“Woman, what does that have to do with you or with me?”
Before I can talk about anything else, I have to address Jesus’ tone – a tone that if my son took with me or I took with my mother…well, it would result in more direct feedback than Jesus seemed to receive.
Which is partly why I’m choosing to accept the word of the commentators who pretty uniformly insist that Jesus’ response sounds worse to us than it actually was – that addressing his mother has “woman” was, while not warm, not actually rude in its own cultural context. So if you will simply choose to accept that too, we can move on to the actual sermon.
We are celebrating the third sign of Epiphany today – the third revelation of Jesus’s true nature. The first sign was the visit from the Magi’s, which revealed that Jesus was God’s anointed one – the Messiah, the King of the Jews – but that his significance extended beyond his own people. The story is epic – foreign magicians, cosmic signs, weighty gifts, political intrigue.
The second sign was the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. The heavens opened, the spirit descended, the voice of the Father claimed him not simply as the anointed but as the beloved Son. Not only Jesus was revealed that day but the Triune God.
And today, the third sign – named by John as Jesus’ first own sign, the first time Jesus himself did something which pointed beyond what he appeared to be to what and who he truly was. Unlike the coming of the magi or the his own baptism, this sign is small and easily missed – noticed only by the servants and the disciples. No stars, no heavenly voices – just water turned into wine so a party won’t flop.
If the first sign of Epiphany revealed Jesus as messiah and king and the second sign revealed Jesus as the Son of God; what does this sign reveal about the true nature of Jesus?
Of course, it wasn’t just any party. It was a wedding. And marriage is a powerful Biblical symbol, used to describe the relationship between God and Israel in the Old Testatment – as we heard in the reading from Isaiah. This imagery is adoped in the New Testament to describe the relationship between Jesus and…well, Israel or all those who follow him or all of creation, depending on the story and your interpretive take. The point is, Jesus is the bridegroom (even if in this story he’s just near one). Jesus is the one who’s life is intimately bound to ours; who will make a future for us and with us; who will be faithful and generous and compassionate.
Jesus is not only King. Not only God’s beloved. Jesus is our beloved, too, wrapped up in the tangle of human relationships.
“Woman, what is that to you and to me?”
Maybe Jesus wasn’t being flat out disrespectful but this exchange still points to a certain amount of relationship..shall we say, reallness. If we set aside, for a moment, the unique nature of this young man and what is being asked of him, this little mother-son moment feels so very familiar.
Mary knows what her son is capable of; she knows who he is. Seeing an opportunity for him to be helpful, she attempts to manage his involvement. “They’ve run out of wine” – it could have been “the neighbours haven’t been able to dig out their car after last week’s snowstorm” or “your grandmother is feeling so lonely these days”.
Jesus responds by trying to keep some distance between her expectations of him; her analysis of his capabilities and himself but Mary simply plows ahead, trusting that he will do the right thing if he is put in the right situation. “Do whatever he tells you” – I suppose, technically, he could have told the servants to leave him alone but I feel sure that would have resulted in a… conversation once Mary and Jesus got back home.
This dynamic has caused problems over the centuries for those who wish to preserve God’s omnipotence and emphasize Jesus’ divinity. Why is Mary’s role necessary in this story? Why does Jesus seem to change his mind? Mary can’t actually exert the kind of influence she seems to, can she? After all, she’s just a human and he’s JESUS.
Which is exactly why Mary could well have had that kind of influence. He is Jesus – the Word made flesh – the Word made mothered – the Word made a guest at a party – the Word made available to help around the house.
This third sign of Epiphany reveals the homeyness of Jesus; the humanness of Jesus. The miracle of water into wine was easily misunderstood as a grand gesture of generosity by the party host rather than an impossible act by God-made-Man. That is surely the more reasonable interpretation of events and would have led the steward and all the guests to have a perfectly lovely time at a very good party.
But, for those who did know; those who understood the transformation to be a sign of the presence of God – that lovely party will have taken on a whole other level of significance – while still being simply a lovely party. What a perfect first act for the Saviour of the world who was born not in pomp but in insignificance.
This is not an unusual theme in reflections on Jesus, of course – the way that God turns expectations upside down by using what is weak or marginal or foolish to reveal true power and wisdom.
But the wedding at Cana isn’t even that dramatic. It’s not in a barn. It’s not an unwed mother. There’s no lepers or adulterers (let’s assume). It’s just a nice, normal sort of celebration – friends and family gathered for a happy but not really momentous occasion.
Okay, the wine is running short which will be embarrassing and a little disappointing but what wedding party doesn’t have such a story. It hardly seems the setting – either in magnificence or in startling humility – for a sign. But Mary thought otherwise. And Jesus, eventually, agreed.
And as often as not, this is still how God’s presence is revealed – in ways easily missed or explained away; in ways that seem rather prosaic, a little routine. We look for the flash – for the kings on camels or the descending doves or the brave acts of solidarity and self-sacrifice – but God mostly works in the everyday things of this world – babies and friendships and pushy mothers; people simply doing their jobs or being helpful or being awkward questions. The presence of God is revealed in water turned into wine. In wine turned into blood. The presence ofGod is revealed in the everyday moments of the everyday lives of everyday people, just like every one of us.
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