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2nd Sunday of Epiphany

07 January 2022

16 January, Isaiah 62.1-5; Psalm 36.5-10; 1 Corinthians 12.1-11; John 2.1-11


FOR the second week in a row, the richness of the Gospel demands almost all our attention, while I find myself wondering, “What’s in a name?” Matthew, Mark, and Luke all refer to the mother of Jesus by name as Mary. John never does so, despite the high profile that he accords her at key moments.

Insight into the story comes to us from meditation; for there are many details that we would like to know, yet only a few have been imparted. Like many a family story, the actual event has been streamlined to highlight essentials, instead of giving every moment, every angle.

The scene in our mind’s eye focuses on the relationship between mother and son. Mary, who was so quick to understand Gabriel’s message, was quick also to sense the shameful situation in which the groom’s family found themselves. (It was tradition to escort the bride to her husband’s house, where festivities would begin).

You don’t have to be an expert on first-century Palestine to understand the family plight that Mary intuited. It is still a cause for shame to invite people to eat and drink with you, but not to provide enough to satisfy them. In my own family, every get-together is over-catered; and I’m sure we are not alone in this.

Her realisation leads to a conversation that at first glance looks disconnected. We need imagination, as well as exegesis, to make sense of it. She tells her son (I picture an urgent whisper) what has gone wrong, and clearly expects some kind of reaction from him. But, to begin with, he shrugs it off. It isn’t his problem. The next part of the conversation ought to surprise us, logically if not emotionally. Mary doesn’t respond to what he says, but to her knowledge of his nature. She knows, in other words, that, regardless of what Jesus has replied, he will not leave the family comfortless (John 14.18). So she tells the servants to carry out his orders.

In what happens next, it is reasoning, more than prayer or exegesis, that helps us to come to an understanding. If there were six huge water jars standing there ready for “the Jewish rites of purification”, why were they all empty? They held between fifteen and twenty-five gallons. How long might it have taken to have them all filled?

My conclusion from all this is not plainly stated in the Gospel as Bible truth, but it does make sense of how the story is told. The servants had to fill the jars up with water there and then, because it mattered for everyone who witnessed this beginning of signs to know that the jars had not contained wine from the outset. There must be no chance of trickery, or sleight of hand. Beyond any doubt, the guests must be seen to be blessed, not deceived.

I hope that the bridegroom, taking the undeserved credit for super-spoiling his guests, had the sense to enjoy the blessing that had befallen him, instead of fretting about the whys and wherefores, or wasting precious seconds of his life on being embarrassed. For him and for his kinsfolk, something else important was unfolding: the beginning of a “new life together in the community” was also creating a new family in their midst.

This first sign, at Cana, is a reminder that God’s love shows itself in generosity and protection. Hand in hand with overflowing generosity is the refuge that he provides for all his people — “under the shadow of his wings”, according to the psalmist (36.7, 9), who also declares that “You give them drink from the river of your delights.”

It is no accident that a wedding is the place chosen for this sign from God’s Son. Isaiah 62 — like the verses that precede the lection (and other prophetic passages) — uses marriage, which creates family, as a symbol of God’s love; his rescue of Jerusalem is like a marriage of one who had once been unloved, rejected (Lamentations 1.1) — a reversal of unfruitfulness.

God calls his people Hephzibah and Beulah. These two female names are descriptions of a present identity and pledges of a promised future. Hephzibah means “my delight is in her”; and Beulah means “married”. The parameters of marriage may be debated, but its God-given potential to be one of the best blessings of human existence is not, I hope, in doubt.

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