Sermon for Third Sunday of Epiphany Sunday 20 January 2013
EPIPHANY 3, 2013 SERMON BY THE VICAR AT THE SUNG EUCHARIST IN ST PAUL’S CATHEDRAL
St. John takes us to a north-country village wedding with a catering crisis. Let me take you to another: not in Galilee but in County Durham; not 2000 years ago, but 40 or so.
The reception was in the village hall, a short walk from the church. The bride’s father had been responsible for organising the wine, but overcome perhaps by the excitement of the day, he had forgotten to tell anyone where it was. So the cry went up: “They have no wine.”
Well, it was soon found, and we did not have to call on Jesus to work another miracle. I can tell you this story because I was there. I was the bridegroom.
But more links these two village weddings than a shortage of alcoholic refreshment. Jesus, his mother and his disciples were obviously present at the first, but they were at the second too. The mass, the marriage feast of the Lamb, was celebrated for us as we made our vows and whenever the Church celebrates the liturgy, as we do here this morning, then angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven is present.
After two weddings, – at the risk of sounding like a film title gone wrong, – two funerals: one fictional, the other real.
The fictional one is in Dostoievsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”. The holy monk Zosima has died. His disciple Alyosha comes to pray by the open coffin in the monk’s cell. Half asleep, half-awake, he hears a priest reading the story of the marriage at Cana.
Alyosha remembers Zosima’s words, ‘it was not grief but men’s gladness that Jesus extolled when he worked his first miracle – he helped people to be happy…”He who loves men loves their gladness.”’ That was what the dead man had kept repeating, that was one of his main ideas…Without gladness it is impossible to live.’
And another great heart, says Dostoievsky, his Mother, who was there at the time, knew he had come down only for his great and terrible sacrifice, but that his heart was open also to the simple and artless joys of ignorant human beings, ignorant but not cunning, who had warmly welcomed him to their wedding feast.
“My hour has not yet come” he said; his “hour” in St. John, the time of his passion. And surely it was not to increase the wine at poor weddings but to save the world that he came down to earth. And yet he went and did as she asked him.
Then for Alyosha, funeral vigil and wedding feast seem to merge. The tiny monastic cell fills with wedding guests, bride and groom, the ruler of the feast, and a joyful and smiling Jesus who goes to “the little dried up old man” in the coffin.
And then, “The coffin was no longer there…his face was uncovered, his eyes were shining. So he, too, had been invited to the feast, to the wedding at Cana of Galilee.”
“Let us make merry,” he says to Alyosha, “Let’s drink new wine, the wine of new gladness, of great gladness. See how many guests there are here. And there’s the bride and groom, and there’s the ruler of the feast tasting the new wine.”
And when Alyosha is too frightened to look: “Don’t be afraid of him. He’s terrible in his majesty, awful in his eminence, but infinitely merciful. He became like one of us from love and he makes merry with us, turns water into wine, so as not to cut short the gladness of the guests. He is expecting new guests, he is calling new ones unceasingly and for ever and ever. There they are bringing the new wine. You see they are bringing the vessels…”
This wedding feast is on the “third day” – the day of the Resurrection; Christ’s victory over death which we celebrate on this and every Sunday.
The other funeral was in that same north-country village. The bride’s mother had died, full of years, after celebrating her 90th birthday with her husband, and a host of children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, in-laws and friends around her.
She died, as she wished, in her own home, which she had made a place of love and welcome for so many; again surrounded by her family. On the eve of her funeral we gathered around her coffin to pray and the next day her sons carried her into the church where she had worshipped and prayed for so many years, for her requiem. And we sang, as she had asked, “Give me joy in my heart,” because she did not want us to be sad.
And not a day goes by without us remembering her, because we learned from her example so much about the self-giving generosity which this “the first of his signs” at Cana points us too; that generosity which is the very nature of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, who is the Epiphany – the manifestation – of the God’s being and nature. Like Zosima with Alyosha, she showed us the vital link between that love which gives of itself and joy.
At Cana, Jesus takes water and makes it the wine of joy. At the Eucharist, he takes the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands, the wine which makes hearts glad, and makes it the blood of his life poured out in love for us. He gives us that life-blood, that life-giving cup, to drink so that we might know the joy which comes from sharing in his love. We are to drink of his wine, share his cup, so that we might share his life. We are to do this so that we may be made like the one who shows us not only what God is like, but what we who are made in the image of God are to be like.
The bride and groom, the steward of the feast and the guests do not know where this best wine has come from. Only Jesus and his mother and the servants knew. In this world, much of the love of God works in hidden ways; only to be revealed in the last day, when we will know that God has kept the best wine until last.
But in the meantime, we who gather at this marriage supper of the Lamb are shown the secret. Like Mary and the servants, we do know. Jesus lays hold of our ordinary lives and ordinary things and reveals them as even now capable of bearing God, being resurrected and transfigured.
Alyosha had thought of renouncing the world, but after his vision, he rushes out to embrace it – as Zosima had told him he should – not as a denial of faith but as an affirmation of it.
We come to this wedding feast, not to escape from the world and our calling in it, but to be drawn deeper into God’s purpose for it and our part in it; to be shown again whose life it is we share and whose love is to be our joy. We too are sent out from this and every mass to love and serve the Lord, to embrace his world, to bring it joy.