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The Reverend Mark Birch, Minor Canon and Sacrist
Sunday, 21st January 2018 at 11.15 AM
If you happen to be here in the Abbey as part of a European tour; and if that tour should include the fair city of Paris, which would be understandable; and if you should be planning to visit the Louvre, which would be advisable; and if you should find yourself in the Denon wing, Room 6 on the first floor, which to fail to do would be unforgivable; please don’t spend too long jostling with the crowds trying to get a direct view of the tiny, rather drab, portrait of the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, AKA the Mona Lisa, but turn around … turn around and lose yourself in the colossal light and colour and bustle of Veronese’s epic work, ‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’, stolen from a monastery in Venice by Napoleon towards the end of the 18th century.
Here you will find dogs vying with musicians; servants pouring wine into delicate glasses, straight out the workshops of Murano; and glorious classical architecture, to make Palladio jealous. Somewhere off to the far left sit the beautifully-attired bride and groom; and, centre-stage, if you look hard enough, you will find the figures of Christ and his Mother, subtly haloed.
It is the work of a complete and utter show-off—Veronese showing off his prodigious talent, and showing-off the prestige of the city which he made his home, whose trading prowess could supply the most showy of pigments; lapis lazuli and the like. It is completely over-the-top, but hugely enjoyable for all that, and, Veronese might argue, when it comes to showing-off, what about the chap in the picture who changed water into wine?
The miracles of Jesus may have impressed earlier generations, but they don’t cut much ice these days. In a sceptical, scientific age they look a bit bizarre, a bit dubious. Yet St John tells us that this was the first sign by which Jesus revealed his glory, showed-off his divine nature, and deepened the faith of his disciples.
I suspect it has always been hard work for preachers and theologians to encourage people to look beyond the miracle, and to explore the deeper spiritual meaning. In previous ages it may have been difficult because of the fascination with and appetite for miracles—these days the idea of miracle is somewhat discredited, and many will wonder why they should bother to work out the deeper spiritual meaning of an event that they doubt ever happened.
It isn’t intellectually very fashionable, and many may find it a pill too hard to swallow, but we aren’t going to get very far with this story of the Wedding at Cana if we insist on first demythologising it, making it acceptable to our own standards of rationality, excising the bits that don’t accord with our day-to-day experience of what normally happens in the world. We do have to trust what we are given before we can discover what it might tell us. Like a mystifying electronic gadget, we need to trust that it will be useful to us, even if we can’t begin to understand how it could possibly work. I would argue that this gospel story has proved itself useful and informative to generations, in a way that an Amazon Echo-dot or Google Home Assistant could only dream of (presuming they might one day dream).
Of course this applies to a great deal of the Scriptures, but none more-so than John’s gospel which is presented in a particularly, self-consciously mystical style.
The point of this miracle story, which is only given to us in John’s gospel - who is very keen to impress on us that it is a sign, and not just some random act of supernatural power (i.e. showing off)—the point of this story is to offer us a way in to the fundamental question raised by the New Testament, which is not a sterile, philosophical question about the existence or non-existence of God, but the question of Jesus of Nazareth. Who was he? Who might he yet be?
The early interpreters, like Cyril of Alexandria in the early 5th century, focus on how this miracle illustrates the saving work of God in Christ; how he makes good our fractured relationship with God. Cyril emphasises the fact that this is a wedding, and that this sign, the changing of water into wine, shows us that our salvation starts at the most fundamental stage of our being. Even as man and woman come together in marriage, before any procreation takes place (according to the traditional sequence of events), when we are as yet but the beginnings of a twinkle in our parents’ eyes, God’s saving work is already begun. The marriage of man and woman is sanctified by God’s presence and blessing—we are born into blessing.
Veronese presses the question, who is the real bride and who is the real groom in this picture, in this story; the man and woman sitting in their finery at the far left, or the haloed pair sitting dead centre? Cyril is quite clear that Jesus is the bridegroom—a figure taken directly from the book of the Revelation, and regularly employed by Jesus in his parables. And the bride, Cyril says, is human nature. So Mary is present and haloed as the one in whom human nature was taken as bride—from the very moment of conception. She sits alongside her Son, to represent us, the Church, the bride. But she does not sit as an equal; she sits to one side, because, having taken human nature from her, we are now all in him, Mary included. In Jesus, through Mary, God has wedded himself to all humanity. He is bride and groom; human and divine; the perfect, saving marriage.
And so the sheepish couple sitting far left, whose names St John doesn’t give us, represent not only a couple, but all couples; not just a pair of humans, but all humanity. They are Adam and Eve, whose disobedience, whose failure in hospitality (running out of drink at a wedding remains to this day surely the most heinous of sins), proves not to be beyond God’s saving purposes.
Cyril also has a comment on showing-off. Jesus, we remember, has to be almost cajoled into action by his Mother, and the miraculous event occurs as it were between the lines rather than in any overt, dramatic way. He doesn’t announce anything portentous over the water jars, or wave his hands around. As Cyril puts it:
‘…it behoved Him not to come hastily to action, nor to appear a Worker of miracles as though of His Own accord, but, being called, hardly to come thereto, and to grant the grace to the necessity rather than to the lookers on.’
This wasn’t showing off, this was, quietly, modestly, answering a need. But the physical human need for wine rather than water—a basic need with which we may sometimes identify—this points to a greater, more significant, spiritual thirst. Again, in Cyril’s words:
‘holy Scripture carries up language from human things to a meaning that is above us.’
The six water jars, evoking the six days of creation, the water relating to the old rites of purification, they point to our human condition—tantalisingly short of the completion and rest of the seventh day; in a constant effort of purification to make ourselves acceptable to God. Out of this Jesus brings superabundant, super wine; the cup of salvation, the new wine of the kingdom; a taste of heaven, rest, and perfect communion with God.
‘holy Scripture carries up language from human things to a meaning that is above us.’
In a few moments we will bring wine to this table, and we will ask God, by the Holy Spirit to lift up its meaning from earth to heaven—for it to become for us the blood of Christ.
When Jesus said to his Mother ‘My hour has not yet come’ it is a hint to the reader, to us, that we have to interpret this miracle, this sign, in the light of what is to come—the hour of the Son of Man, whose glory is revealed not just in signs and miracles, but in the final offering of himself, lifted high upon the cross. The wine, the best wine, that is poured out so abundantly at Cana prefigures Christ’s offering, Christ’s gift of himself, and the abundant life of his resurrection.
Our salvation begins in the marriage of God with our human nature, and is completed in our receiving of his life. By incarnation, he weds himself to us, he takes us into himself; by his death and resurrection, presented to us in the Eucharist, we take him into ourselves, as guests at the wedding feast.
So, as it turns out, there is no need to travel all the way to Paris, because something greater than Paris, something greater than Veronese, something akin to Cana is here—in this Eucharist, in which Christ is revealed, his salvation made known, and we are given a taste of heaven’s joy.