Sunday, January 14, 2007
God's Favorite Magic Trick
Three years ago, I preached on today's Gospel reading, the Wedding Feast at Cana, as a guest preacher at another parish. Since the reading's come around again today, I'm posting the homily. I'm fond of this one.
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Everybody loves a wedding, which may be why, among the many miracles of Jesus, the Wedding at Cana is a perennial favorite. People are so fond of this story, I suspect, because it’s such a happy miracle. Nobody’s sick or dying. There are no lepers in sight. As befits Jesus’ very first miracle, he isn’t doing anything that might frighten bystanders, like raising the dead or controlling the weather. Most of Jesus’ later miracles will involve some element of pain or fear or anxiety -- griefstricken relatives, people with major medical problems, disciples screaming in terror as their friend comes walking along on top of the water -- but there’s nothing at Cana to scare anybody. This is a beginner’s miracle, a miracle with training wheels. The happy wedding guests would be even happier if they had more wine, so let’s make some, shall we?
In fact, the most flustered person in the entire tableau is Jesus himself, who seems to be suffering more than a little performance anxiety. The Gospel of John makes him sound imperious and majestic, as if he’s totally in command: “Woman, my hour has not yet come!” But it’s difficult for me to hear this story without imagining a very different and decidedly more human tone to his voice. It’s hard not to picture Jesus as the reluctant son being pushed to perform by a proud, nagging Jewish mother.
“Yeshua? Yeshua! These people have no wine! Do something!”
“But Mooo-ooom! It’s not time yet! I’m not ready! I’ll mess up in front of everybody!”
“Oh, nonsense, you will not! Go on: you can do it, I know you can! You’ll be just fine. Servants! Hey, you there, servants! Do whatever my son tells you to do, all right?”
Now, it’s true that Jesus was already in his thirties when this happened, so maybe he didn’t whine quite this much -- but mothers never lose their capacity to embarrass us. A proud, nagging mother can make the most majestic adult feel as if he’s ten years old, trying to avoid playing the piano in front of guests. And Mary’s nagging is embarrassing for another reason: she’s reminding Jesus, none too gently, that whether he feels ready isn’t the point. The people around him are the point. Jesus’ hour to perform a miracle has come, whether he’s written it in his daytimer or not, because this is the hour when the guests have run out of wine. Their need is more important than Jesus’ timetable or his feelings of inadequacy.
Jesus shouldn’t have been nervous, of course; Mary’s faith in him was fully justified, and he handled his command performance beautifully. The happy guests got wonderful new wine, and Jesus’ career as a miracle worker was off to a splendid start. His later miracles, even when they involve pain and fear and anxiety, will follow this same basic pattern of creating abundance from scarcity. Changing water into wine is just a warm-up for his later work of changing despair into hope, illness into health, and death into life.
This is God’s favorite magic trick, this business of transforming emptiness into plenty. It’s the first story the Bible tells us. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep . . . . Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” And God created everything else in turn: day and night, sea and sky, plants and animals and people. Jesus’ miracle at Cana, while it was momentous both for him and for the other people there, was only one tiny instant in God’s career of transformation. And if God the Father and God the Son are in the magic business, God the Holy Spirit is, too. The first Pentecost, when the Spirit descended upon the disciples, transformed bewilderment into understanding, because suddenly everyone could understand the speech of everyone else. It transformed doubt into faith, because the skeptical bystanders were converted. And it transformed a motley, jostling crowd into a joyous church.
God’s favorite magic trick shows up everywhere in the Bible. It shows up everywhere in our own lives, too. Whenever winter gives way to spring, we see God the Father working His familiar wonder, which somehow never grows old. Whenever the Spirit moves us to new compassion, new creativity, new cheerfulness, we feel the emptiness within us transformed into abundance. And whenever we reach out to someone in need, or receive human help from an unexpected quarter, we witness the transforming power of Christ, who changes lack to love.
As disciples of Christ, we are called to perform magic tricks of our own. In the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good, and yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.” True, most of us can’t literally change water into wine, but we can feed the hungry, comfort the lonely, and plant gardens in empty lots. A kind word spoken to a harried parent at the Post Office can ease the discomfort of everyone in line. A simple “thank you” can make a co-worker who’s felt invisible suddenly feel appreciated. A few dollars sent to an international aid agency can buy rice for an entire family for a month.
And if these examples sound too easy, well, they’re only easy when we’re paying attention. The Wedding at Cana teaches us that we miss opportunities for miracles whenever we’re too focused on our own schedules and our own feelings of inadequacy. We need to do what we can, where we are, with what we have -- even if we feel unready or unworthy, and even if our actions seem very small.
If we can do this when we’re happy, we’ll be better at doing it when we’re facing pain and fear and anxiety. A friend of mine with long, beautiful hair was recently diagnosed with cancer. Because she knew that she was going to lose her hair to chemotherapy anyway, she cut it off and sent it to a charity called Locks of Love, which makes wigs for ill children. Another friend of mine, when her sister died very suddenly of an asthma attack, told the doctors to donate her sister’s organs to other patients in need. These aren't training-wheel miracles. These are miracles performed by people facing searing loss, who ask how they can transform their own suffering into blessing for others. “This is my body, given for you.” This is Eucharist.
All of our lives will lead us eventually into such dark places, into pain and loss, as surely as Jesus’ own life did. It will be easier for us to change that suffering into blessing if we’ve been practicing all along, if we’ve started with the easy stuff: the training-wheel miracles performed in the joyous, sunny bustle of a wedding, where our only job is to make people who are already happy even happier. The Wedding at Cana reminds us that everyone has to begin somewhere, and that no miracle is too small. And it reminds us that our stage fright doesn’t matter.
“But I’m not ready!” we say, in our panic. “I haven’t practiced enough! I’ll mess up in front of everybody! Can’t somebody else do it?”
We come up with every excuse we can think of, but our loving, nagging family won’t let us get away with that. God our Father, and Christ our Brother, and the Spirit our Sister beam at us from the wings, urging us on. “Oh, nonsense, of course you can do it! You learned from us, didn’t you? You’ll be just fine: we know you will. Go on, now. Just go on. Go on out there, and make us proud.”