Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
I Corinthians 12:4—11
This Sunday’s readings invite us to think about marriage as a sign of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel, which the Church believes has been “consummated” with the incarnation. The prophetic traditions of Israel, especially Isaiah, present God as an eager bridegroom who passionately desires and delights in his bride. God does not merely desire to enjoy and possess Israel, but to transform and glorify her. Like any human spouse, Israel takes on a new life and receives a new identity as she is united definitively to her bridegroom. “No more shall people call you ‘Forsaken,’ or your land ‘Desolate,’” declares the prophet, “but you shall be called ‘My Delight,’ and your land ‘Espoused.’”
With this prophetic metaphor in view, St. John masterfully narrates the pivotal event that inaugurates Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee. The occasion for this first of Jesus’ “signs” is a wedding in the village of Cana. I find it interesting and suggestive that Jesus’ presence there is mentioned only after his mother’s: John tells us that Jesus’ mother was there, and that Jesus and his disciples were also invited. We have no indication whose wedding it was, but presumably these were people with whom the holy family, or perhaps only Mary, was familiar. John also notes that the wedding took place “on the third day,” which of course could be read as an allusion to the resurrection, though I’ve always liked to imagine that the feast itself was on its third day, which incidentally might help explain why the wine ran out.
The more likely explanation for why the wine ran out, however, is that the family celebrating this marriage was poor. If we are to place ourselves within the unfolding drama of this scene, it might be best to imagine this event as a rare “peak moment” in the otherwise grueling lives of a poor family living at subsistence level in a provincial backwater of the ancient world. These ordinary people would have encountered scarcity at almost every point in their lives, and here it is again—at the one moment designated for celebration, the one day when the fear of scarcity was to be set aside. And so the wine ran out. The wine, of all things: the very symbol of that bliss and buoyancy of heart which everyone came together to share.
Who then do we find most sensitive and responsive to this development? It is not Jesus—the divine Bridegroom incarnate—but rather, his mother: the woman whose own marriage was haunted by social disgrace and whose “birth experience” took place on the cold floor of a cave filled with livestock instead of family. She could not have been oblivious to what the bride must have been feeling at that moment, and she certainly did not stand idly by.
My students seem to connect with this story, I think, not only because Jesus provides large amounts of alcohol to a sputtering party, but also because Mary acts a little bit like a helicopter parent here. It is not as if Jesus has not already begun to direct his own adult life by this point—his disciples are there with him, after all—yet here is Mary still trying to tell him what to do. Not directly, of course, but by that most potent of familial tactics: passive aggression. “By the way, there is no wine.” “Yes? So? And? You want me to do what about that right now?” It is heartening to think that Jesus assumed even this aspect of human familial relations.
The more lofty way to read this exchange, of course, is to place Mary in the role of the prophet mediating between Israel and God. It is the cry of Israel that the wine—the spiritual vitality, the joy, the prosperity, the life which was promised them—has run out. The day of the Bridegroom’s coming has arrived, and yet she finds herself unprepared for the feast. It is the prophet who cries out to God on her behalf: have mercy! How long will you be silent? How long will you hide your face? Do something to save us! Jesus, holding to the prophetic pattern, is not interested in merely distributing hand-outs. Yahweh in the flesh, he desires rather a faithful covenantal relationship. And so, like the prophets, Mary tells the servants to “do whatever he tells you.”
With these words we see that the drama of the wedding feast has fully recapitulated the perennial drama of the people of God. Will Israel obey Yahweh or not? Obedience reveals itself as the key to the abundant wine of God’s life, which in the end is the only thing that will make us truly happy.
It is also therefore the key to a happy marriage (though I should hasten to mention that such obedience in the context of marriage must be first and foremost toward God, and fully mutual toward one another). In sharing the wine of matrimony, two individuals become not merely partners but spouses. Theirs is no longer merely an aggregation of resources and a balanced interaction of duties and responsibilities. Theirs is a common life that gives rise to an authentic communion of persons. Partnerships can be divided, cashed out, distributed. Marriages, however, are a truly common good: while the various assets involved in a marriage can be pieced out in pre-nuptial agreements or divorce settlements, the marriage itself cannot. It can only created or destroyed in toto.
Marriage is thus the most powerful of signs for the covenant which God desires to creates with his people. One cannot enter into it halfway, nor can one preserve any “core” of one’s own self-conceived identity from its transformative effects. Like marriage, participation in the divine life cannot be seized or earned, but only received and gratefully accepted. The analogy is an easy and straightforward one, in so far as both are ultimately and only about love. No one can successfully “acquire” love, but like God himself (who is nothing other than love) it begins to appear out of the corner of one’s eye only in the course doing other things. It is the horizon that informs all the concrete acts of obedience that constitute relationships of unwavering commitment, whether those be the everyday tasks of preparing meals, punching a clock and changing diapers, or the more dramatic deeds of suddenly relocating to a foreign land, submitting to an angel’s message or transforming 90 gallons of water into premium quality wine.