LOVING YOU IS A FEAST
One of the features of the pagan religion was the fear of the gods, a fear the believers try to drive out by keeping meticulous and obsessive practice, taboos, of purification rites. This resulted in a distorted and distressing relationship with God. Paul calls this time “prison,” an epoch when people were slaves of the “elements of the world” and relied on “miserable and ineffective rudiments” (Gal 4:3,9). This religion, structured according to the parameters of human psychological misery, reappeared in Judaism, the religion of duties which are made concrete in the tangle of rules and obligations, observances, prohibitions, atonement, and “human precepts and worthless teachings” (Col 2:22-23). It ended the joyful dialogue with God, father and husband, preached by the prophets and marked the beginning of the wedding party without wine, without joy, without outbursts of love, spontaneity and freedom. The danger was not averted definitively even by the call of Jesus to break free from this oppressive and unbearable yoke (Mt 11:28).
We find this inappropriate relationship with God every time the religion of precepts, legalism, merits, andthreats reappears. It is a religion that takes away the smile, generates anxiety, anguish, and scruples, and transforms the feast into a legal obligation. The holy day of obligation associated with the idea of obligation and the fear of committing mortal sin rather than the joy of finding ourselves with our brothers and sisters on the ‘Lord’s Day.’ Can feel loved for fear inspired by his punishments make God rejoice? It is urgent to re-establish a spousal love rapport with him and accept the water that Christ offers us (his Spirit that makes us free), water that turns into wine, a source of joy.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so for us, the Lord will rejoice.”
First Reading: Isaiah 62:1-5
For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her vindication shines forth like the dawn and her victory like a burning torch.
Nations shall behold your vindication, and all the kings your glory; you shall be called by a new name pronounced by the mouth of the Lord. You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord, a royal diadem held by your God. No more shall people call you “Forsaken,” or your land “Desolate,” but you shall be called “My Delight,” and your land “Espoused.” For the Lord delights in you and makes your land his spouse. As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you. —The Word of the Lord.
Various symbols are used in the Bible to describe God’s love for his people. He is the liberator, ally, King, pastor ... Prophet Hosea introduces another image—the most expressive of all—that of matrimony: The Lord is the bridegroom, and his bride is Israel. The Israelites took a bit of time to apply it to their God (and the same happened to the image of “father”) because they feared that someone might mistakenly fantasize about love adventures like those of the Greek gods or imagine theogonies like that of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians. Having averted the danger, this image becomes more relevant in the great prophets: Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. Like a golden thread, it is present throughout the New Testament.
In today’s Reading, the Lord’s bride is Jerusalem. She is reduced to a pitiful condition: divorced from her husband and humiliated, she lives alone, and they ridicule and call her the abandoned, the devastated (v. 4).
Jerusalem, the beautiful girl, “a mistress of the nations, a princess among the cities” (Lam 1:1), has lost her charm and “spends her nights weeping, drenching her cheeks with tears. Who is there to comfort her among all her lovers?” (Lam 1:2). So they bring down her infidelity to her husband. The many lovers (the gods of the Canaanites, Assyrians, and Babylonians) have seduced her and, after having abused her, they abandoned and laughed at her. Is her marriage to the Lord compromised? Which husband accepts the unfaithful wife again when her vices nearly disfigure her? On returning from exile in Babylon, the Israelites find Jerusalem reduced to a pile of rubbles, and they think that God has rejected his city forever.
The prophet who knows the feelings of the Lord knows that his love is not “like the morning mist, like the morning dew that quickly disappears” (Hos 6:4). The faithfulness of the bride does not condition it. He loves always. He promises that Jerusalem will receive a new name; she will be called my favorite.
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:4-11
Brothers and sisters: There are different kinds of spiritual gift s but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another, the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another, faith by the same Spirit; to another, gift s of healing by the one Spirit; to another, mighty deeds; to another, prophecy; to another, discernment of spirits; to another, varieties of tongues; to another, interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes. —The Word of the Lord.
Charism means God’s gift, so it is something very good, and yet, in the community of Corinth, considerable confusion reigned just because of charisms. Instead of being placed at the service of unity, they were employed to excel, compete, and assert themselves over others. Because of charism, envy, jealousy, and dissension had arisen.
Among all the charisms, the gift of tongues was particularly appreciated. It consists of the ability, during community prayers, to go into ecstasy and to express themselves in a strange language. Something similar to that happens today during the meetings of the members of certain sects: the rhythm of the music, the repetition of arcane sounds, dances, perfumes, soft lights leading to paroxysmal manifestations and trance. In this context of collective exaltation, someone can lose touch with reality, appearing to be ‘beside himself’ and pronouncing words incomprehensible to the uninitiated. In Corinth, some praised God in this ecstatic way. Nothing terrible, but in fact, problems arose: the community members believed it a source of great honor to be able to pray in this way. All tried to do it, and those who failed to do so felt inferior to the others. Then it happened that those in ecstasy talked together, thus creating immense confusion. Paul intervenes and, in the passage of today’s reading, exposes the guiding principles.
“There is—he says—diversity of gifts” (vv. 4-6). They are different, but they all come from one Father, one Spirit, and Christ. If they cause division, struggle, and turmoil, it means that they are used for evil. No one is without the gifts of God. Each is given a charisma ‘for the common good’; it should not be utilized insanely but placed at the service of the brothers and sisters (v. 7). The diversity of ‘gifts’ is providential; it allows the community to be well served.
All gifts have not the same importance; among them, there is an order, a hierarchy. The ranking, however, is not established according to the prestige, honor, privileges, and the authority they confer, but the usefulness for the community.
In today’s Reading, Paul makes a long list (vv. 8-10); he does not name them all. He cites only those that concerned the Christians of Corinth and puts as first the gifts that lead to the knowledge of God: the wisdom that makes us discover his designs, the science that helps to interpret the truths of faith. Then there is the gift of solid faith, capable of moving mountains; the gift of performing miracles and curing people; the gift of prophecy to discern the various ‘gifts’ and finally, the gift of tongues.
It is an invitation to the community to recognize and appreciate the gifts that the Spirit communicates to each Christian: they are gifts to support mutual love, but not for competition.
Gospel: John 2:1-12
There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding. When the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus told them, “Fill the jars with water.” So they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So they took it. And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine, without knowing where it came from—although the servers who had drawn the water knew—the headwaiter called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs at Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him. —The Gospel of the Lord.
At first glance, this passage seems a simple story of a miracle, even if a bit strange, somewhat an embarrassing miracle. Various details amaze. I try to name a few.
John, in his Gospel, narrates only seven miracles. Is it possible that he had one more interesting to choose from? This gesture of Jesus does not seem at all educative. If they had already drunk too much, why provide more wine? Upon hearing this passage read, the farmers of northern Africa commented: ‘We are at the level of Bacchus.’ St. Augustine answered them: the water that comes from heaven revives your vineyards, and this water is transformed into wine; miracles happen every day.
Difficulties are not over: why resort to a miracle even if it were appropriate to offer wine? It would have been sufficient to take up a collection among the guests. The first disciples of Jesus had been followers of the Baptist—an ascetic who did not eat and did not drink (Mt 11:18). Faced with an excess of wine, they should not have believed in Jesus but remained scandalized.
Why does the evangelist John give so much importance to this episode? He stresses that it was the first of the signs performed by Jesus. The disciples believed and have given their support to the Master in seeing this sign. He employs a solemn expression that does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament: ‘Jesus revealed his glory.’ For so little? A gesture that perhaps our magicians today would know how to repeat successfully? The evangelist’s annotations seem excessive and inappropriate. They would be more logical and more understandable, for example, after the healing of the man born blind or after the ‘resurrection’ of Lazarus.
And again, why nothing is said of the central figures of the feast? The bride does not exist; the groom has an insignificant role; he does not say a word. The most important of them is the toastmaster, the servants and the jars described in every detail (v. 6). One also wonders what so many stone jars were doing in a private home. Were they just for purifications? They can only have a symbolic meaning because materially, they are perfectly useless: the water could be brought directly to the table without going through the jars; it was not worth for the poor servants to draw it twice.
It is not also clear why they speak of the mother of Jesus without mentioning her name, as it happened at the foot of the cross (Jn 19:25-27). If we had only the Gospel of John, we would not even know that she was called Mary. There is also a mysterious hint on the hour of Jesus, a dramatic hour that gets closer and closer. It will be discussed later in the Gospel of John (John 7:30; 8:20; 12:23.27; 17:1). What is that hour?
Finally, why did Jesus perform the miracle after giving a negative and a little terse response to the mother? Too many difficulties to consider in this passage as a simple piece of news! Behind the seemingly simple story lies a more profound message. The Gospel of John is like a vast ocean; it can be contemplated on the surface or in-depth. From the shore, the rippling waves, the unfolding of the sails, the reflections of light and color fascinate. But the most intense emotions are for those who have a chance to gear up and go down to the bottom, where the most unexpected and varied forms of life, fish, corals, and algae are waiting. Even with the Gospel of John, one must go to the bottom to capture all the richness of his message. It is what we will try to do today.
In a village in Galilee, a wedding feast is celebrated. The guests gathered to spend a few happy days, but here is a disappointment: there is no wine, and there is not even water because—according to the story—the jars are empty (they will be filled only by order of Jesus). It is a situation of abandonment, of general sadness. This is the surface. What is in-depth? To descend, we must equip ourselves with the tools that the Old Testament provides.
The wedding feast.
The name Israel is for us masculine; in Hebrew, it is feminine: a chance that the prophets did not miss to introduce in describing the symbolism of the marital relationship of their people with the Lord. They say he is the faithful husband, while Israel is the bride who often lets herself be seduced by idols, giving her love to strangers.
Here is how through the prophets God declares his love: “As a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so will your God rejoice in you” (Is 62:5); “So I am going to allure her, lead her once more into the desert where I can speak to her tenderly .... There she will answer me as in her youth as when she came out of the land of Egypt …. call me: My husband and never again my Baal. I will espouse you in faithfulness” (Hos 2:16-18,22).
These are delightful images that communicate joy, hope, and the will to respond with the same love and the same fidelity to this God who also promises: “Who can abandon his first beloved? The mountains may depart and the hills be moved, but never will my love depart from you” (Is 54:6,10). Yet, in Jesus’ time, Israel had resumed the attitudes of the slave, not of the bride. We will see later what had happened. Now we continue to search for the meaning of the images in the story of the wedding at Cana.
In the Bible, drunkenness is condemned (Pro 23:30), but wine symbolizes happiness and love (Ecl 10:19; Ct 4:10). “Wine and music gladden the heart” (Sir 40:20). A feast without wine becomes a funeral: no singing, no dancing, no joy; only long faces, unhappy and nervous people. “What is life without wine?”—asks Sirach (31:27). “Wine gladdens the heart of man,”—says the Psalmist (Ps 104:15). “In the streets, they cry for wine: all joy is gone,”—says Isaiah (Is 24:11).
At the time of Jesus, Israel expects the Kingdom of God, as prophets have described, to be a place of banquet laden with “rich food, and choice wines, meat full of marrow, fine wine strained” (Is 25:6). This kingdom, however, still seems to be far away. The people are sad, like those who celebrate a wedding feast without wine.
Why is she in this condition? The reason is simple: the bride’s rapport with God is no longer there. The situation is that of a slave forced to obey the orders of the master. The religion taught by the rabbis is that of “merits.” God loves only those who are faithful to the law. To help people to observe the law, the spiritual leaders begin to give the interpretation: they specify, point out, define, stand up to reduce the Word of God to a code of standards, an inextricable maze of provisions of little detailed rules impossible to observe.
Since transgressions are inevitable, and one always feels unclean and guilty, the purification rites were devised. Having water always at their disposal for the ritual baths was essential. Water is not easy to get because it cannot be transported with containers but must flow through special canals. Here is the symbolic significance of the six empty stone jars: they represent the religion of purification, that set of practices and rituals unable to communicate serenity, joy, and peace. Not from this water, but from what Jesus orders to draw—his water—results in the best wine.
The wedding at Cana without wine represents the sad condition of the people of Israel, disappointed and dissatisfied. In other words, the momentum of love for the Lord was replaced with the fulfillment of legal provisions. This way of relating with God never gave joy, yet it always remains a temptation. People rely willingly on religious practice, the strict observance of duties, and the repetition of rituals they do not even know the meaning of.
Jesus’ mother can be Mary, yes, but she can also indicate the spiritual community in which Jesus was born and from which he was educated. In today’s passage, she represents the pious people of Israel, who first realize that the religious situation they live in is unsustainable. What must they do then? They do not have recourse to the head of the table, that is, the religious leaders who proved unable to organize a real feast, but to Jesus. They understand that the living water comes only from him. Whoever drinks it is transformed into wine; that is, enjoy happiness.
John places this ‘sign’ at the beginning of his Gospel because it is a synthesis of all that Jesus will do later. He is the one who will celebrate the wedding feast with the community.
His hour has not yet come because he is only at the beginning of his public life. The feast has begun but will culminate when “his hour will come” (Mt 24:36) when, on Calvary, he will manifest all his love by giving his life for the bride when from his pierced side will flow “blood and water” (Jn 19:34). In Cana, he makes only a sign of what he will do. In the hour when he will “pass from this world to the Father” (Jn 13:1), he will give the water “welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14).