, God’s love for them and for us, a dynamic love that is always truly about relationship.

For God not only loves us, but God also wants us to enjoy that love, to return that love, and to love one another. As Saint John the Divine tells the Church in Ephesus: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another … if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (I John 4: 11-12).

And love respects difference and variety, sees them as gifts rather than challenges or confrontations.

If Christ loves the Church as his bride, then our diversity and variety in gifts in ministry and service are gifts that we bring to the royal wedding.

If weddings idealise love, they also give a real and creative expression to the love of God. The wedding image so lovingly called on by Christ in his teaching, is a much-loved one in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Exchanging the στέφανα or wedding crowns as the Gospel story of the Wedding at Cana is read

At those three-day Greek weddings I referred to, the real moment when the two pledge their troth is not when they exchange rings or bands – that takes place at the betrothal – but when the priest exchanges the wedding crowns, the στέφανα (stephana), on the heads of the bride and groom as this morning’s Gospel story is read.

This ancient custom finds a resonance in our reading from the Prophet Isaiah, for to this day the στέφανα of the bride and groom are crowns of beauty and royal diadems.

The image Christ draws on of the royal wedding that seals our covenant with God, when Christ is the true bridegroom and the Church is the bride, is no marriage of convenience, it is a real marriage of true love, as our portion of Psalm 36 tells us this morning.

And at the feast God promises abundance – an abundance to drink in terms of our physical needs, an abundance of justice in terms of our social needs, an abundance of faithfulness in terms of our spiritual needs.

We are invited to the banquet this morning as we once were and commissioned to leave as new people, in new relationships, overflowing beyond the brim with the love of God, expressed in the bread and wine, with hope for the future and the promises of the heavenly banquet.

Rejoice in your variety of gifts in ministry and service. Delight in the new relationships God constantly offers us. Transform all your relationships from being static to being dynamic. Move on from the sentimentality of Christmas to the new promises and hope of Easter. And celebrate the banquet frequently and often with joy, for Christ is for each of us the living bread and the true vine.

And so may all our thoughts, words and deeds be the glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in the institute chapel on Sunday 17 January 2010 at the end of a residential weekend for NSM and part-time MTh students.

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