Until 2-3 weeks ago, I always equated Epiphany with a bright star leading the Magi with their gifts to the Christ child. And while that HAS been the emphasis of the Western Church, the Eastern Church primarily focused on two events of Jesus’ ministry in Epiphany themes – Baptism and transformation of water into wine at Cana of Galilee. Episcopalian priest Rev. Paul Nancarrow writes:
Historically, the ancient Epiphany Feast began in Alexandria, Egypt in the 2nd century in response to Hellenistic religious festivals clustered around the winter solstice. Various Hellenistic and Gnostic rituals noted the position of the star Sirius at the solstice, drew water from the Nile for ceremonial washings & symbols of new birth, OR celebrated the birth of the wine god Dionysos. Christians noted these themes, and fashioned their own feast by gathering from the Gospels stories the symbols of star, water, and wine connected to Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ baptism, and Jesus’ “first sign.”
Largely ignored by the Western Church, these aspects of Epiphany do however, show up in this year’s Lectionary Cycle Year C. Two weeks ago we celebrated the arrival of the Magi, last Sunday we remembered the Baptism of Jesus, as we were reminded of and anointed in our belovedness in God. And today, we encounter the “First Sign” of Jesus according to the Gospel of John.
In pagan cultures, January 6 was a day of celebrating wine miracles performed by Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Apparently, Alexandrian Christians gave this water-into-wine observance a Gospel twist by including the wine-miracle story at Cana of Galilee as the 3rd element in the Epiphany celebration, thereby displacing the feast of Dionysus’s epiphany. One could say this was an ancient one upmanship or one upgodship. Our god is better than your god. In the words of NT scholar, Rudolph Bultmann:
“No doubt the story of the marriage feast at Cana has been borrowed from pagan legends and transferred to Jesus.”
Presbyterian pastor Rev. John Shuck:
Instead of ‘our god is better than your god’ we can celebrate that our religions are all inter-related and with common symbols. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday we honor this weekend, was inspired to compassionate action by Jesus. King’s letter from Birmingham Jail was a piece of genius in the way he showed his hypocritical colleagues what Jesus was about. King took the stories about Jesus as models for ethics and action. The hatred of prejudice needed a miracle to overcome. King’s creative extremism was exactly that miracle. Like Jesus, King wrote, we need to be extremists for love. Maybe water into wine can be a symbol for creative extremism.
Let’s move into the gospel text:
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee.
The mother of Jesus was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited.
When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’
Running out of wine would be inconvenient, perhaps embarrassing, but is it such a big deal? At our wedding 4 years ago, we served communion, but even though both of us are pastors, AND we had 6 pastors involved in our wedding ceremony, we all apparently thought ONE loaf would be enough for over 200 people. Clearly, we were wrong, and started to run out. One of our young friends noticed what was happening and ran out of the sanctuary to raid the reception table of crackers and bread, throwing it all in a basket and came and stood between us, saving the day. That would have been embarrassing, but running out of wine would have been a disaster. Wine is a sign of the harvest, of God’s abundance, of joy and hospitality. If hosts run short on wine they run short on blessing. The inability to amply provide was considered a failure in hospitality that would bring shame on the wedding hosts. It was also ancient custom for guests to bring wedding gifts in the form of food & drink to share the burden of providing for such a large group. So, the family’s lack of wine might also indicate a lack of community support in addition to their own lack of resources.
Mary doesn’t ask for anything specific, simply states the obvious, but there seems to be an implied: “Do something about it.” Does Mary want to show off her son’s abilities OR is she worried that Jesus brought too many friends and the disciples drank too much of the wine that was offered. OR maybe Mary express a compassionate sensitivity for the hosts. Perhaps she doesn’t want this marriage celebration to leave a lasting shame as its memory.
His response is odd: “Woman, of what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Depending on the translation you might hear: Stay in your lane. Don’t meddle. That’s not our problem. Why do you come to me? Why are you getting me involved in this?
These are not foreign words to any of us – whether we speak them in our out loud voices or not.
Of what concern is that to me? We don’t speak up or get involved because:
Better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Fool
than to Speak and Remove All Doubt
It’s depressing to think of all the things that need to be fixed
I’m not on that committee – I don’t want to triangle
We don’t have enough information to make an informed decision
We don’t know where to start
We feel powerless to effect any change It won’t do any good anyway
We fear how we might be perceived by neighbors or family It takes too much energy
We may be pulled in beyond our comfort zone It’s beyond our comfort zone to begin with
In the very next verse, it’s as if she knows her son, Mary tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Even though his time, his hour had not yet come, Jesus wastes no time speaking to the servants. They fill the jars with water, and take a sample to the steward who proclaims it is even finer wine than what was served first. This is the first sign in the Gospel of John. Jesus spoke and then acted.
It continues to be a tension, a dilemma for us, doesn’t it – when to speak; when to act. Perhaps the hour for Jesus unfolded before he was completely ready or equipped, but prompted by his mother he responded. What is “the hour” for you or for our congregation? What need has arisen, what unforeseen opportunities lie before us, to step in and act? Kathryn Matthews: We continue the struggle to recover from economic devastation, damage to the environment, senseless shootings and violence from homegrown terrorists who look like us. Our shared life has deteriorated, maybe the underlying divisions and disagreements are simply being aired more roughly, more unkindly, than ever before.
In the news yesterday, a federal judge found 4 women guilty of entering a national wildlife refuge in AZ without a permit as they sought to deliver food & water in the desert for migrants. Women who answered the question, “What concern is that to us?” Out of compassion of shared humanity, they answered the call of Mt 25. “I was thirsty, and you gave me water to drink.” The Magistrate’s ruling is the first conviction against humanitarian aid volunteers in a decade. They were volunteers working with a group providing life-saving aid to migrants: “No More Deaths”/“No mas Muertos”. One of my friends volunteered with this group and experienced a change of perspective as her group cleaned up “trash” and helped fill water stations. Trash being people’s belongings and letters. I remember another recent news clip of paid employees gleefully dumping water that had been placed in the desert. It breaks my heart.
Yesterday, in our Nation’s Capitol, there was an opportunity for someone to speak up and intervene when a group of boys from a Catholic High School wearing “Make America Great Again” mocked an indigenous Native American elder and Vietnam Veteran, Nathan Phillips while he was attempting to diffuse conflict with a sacred drumming ceremony during the March for Life in Washington DC. Perhaps people did ask the question, “Of what concern is that to me?” And walked away.
In a statement afterwards, Nathan Phillips said,
“I heard them chanting “build that wall, build that wall.” These are indigenous lands; we’re not supposed to have walls. We never did for a millenium. We never had prisons. We always took care of our elders, our children. We taught them right from wrong. I wish I could see that mass of young men put energy into making this country really great again.
Apparently Gilette razors are answering the question “Of what concern is that to us?” with a new controversial ad to some as they attempt to take on toxic masculinity. There have been furious reactions like boycotting Gilette, resistance & pushback to this effort. In a 2 minute advertisement, Procter & Gamble plays on the company’s slogan, “The best a man can get,” replacing it with, “The best men can be,” telling men to “say the right thing” and “act the right way.” It portrays a montage of male bullying, harassment and sexist behavior and then demonstrates how men can step in to intervene to stop the behavior.
The lectionary passage from Isaiah today tells us that the justice of God cannot be silenced. Isaiah 62 shares God’s call for justice for the people of Jerusalem, who are returning after exile. They shall not only return, but be restored. For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.
These lectionary readings from Isaiah and John fall at the same time of year as the observance of the birthday of Dr. MLK.. One of the dominant themes of the Hebrew Scriptures & the prophet Isaiah is liberation from captivity – especially for the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, for all those living at the margins. God desires justice in this world, not only salvation in the next. Neither Jesus or Dr. King bowed down to the voices that wanted to silence them, nor did either hide with the threat of death. Dr. King stands in the legacy of Old Testament prophets, and in the example of Jesus, incapable of holding back the voice of justice.
Sophia Agtarap – minister of online engagement with UM Commnications:
“Our silence doesn’t let us off the hook. If we don’t speak, the problems that plague our community, our world and our church will not go away, for we are called to be the bearers of God’s justice and mercy, not those who settle for what’s convenient. And when we are working for justice, it will almost always seem inconvenient.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: Not only will we have to repent for the sins of bad people; but we also will have to repent for the appalling silence of good people.
Jesus, who professed salvation & peace, love & compassion could not extricate himself from politics. Episcopalian Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori:
“Jesus was deeply concerned with political processes in his own day, challenging people around him as well as the Roman and religious governments about injustice, violence, and exploitation. Our task as Christians is always to explore how the political processes and decisions before us can help or hinder the coming of the Reign of God in our midst. Does a tax proposal seem to care for ‘the least of these’? Does a policy decision mean greater justice for the vulnerable? Does one candidate seem to have a greater interest than another in the primary issues of justice that Jesus spoke most about? And while people of good faith may come to different conclusions about any such question, the quality of the dialogue and the way it is conducted must also be taken into account.
We all need to answer the question as Jesus did – Of what concern is that to you and me? We dare not be silent for the sake of a place of Peace. There is so much unrest and wrong. Silence is a catalyst that amplifies the wrong. Whether we are called to offer up our lives for the gospel, or to live that gospel in everyday acts of compassion and justice, we are using those abundant gifts, just as God intended, and on God’s own timetable, for the building up of the reign of God.
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. 2The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. 3You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 4You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called “My Delight Is in Her”, and your land Married.
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Blessing the Water, the Wine Jan Richardson
You thought you had learned to live with the empty, the hollow.
You could place your ear against the rim of the vessel of your life
and hear its ringing echo with equanimity, not expecting any more
not even bothered (almost) to be a bystander at the feast—
if not delighting in the celebration at least not despairing in it.
When the water rushed into the emptiness you were surprised
that you were surprised, that you could even feel
the sudden wellspring when you thought all had been poured out.
And then suddenly the sweetness that stuns you that tells you
this was not all, this was not the end
that this blessing was saving the best for last.
By Stephen Garnaas Holmes “You have kept the good wine until now.” —John 2.10
You have run out of wine, but Jesus doesn’t believe in running out.
Forget all that”we don’t have enough.” Have some more.
You have huge vats for purification,
as if it’s going to take a lot to wash off all your crud.
Jesus doesn’t think so. Forget all that “I’m not good enough.” A toast.
It’s a wedding— which everything seems to be to Jesus, a feast of faithful love.
He looks pretty loose after that last glass, as if he’s about to propose.
Scholars swirl the wine and think Eucharist, woman at the well, water gushing up in you, blood and water from his side, baptism— but they’ve lost him. He’s gazing at you.
Serious theologians read the signs like tea leaves, proven by the miracle,
but the Beloved looks past them and catches you with his soft eyes: “Hey. Wanna dance?”
The promise of the banal, the dull and unremarkable,
the dark wine hidden in the clear, regular jar,
in the plain and the pained the beautiful and life-giving,
stars in the night and the silence ripe with song,
what wasn’t even meant for drinking become the finest drink,
the hopeless afternoon impossibly made brilliant,
what lack already may be made an abundance,
the first Word that turned the dark light,
is in your plain chipped cup, God swirling, sea-dark, intoxicating, and has turned.
You haven’t tasted it yet. —January 17, 2019