Under the Veil of the Ordinary

John 2:1-11

Few accounts of Jesus’ activities are more challenging to the assumptions of Christians, and perhaps especially Protestants, than his attendance at the wedding in Cana;
1. Surely Jesus, having been ordained by the baptism of John to begin his ministry, would carefully plan some spectacular well-publicized crowd event to kick it off,
2. Surely Jesus would avoid ordinary events like this in favor of a more spiritual agenda, fasting and praying, seeking the lost, at most giving a cameo appearance to bless the couple and then leaving,
3. Surely Jesus would not tolerate alcohol in his presence, let alone provide it for people who already had imbibed,
4. Surely Jesus would not trivialize the use of his miraculous powers simply to help a family avoid embarrassment at a party; he would no doubt point out to them the consequences of failing to plan for enough wine for the guests, if he did not simply tell everyone that they did not need more wine.

Well, surely not, since those who respect Scripture must go with what happened, not with more recent notions of what Jesus would do. What Jesus in fact did speaks clearly.

First, Jesus cares about the totality of who we are and what our needs are, not just for a “spiritual” or eschatological aspect. Cana is not an isolated incident. He teaches the crowds all day in the wilderness, feeding them spiritually and intellectually, but then also feeds them supper as well, miraculously. Several times, he allows his disciples to harvest grain on the Sabbath, strictly forbidden by the old Law. He restores to life the sons of two widows, so they can provide for their otherwise destitute mothers. He demands that children be respected and cherished. He cooks breakfast for the disciples. He assigns high ethical value to feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, giving clothes to the needy. He accepts anointing with perfume. The list is long. It includes caring about a family who will be looked at with contempt in a culture where hospitality is a very high value.

Second, “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Ps. 24). For Jesus, there is no separation between the physical and spiritual. The notion of so much of western Christianity, infiltrated by pagan Greek philosophers of old, that spiritual matters have a higher priority, that the material world, and our physical bodies, is the realm of the less godly, is foreign to his thought. He is the Lord of all that is, all. He who is divine has become incarnate. One message from that is that all that is carnal is thereby re-affirmed as sacred. Jesus is accomplishing his mission at the wedding of Cana just as much as when he is off in the desert praying or when he is preaching in the synagogue or contending with the Pharisees.

Third, his attitude towards wine reflects his dominion over all the earth. Years ago, I knew a Lutheran pastor in North Dakota who worked for the United Temperance Movement, a group attempting to ban alcohol in the state as an exercise in Christian moral influence. I asked him if he thought that alcohol, along with all the earth, was a creation of God’s. He answered that, “the grapes are created by God, but the fermentation process is of the Devil.” That view has no support in Scripture nor in observing the natural occurrence of fermentation in creation, without human input. Jesus clearly sees it differently as well. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking” (Luke 7:34). Being with Jesus is to participate in a perpetual feast. Wine can be abused. So can forests, drugs, sex, food, work, land, atomic power, animals, computers; virtually anything created can be abused, and there are a myriad of addictions. But the whole point is to be a good steward of God’s gifts and avoid the abuse. And then we can see clearly the feast that is set for us by the Bridegroom, and the joy that is ours at the Banquet. The good wine has arrived.

Fourth, those who would seek God in spectacular spiritual sensations are looking in the wrong place. The wedding at Cana is not described as different from other weddings. It is rare that we see Jesus on the mountaintop in brilliance. He does his work in the ordinary flow of life. Those who would separate him from daily life do not understand that the Incarnation is not an intrusion of a sacred being into a secular inferior world, but rather the entrance of the Lord into his sacred Kingdom to reclaim the sacred earth as his own. God doesn’t visit his creation, he permeates it, and us. Expect to find Jesus, therefore, in the ordinary. All of life is infused with his grace, all wine is sacramental, every minute of life leads to the Eucharistic center, where that which we offer is received and returned to us, filled with his real presence, so that our joy can be full for another week. “Beneath the veil of the ordinary lies the sacramental hiddenness of the natural world” notes Elizabeth Theokritoff (in “Living in God’s Creation,” p. 186). That includes ordinary people as well, doing ordinary things.

And one of those ordinary people is the Mother of our Lord. It is she who notices the looming social disaster and identifies the solution obvious to the eyes of complete faith. “They have no wine,” she says to Jesus. It is not a question nor is it a request. What happens next is a clear picture of why she is first among Christians. “Why do you involve me?” asks her son. To us, that sounds distinctly like “not my problem, I am not acting on this.” Mary doesn’t even reply. She simply tells the servants, “Do what he says.” It is the role model of someone both so confident in her own role and so absolute in her faith that Jesus can solve this and that he will care enough to do so.

It is in the ordinary that we also live our lives. Epiphany happens, not often in the spectacular, but in the sacred ordinary, of water, of simple bread and wine, of the routine words of an average priest assuring you that God loves and forgives you, of the familiar surroundings of sacred earth in your neighborhood. It is the message of Cana that we too can have the confidence and faith in the sacramental love of the Lord of the sacred ordinary of our lives.