Signs of Glory in Inglorious Places

See the source imageSECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

Prayer of the Day: Lord God, source of every blessing, you showed forth your glory and led many to faith by the works of your Son, who brought gladness and salvation to his people. Transform us by the Spirit of his love, that we may find our life together in him, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

According to our gospel lesson, Jesus produced at least 120 and perhaps as much as 180 gallons of wine-a ridiculously huge volume for what must have been a modest wedding reception. Moreover, this was not box quality. We are talking Richebourg here, the kind of liquor you dole out sparingly with the hors ’doeuvres. It’s not the cheap stuff you save for after-dinner dancing when everyone is so thoroughly trashed they don’t know or care much what they are drinking. This, the gospel tells us, was Jesus’ first sign.

In a sated culture like ours where there exists a milti-billion dollar industry selling diets, drugs, exercise, twelve step programs and surgery to help us stop eating and drinking ourselves to death, Jesus’ contribution to the wedding feast might appear excessive. But to a community in which all but the wealthiest of individuals lived just one famine away from starvation, the significance of this sign would have been hard to miss. For a people whose life was just one day after another of back breaking work and scarcity, a wedding celebration provided the one single occasion on which they could forget their difficult existence and eat and drink like royalty. Wine, a precious and rationed luxury, was an integral part of these festive celebrations. As New Testament scholar, Lindsey Trozzo, points out:

“Jewish prophetic literature uses the marriage metaphor for God’s covenant with Israel (Hosea 2:14-23), and the abundance of wine figures as an eschatological image of restoration, particularly for Israel (Joel 3:13, 18; Amos 9:11-15). The abundance of wine and saving the good wine for last draws upon this imagery of eschatological hope that is often coupled with messianic expectations.” See Commentary, Workingpreacher.org.

Indeed, our lesson from Isaiah echoes this theme by characterizing the return of Jewish exiles from Babylon to their homeland as a “marriage.” Isaiah 62:4-5. The meaning of Jesus’ sign was crystal clear. God’s gentle reign of abundance for all had begun.

Yet there is something a little strange about this sign. Jesus’ act of miraculous generosity went largely unrecognized-at least by those who seem to matter. The steward of the feast knows only that more wine, very good wine, has come in the nick of time from somewhere and that an embarrassing social faux pas has been averted. He has no idea where the wine came from and the only explanation he can find for its excellence is that somebody screwed up and served the poorer quality wine first. The bride and groom appear to have been oblivious both to the depletion of wine and Jesus’ remedy. For all we can tell, the wedding reception went on as though nothing unusual had happened. How can something be a “sign” when nobody sees it?

Actually, some people did see it. Jesus’ mother, for one. In contrast to Matthew, Mark and Luke, who identify Jesus’ mother as Mary, the mother of Jesus remains nameless in John’s gospel. Yet she is the one who recognizes the debacle with the wine and calls it to Jesus’ attention. More than that, she prods him into doing something about it. This is one of those rare occasions, such as Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman seeking exorcism for her daughter, when Jesus needs a poke to get him to do the right thing. (See Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28)

The servants are also privy to the miracle. These are the folks in the hotel uniform you see at wedding receptions. They bring in the main courses, clear the table and pour the coffee for desert. But they have no stake in the wedding festivities. They don’t sit at any table in the reception hall, share in the food and libations or dance with the wedding guests. There would be hell to pay for them if they did. They are outsiders. Servants have one and only one function: make sure the bridal couple, their attendants and the guests receive the best hospitality the facility has to offer. Yet in our gospel story, the servants, not the bridal party or the guests, are privy to Jesus’ very first sign.

Finally, the disciples witness the miracle-and believe. Or do they? Undoubtedly, the disciples recognized the miracle-but did they see the sign? If they had really seen this sign, would they have been in such consternation over how to feed five thousand people with a few loaves and fish? Would they have seen in a blind man, not merely a theological riddle, but an opportunity for the revelation of God’s healing power? If the disciples had really seen this sign, you would think they would have been more receptive to Mary Magdalene on that Easter morning when she burst into the room where they were cowering in fear with the remarkable good news: “The Lord has risen!” Whatever “belief” this sign might have generated in the disciples, it is clear that it has a long way to go before it matures into genuine faith.

Turns out this first of Jesus’ signs involves more than the remarkable transformation of water into wine. This is a sign telling us that God’s glory is manifested to nameless women, minimum wage servers who are not even a part of the main event, and to a church that is too often blind to signs happening in front of its face. Our gospel lesson invites us to “search for signs,” to take a closer look around us. It challenges us to take notice of the people and events occurring in the back ground that we might otherwise lose in the glare of the “main attraction.” There are signs to be seen of God’s compassion, generosity and redemption. What will it take to make us recognize them and believe what they are telling us? That is the question explored in the following poem by Alan Brilliant.

Searching for Signs
 
I am searching for signs and wonders
which, when younger, I might have had
for nothing, nothing at all, but which,
when older, I threw, despised, in the street-
things of little value, spurned by the stupid.
What where these things? The works that
embody and in their time transform
all poets destined for great singing
when, in their maturity, they pick up the pearl
lodged and nourished in the treasure of their heart.
But, for me, cursed with sloth
there will be no art
no enameled bird, no cup, no forge.
When, in my youth, I heard the clamour
of the mob and was afraid, I turned and ran
and since that time am unmanned.
Oh, I did not betray a gift, and artifact
but only what was me and mine.
Instead of winding the golden thread
up in a ball and following
until the tall trees and blood-red fruit
screamed Paradise I examined and searched
pretending I needed more: “I need more time,”
I said. And, stooping, bowed the head
to look in mud and in that mud
lies the pearl but it is long gone.

Source: Poetry, September 1969 (c. Alan Brilliant). Alan Brilliant (b. 1936) is founder of Unicorn Press in Santa Barbara, California and served as its Director. He is married to Teo Savory.  Both wrote for and assisted in the editing operations of Unicorn Press. Brilliant was a friend and correspondent of Thomas Merton, the prolific Trappist monk who authored the autobiographical The Seven Story Mountain and several other contemplative and devotional works. You can read more poetry by Brilliant at The Sun website.

 

 

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