Mr. Bean, parlor tricks, and turning water into wine

A couple of years ago a priest named Chris Yaw published a new book designed to introduce people to the Episcopal Church.  The religious literary graveyard is littered with such books.  Every time I receive a catalog from Church Publishing, there is a page full of new offerings eagerly encouraging me to purchase copies for newcomers and the Explorers Class.  But in Fr. Yaw’s case, he came up with a book title that set his book apart from all the others and caused his sales to skyrocket.  Fr. Yaw’s book is entitled, with no pretense to humility, Jesus Was An Episcopalian, and You Should Be Too!

At first blush, that seems arrogant.  But the more I thought about it I wondered, maybe Jesus was an Episcopalian.  I mean, sure, there’s the chronological problem that the Episcopal Church didn’t exist in the first century, coupled with the fact that Jesus was Jewish.  But since when have minor impediments such as these deterred Episcopalians?  I mean, we claim eleven U.S. presidents, more than any other church.  Why shouldn’t we claim Jesus?

Two of these three presidents, and nine others, were Episcopalian.

So, I began a research project to identify passages in scripture that would substantiate Fr. Yaw’s claim, and it didn’t take long before Providence pointed me to the second chapter of John’s Gospel.  Here we have it.  Jesus is at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.  As one who performs many weddings, I can tell you that the cares and concerns surrounding nuptials are legion.  Most importantly, there are the worship service itself and the emotional well-being of the bride.  These or innumerable other details might draw the primary attention of Jesus were he of some other church affiliation.  But Jesus saves his mojo for the reception.  He makes sure that the good folk in Cana don’t run out of wine!  And not just a little wine; six enormous stone jars full.  And not just any wine; the best, most delicate to the palate.  Jesus was an Episcopalian!

If there were any lingering doubt, let’s see from whom Jesus takes his cues in this story.  It’s not the groom or the best man.  No, Jesus hops-to when his mama, a fine and proper woman who understands how these social weddings work, tells him to.  Yes, I’m convinced that Jesus was an Episcopalian.

All kidding aside, we do exalt this story in the Episcopal Church.  In fact, so far as I can tell, this is the only miracle other than the Resurrection itself that the Book of Common Prayer singles out for special prominence.  Did you know that?  In the opening of the marriage rite the priest says, “The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.”

In other words, we lean on the miracle of turning water into wine as our support for the Christian Church being involved in the marriage game at all.  But I have to say, with all due respect to the compilers of the 1979 Prayer Book, and while there are many, many compelling reasons for the Church to be involved in marriage, this particular rationale is a bit flimsy.

Jesus doing magic tricksAt the risk of incurring a lightning bolt from heaven, Jesus’ miracle here seems like a parlor trick.  He’s not stilling some hurricane or exorcising a demon.  In fact, British comedian Rowan Atkinson (you know him as “Mr. Bean”) has a hilarious YouTube clip in which he plays an Anglican priest expositing this passage.  Atkinson preaches that Jesus followed the water-into-wine miracle first by pulling a rabbit from a hat and then by sawing Mary Magdalene in half.

This is a problem.  If we claim with a straight face that the essential thing about this story is a magic trick by the one we call Savior and Lord, we open ourselves to the caricatures that cynical and antagonistic folk in our culture love to make of the Church.  How, then, might we view this story differently?

As is so often the case in scripture, the story of the wedding in Cana is rich with meaning.  But to discern any of it, we must catch the interpretive clue at the story’s very outset.  Reread the throw-away line with which this passage begins: “On the third day there was a wedding…”  On the third day.

Rowan Atkinson (not actually a priest, though he'd make a good one)

Rowan Atkinson (not actually a priest, though he’d make a good one)

Sound familiar?  It should.  It’s supposed to resonate with us.  It’s not a throw-away line after all!  It foreshadows what will come in the Gospel.  It reveals that the truth of this story runs deeper than the events themselves.  As we are reminded each time we say the Nicene Creed, Jesus is resurrected “on the third day.”  The third day is the dawn of new life.  The third day is the first day of forever!  John begins this story with these words very intentionally.  With this beginning, we are to recognize that Jesus’ presence in Cana transforms the significance of this otherwise normal, rural, first-century wedding into a vision of resurrection life, a vision of what life in Christ looks like.

Everything that follows is, then, potent with symbolic meaning, including the note at the end that this is Jesus’ very first sign to the world.  This is, in other words, how he begins his ministry.  From the outset, then, Jesus foreshadows the end.  Namely, he reveals to us that everything he will say and do in his ministry points to his own resurrection.  For those who want to interpret Jesus primarily as a moral teacher or a healer or just a really good guy, this is crucial.  He is all of those, but he is primarily, essentially, the one who lives so that he may die, so that he can destroy death and all that separates us from God.

So what happens at this wedding reception?  It begins as a very normal, very worldly party in which all the guests launch themselves into having a raucous time.  But we get the sense that there is a forced quality to their revelry, mainly because the wine runs out so quickly.  To be blunt, they are drinking in order to get drunk, and in their world as in ours people do that when they are trying to deny or forget some difficult reality.

What reality might they be trying to forget?  A reminder of it sits just at the edge of the party: six enormous stone jars used for the purification rituals that are necessary in order for the people to be in right relationship with God.  Without the purification ritual, these men and women cannot be justified before God.  This is their reality: They are unworthy—unacceptable—to the One who has made them.  Their frenetic party masks an underlying despair.  Despite their finest clothes and wittiest toasts, they are not good enough.  There is a chasm between themselves and God.

By participating in the purification rite—through just the right motions and just the right magic words—they can experience a fleeting moment of what it is to be accepted before real life despoils them again and shatters the illusion.  (That’s the parlor trick in this story.)

From the corner Jesus looks back and forth between the party and the water jars.  Though at first he resists, his love gets the better of him, and he acts.  Jesus takes the water vessels, the very jars that pretend to offer acceptance but really accentuate separation, and he changes their water into wine.

Water into wineWith that, the party changes.  People recognize that this wine is different, and they ladle it from the water jars that have been freed from their old purpose and redeemed to something new.  The revelers don’t entirely understand what’s happened.  It will take Jesus’ entire ministry, his death, and his resurrection to reveal that with clarity.  But we, who know the whole story, can understand.  We know that the wine in the jars anticipates the blood Jesus will shed on the Cross and thus the wine of the Eucharist, in which the Lord binds himself to us so closely that we take him into ourselves.  Jesus’ miracle here says that the old hocus pocus–which insists that God is other, God is separate, or, in our modern culture, that God is simply not and we are both not good enough and in this world starkly alone–is all illusion.  Jesus’ first sign says that God is with us; God accepts and desires us immediately, and God wishes to fill us—like wine drunk deeply—with his love abundantly and endlessly.

When Jesus turns the water into wine, the real celebration begins.  Then the revelry—our revelry—takes on the character of eternal life.  It’s no longer frenzied or forced, because our separation from God is gone.  All we must do, like the servants directed in this story by Jesus’ mother, is trust Jesus that this is true.

Here at the end, because I downplayed it at the beginning, I want to come back to the importance of this miracle specifically for marriage.  It may be, as I said earlier, a stretch to claim that Jesus’ mere presence at this wedding intends to serve as his approval of marriage per se.  After all, we’ve all attended weddings in our lives of which we did not approve.  But the juxtaposition does matter in another, crucial way.  Jesus’ miracle at this wedding speaks to a deep truth about marriage and, indeed, about any loving partnership.  As any married couple knows, at some point in their lives together, the wine runs out.  The grand party ends.  The music fades.  The splendor gives way to life, and we feel separated from one another, just as we can feel separated from God.  The wine runs out.  And when it does, one of two things usually happens.  Either the marriage breaks down, or the couple rediscovers that the only wine that never runs dry is Jesus.

Whether in our relationship with God or our relationship with the person who is closest to us, it is Christ who overcomes separation, who binds us together as one.  Faith in Christ—centering our relationships in him—is the elixir that accepts us, sustains us, and indeed, in the best way, intoxicates us with love.

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The God Particle

The Year of our Lord 2013 has begun in earnest.  As of today, the Christmas season has ended, and we can set our sights ahead into this new year.  But before we do, it’s worthwhile to reflect upon some of the important events that occurred in the Year of our Lord 2012.  As I said on Christmas Eve, we barely averted the Mayan apocalypse.  We did careen over a fiscal cliff…or at least skidded down it a bit.  We endured a very long and exhausting presidential campaign, which ended either in great consternation or great joy, depending upon your point of view.  We celebrated a fantastic summer Olympic Games.  We sweltered without power after the derecho.  We paused in shock at occurrences including the Penn State scandal, Hurricane Sandy, and finally the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.  After such events, our lives will never be the same.

Dr. Fabiola Gionatti, who led the team that discovered the  "God particle."

Dr. Fabiola Gionatti, who led the team that discovered the “God particle.”

All of these were notable, some for good and others for disastrous reasons.  But none has more potential for long-term impact than the headline story all over the world on July 5, 2012.  On that day newspapers and cable channels announced that physicists at the European Center for Nuclear Research had finally, definitively discovered the “God particle.”[i]

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In college I was a philosophy and religion major.  I loved the passion of the religion department, but I equally appreciated the dogged rigor of the philosophers.  With set jaws and steely eyes, they probed as deeply as the human mind can probe the fundamental questions of the universe.  I especially loved philosophers like Hegel who, while crazy difficult to read, proposed total systems of understanding, leaving nothing out.  There is something elegant and satisfying about the “grand theory of everything.”  I have always wanted to know the Truth with a capital “T”.  I’ve always desired knowledge about the things that hold the world together and give it purpose and meaning.

It wasn’t long into my first philosophy course when I learned that once-upon-a-time physics was simply a branch of philosophy.  That realization made perfect sense.  The physicists, too, seek to understand the underpinning of things.  They, too, ask the deepest questions.  In fact, at some point along the way modern philosophers became sidetracked with (in my opinion, at least) silly questions and ceded the essential questions to the physicists.  It is the physicists who insistently peel back the layers of the world to discover what lies beneath.  And in so doing, they reveal to us dimensions that sometimes seem fantastic and surreal.

For instance, there is, right here and right now—around and within each of us—another world, populated not only by molecules and atoms, but by things that even atoms dwarf.  It is a world of quarks and bosons (bo-zens).  It is a world governed by the strong force and the weak force.  It is the world explored by those physicists at the European Center for Nuclear Research.  Theirs is practical in addition to theoretical physics.  With their Large Hadron Collider, these men and women actually smash protons together at nearly the speed of light.  The collisions occur with such force that the protons splinter into their component parts, allowing physicists to see the very basic building blocks of the cosmos.  Because their work is mysterious to folks like you and me, it frightens many people.  Indeed, in the weeks before their Large Hadron Collider fired up for the first time in 2008, there was a crescendo of panic that its proton-smashing might create a black hole that would swallow the earth.[ii]

A collision in the Large Hadron Collider.  The yellow lines are the tracks of particles produced by the collision.

A collision in the Large Hadron Collider. The yellow lines are the tracks of particles produced by the collision.

Lucky for us, that didn’t happen.  But what did happen at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012 was the discovery of the God particle.  In laymen’s terms, the God particle is a subatomic bit that draws other particles to itself, causing them to cohere and have mass.  Without it, there would be nothing tangible in the universe.  All would be merely ether.  It is, in other words, the basic property of creation, that through which all things are made: you, me, the tree, the rock, the supernova.  On this tiniest and simplest thing, all else hinges.

You can see how it got its nickname.  The God particle’s proper name is the “Higgs boson,” and scientists had been searching for it for fifty years.  Without the Higgs, physics had a big hole in it.  Physics’ model of the universe was a hope, but it was not a hope realized.  Until the Higgs was found, physics’ house of cards might’ve fallen.  And so, the wise men of physics were constantly on the lookout for the Higgs at its rising.  They needed it as a lodestar to guide them to the truth.

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On Epiphany we read about another guiding star.  Magi—wise men, philosophers, we might say the physicists of their day—ardently seek the Truth.  They wish to plumb the depths of mystery and understand the essential workings of the world.  So they follow the lodestar at its rising, wherever it may lead.  On their quest, politics attempts to co-opt them (as politics today often tries to co-opt scientists).  King Herod seeks to influence the magi for his own ends, but these are seekers of truth, and honest truth-seekers will not be used and will not be influenced, no matter what pressure is brought to bear upon them.

Magi 3The magi continue to follow the lodestar, which draws them as a force toward Bethlehem.  The star beckons and lures until it stops over the place where lies a child.  These wise men from the east are learned.  They already have a healthy and potent sense of how the cosmos works.  They already hold a fair portion of the truth.  But until this encounter, there is a hole in their model of reality.  Their house of cards could fall.

Until now, when in this child the wise men discover the heart of the world, the essence, purpose, and meaning of creation.  In this child they see, in the words of St. Paul read on Epiphany Day, “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.”  As they gaze at Jesus, the magi realize, as Paul says elsewhere, “all things have been created in him and through him…and in him all things hold together.”[iii]  In this tiny and simple child, all else hinges.

Matthew’s account of the magi shares with us the fact of this discovery.  But we also receive on Epiphany the content of the meaning and purpose Jesus embodies at the heart of all things.  On Epiphany Day many churches will recite the Third Song of Isaiah, known in Latin as Surge, illuminare.  In it, the Prophet speaks of the way the world will be when it recognizes Jesus Christ as its center:  When we awaken to the reality that we are created in and through Christ–and are drawn to him as our center the way all those subatomic bits are drawn to the God particle–we will take on greater substance and surge with light, which is what the title of this holy song means.

But there is more.  Christ gives us substance and light not for our own sake.  Too much of Christianity grasps only this half-truth.  The Third Song of Isaiah goes on to say that when the Truth is fully revealed, when we kneel before it the way the magi kneel to the Christ-child— when it completes us—we will be changed as essentially as those particles in the Hadron Collider are changed when they slam together at the speed of light.  Where our minds once tended to brood and darken, we will instead see the world in light.  Where we were closed off, insular, and self-protective, the gates of our hearts will remain ever open.  We will, each of us, foreswear violence and live in peace.  We will, in all things, seek to further the purpose of Christ Jesus through whom we are made, which is always, always love.Magi 2

That is the Epiphany.  That is the Truth disclosed by God and discovered by the wisest men and women, both in the first century and today.  It is practical rather than theoretical spirituality.   It bears concretely upon the way we respond all those things I mentioned at the outset—politics, storms, the Sandy Hook shooting—all those joys and tragedies that marked 2012 and surely await us in 2013.

Once physicists discovered the God particle, they could never turn back.  Their world will never again be what it was before that truth was disclosed.  Once we have experienced the Epiphany, we can never go back, either.  We have seen the Christ at the heart of the world.  It has been revealed that we were created for no other reason than to live through him and for him.  We now know the Truth.  Surge, illuminare.  Take on new substance, rise and shine.  Amen.


[i] “Discovery of subatomic ‘God particle’ acclaimed,” The Roanoke Times, July 5, 2012, page 3.  See also “The Discoverer: Fabiola Gianotti,” in the December 31, 2012, issue of TIME Magazine.

[iii] Colossians 1:16-17.

Epiphany gifts, given and received

During the Epiphany season we read the rather mysterious account of wise men in the East who follow a star to the Christ child in Bethlehem.  The wise men give the child gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  The word “epiphany” means “revealing,” and in their choice of gifts the strange men from the East reveal to us just who this child is to them.

Gold is not a gift that one gives to a baby.  But it is a gift that one presents to a king.  Frankincense—that sweet-smelling incense that is burned even to this day before altars in churches just like this one—is a gift given to a priest.  And Myrrh is anointing oil, a solemn gift given to a prophet, signifying that he is anointed to speak God’s word.  It is also the oil for anointing the dead, signifying that the prophet is almost assuredly the target of those who would deny God’s word.  King, priest, prophet.  When the three men look at the child Jesus, this is what they see.Magi

Upon leaving Bethlehem, the wise men give Jesus their greatest gift.  Knowing that Jesus’ mission in the world depends upon them, they risk everything by defying King Herod.  Rather than turning Jesus in to Herod (who seeks to kill Jesus), they leave town a different way.  They change direction.

How far do we travel in our lives to kneel at the feet of Jesus?  Do we set anything else aside, as the wise men set aside their entire lives, to make such time and room?  What do we bring him?  Are our gifts perfunctory and frivolous, meaningless bobbles offered with little care or forethought?  Or, do we set before Jesus the best of us: our passions, our love, our resources…all to acknowledge that he is king; that he mediates grace to us; that he speaks the very voice of God?  Most importantly, when we look into the eyes of Christ, are our hearts moved to change direction?  Do we stand up to those with subtle or real power over us and begin to walk in ways that support Jesus’ mission of reconciling love in the world?

The strange men from the East offer us a profound blessing by reminding us who Jesus is.  He is the king, around whom we should center our lives.  He is the priest, through whose body and blood we are drawn close to God.  He is the prophet, whose way of love can change our hearts and souls.  This is who Jesus is revealed to be.  And because he is all this to us, in the end we are the ones who have received the greatest gift.