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4th Sunday of Epiphany

20 January 2023

29 January: 1 Kings 17.8-16; Psalm 36.5-10; 1 Corinthians 1.18-end; John 2.1-11


THE steward at the Gospel wedding-feast is a realist. There is no euphemism about the guests’ being “merry”. From his knowledge of such occasions, he expects those guests to “become drunk”.

Perhaps stewarding wedding feasts was his full-time job, and had taught him to expect the worst. More probably, he was a slave, who belonged to the family, and knew their ways and weaknesses.

How we eat together is a sensitive matter for human society. I once made a fuss about being stuck at the end of a top table at a wedding breakfast (my only excuse is youth). It was my brother’s wedding, and I could speak the truth to him — albeit more in selfishness than love — about the person who would have been my only company over several hours. I got my way, and have felt guilty about it ever since.

Since it now appears that even princes get cross when someone changes their seating plan, perhaps I should not feel too bad about it. In any case, weddings are a time when alcohol can sometimes be a kindly anaesthesia for family tension.

As well as the celebration of a “new life together in the community . . . which all should honour”, there are less positive moments to endure. Rejected other halves seethe and fume (quietly or not so quietly) in the presence of an ex’s new partner. The recently bereaved pin on a lips-only smile, and keep it there till their jaws ache as badly as their hearts. Mortified parents spend their whole day apologising for over-excited children, as high on sugar as the older guests are on booze.

I would love to know more about this wedding couple. But the lack of information makes it plain that, for John, they are not the point. He wants our attention fixed on Jesus and the first of his signs — and a little on Mary, too, given the way in which John encourages his listeners and readers to focus on the tenor of her relationship with Jesus.

In the wider context of John’s take on the Good News, this couple and their wedding are just scenery and props for the unfolding of the “greatest story ever told”. How was it that Jesus and his disciples (surely just “friends” in the eyes of other guests) came to be invited? John does not tell us this, either. And why on earth does he start the story of the first sign that Jesus did with that whopping non sequitur: “There was a wedding . . . and the mother of Jesus was there”?

We could take a devotional approach, and speak of her mystical consonance with the will of her son, and her respect for his authority. That makes for a pious moral, but it is hardly realistic. If the mother of one of my wedding guests had started to interfere by giving orders to the waiting staff, I would have told her to pipe down.

Except, not really. What I would really have done is to want to tell her to pipe down — and then would have grumbled about it afterwards, when I was safely out of earshot. And perhaps I might hope that the bridegroom would shrug off his friendship with that talented but peculiar guest, who had brought along his interfering mother.

Grumbling afterwards is a pleasure reserved (if we are wise) for the drive home, when we are letting off steam to those we trust the most to share our views and forgive the multiple judgmentalisms that underlie them. Some would say that this is two-faced rather than polite, and perhaps a peculiarly British trait. That may be fair criticism. But this way of managing disagreement at family and social occasions has one invaluable advantage: it keeps the unkind word where it belongs, behind “the fence of the teeth” (as Homer calls it). Once utter it aloud, and you have set free a demon that will torment your target, but almost certainly torment you, too. As Socrates remarked, written words keep saying the same thing for ever.

I used to find the wedding at Cana a dull Gospel. But prayer changed that. I focused on it regularly when praying the luminous mysteries of the rosary. As I painted and peopled the scene in my mind’s eye, it was transformed. A silken veil was drawn back, and revealed a more intense reality, in which humanity — at its most inconsequential and foolish — keeps company with God.

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