"In verbo veritatis" (2 Cor 6:7)

January 19, 2013

The first sign

Filed under: Homilies — komonchak @ 3:38 pm


In the fourth Gospel, simple stories are seldom as simple as they seem. Events are hardly ever told merely for their surface meanings, and dialogues unfold with at least two levels of meaning. We have a perfect illustration in the story of the wedding-feast at Cana.

Far behind the symbolism of this narrative lies, of course, the ancient metaphor of the relation between God and Israel as a marriage. This is why we heard as our first reading the prophet’s description of the full restoration of Israel after the Exile as God’s espousal of his people: “You shall be called ‘My Delight,’ and your land ‘Espoused’…. As a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so shall your God rejoice in you.” More proximately, the traditions on which the Evangelist could draw included Jesus’ description of himself as a bridegroom and of the blessings he brought as “new wine.” And all of these themes are implied as he reworks an older story of a miracle of Jesus to demonstrate the effects of his coming.

The story presents the first of Jesus’ “signs”: not simple events, but symbols displaying and embodying what his hour of “glory”–his death and resurrection–brought to mankind. The wine runs out at the wedding feast. But there are present six very large jars which held the water used for Jewish ceremonial washings. Their emptiness symbolized for the Evangelist the end of the efficacy of such rites. They will be replaced by the new wine that Jesus brings, an abundance of wine, filling the 25-gallon jars. The wine–choice wine, left for last–may also be a symbol of the Eucharist. And in the replacement of the old water by the new wine John sees the first sign that manifests Christ’s glory: so that at the very beginning of the Gospel we are already drawn in anticipation towards its climactic event: the hour when his glory will be fully revealed in his death and resurrection.

We are not supposed, then, to concentrate on details of this story in and for themselves, but to understand it as moving us beyond simple flesh-and-blood events to a level of the spirit, to see, for example, in the words of the steward about the choice wine left until last a confession of faith in Christ. We are asked also to place ourselves into the story, to make this confession of faith our own, in imitation of the disciples who “believed in him.”

While John’s Gospel is unique in his re-elaboration of the traditions of Jesus, making them signs oft symbols of his real significance, as during this coming year we hear of the words and works of Jesus in this and in the other Gospels, we are invited to make a similar move. The Gospels will not be read out to us primarily to satisfy historical curiosity, but to invite us ever and again to renew the confession of faith that makes us Christians and draws us here each Sunday in thanksgiving. The basic statement of that faith is that what was going on in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth was something more than a fellow human being’s personal story. In him, to use the words of the Prologue to this Gospel, “the Word was made flesh.” The intelligibility of this life–its essential meaning–was the meaning and intelligibility of the universe by which the universe had been created and towards which human history moves. This was John’s way of expressing the basic early Christian faith that Paul articulated when he said that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” God was in Christ: when we confront Christ, it is God we are confronting; when he challenges us to a decision, it is God who challenges us; when we consider whether we shall follow his teaching and example, we take a stand with regard to the primordial origin and final purpose of human life, deciding whether they are in accord with “the Word” from whom and for whom all things, including ourselves, exist.

It is important for us to remember this. Christianity is not just another philosophy, nor is the Church simply a club of like-minded people or a social-service organization. Christianity is a religion: it has to do with God, with primary, basic, and ultimate meaning and value; and the Church is the community of those who have been given the blessing to know that this ultimate meaning and value have been revealed and embodied in Jesus of Nazareth. It is out of this fundamental conviction that everything else we do as a Church flows: our worship, our catechesis, our charity, our service of the poor, our work for justice and peace. Here is the center from which everything else, in our personal and communal lives, is supposed to radiate.

We have heard today the first of the signs of God’s glory made visible in Jesus Christ. Let us be grateful for this revelation and bring him, throughout this coming year, minds and hearts open to receive it and to reflect it out beyond ourselves into our world.


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