Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Wedding We Did Not Expect

Frozen Lake 590x331 

One of the most compelling images from my first winter in Wisconsin (so far) is of frozen lakes and the people who learn to skate on them, dance on them, and, God help us all, ice fish on them. The most striking (and obvious) thing about these frozen lakes is that they stop their constant motion; they stand still. Or at least appear to. As someone who spent the last three years on the ocean’s coast, where waters never stop their striving, I find these exceptions to that rule startling and beautiful.

Of course, the waters don’t stop their moving altogether. The ice fishers know this – that’s why they come out all – keenly aware as they are that life, movement, continues just beneath the surface. They seek out the place where life is.

Similarly, there is a powerful intimacy in John’s gospel tonight, riding quietly beneath the surface of a hard and somewhat impersonal veneer. Like unseen waters churning beneath the frozen surface of a Sconnie lake in winter, the interplay between this unseen intimacy and its colder surface, yields subtle tensions, some suspense, and, in the end, a joy we did not expect.

The impersonal exterior, the crust, is evident the moment we arrive in Cana and realize we don’t know whose wedding this is, that nobody thought to tell us. If the mind-numbing sagas of Manti Te’o and Lance Armstrong have taught us anything this past week, it is that we, as a society, don’t like not knowing. But here we are at this wedding, along for the ride with Jesus’ posse, and we don’t know if this is an old college roommate we’re celebrating or simply a far off, once-estranged member of the family whom Jesus is honoring as a favor to Mom. As the story unfolds and the young couple goes on, unnamed, one gets the impression that almost anybody’s wedding would have done; the who, inconsequential.  If it were my wedding, I might have felt insulted. It all feels rather cold.

On another level, of course, it makes perfect sense that when we stand before Scripture, Jesus occupies center stage. It is He whom we have gathered to meet, in Word and Sacrament, learning about God, from God, with the help of God, to be nearer to God. So the Gospel teaches us to understand ourselves and all the others characters, rightfully, as supporting actors in the story that belongs to God. This is the story of God.

Less theologically, more practically, if you have ever been to a wedding, you know that it is simply not possible to be there, at the wedding (again, it matters not whose), with all the pageantry that weddings bring – bridesmaids, weeping parents, flower girls, groomsmen and all the rest – without having one’s own heart, one’s own longings and desires, deeply felt. Weddings are paradoxically anonymous and intensely personal spaces. And that’s where they are: Jesus, his mother, the disciples. 

The plot is familiar to us:

The bridegroom is out of wine. After prodding from his mother - whom Jesus calls, “woman” (another haltingly impersonal affront) - Jesus supplies new wine, from water, and only the disciples and the servants see it. (Score one, at least, for intimacy.) Later, the steward pulls the bridegroom aside and says, “You went and saved the best for last” (cue Vanessa Williams and every middle school dance I ever attended). And again, a reminder at this point that the story does not belong to the newly married couple – or to us, for that matter – for while it is surely the end of the wedding and so also a best-for-last finish with respect to the wine, the real story, as they say, is only beginning. This is the first of Jesus’ signs in the Gospel of John. We’re only two chapters into the book. Jesus’s hour, as he reminds his mother, has not yet come.

The disciples had no way of knowing, from this odd wedding’s ending at the very beginning, that John was proposing Jesus as the new wine and consummation of the long-awaited marriage between God and God’s people. After this party, the disciples are left, and we join them, looking for the new wine for which this moment has taught them to long.

Fast-forward seventeen chapters later: they find it, and there’s a flag in the story meant to connect us back to this beginning, so that we won’t miss the wine the disciples have learned to anticipate in the time since that first sign. The flag is the other occasion in John’s gospel in which Jesus calls his mother, “woman.” It’s a considerably less festive scene than the first one: Calvary, this time, from the cross, as in, “Woman, behold your son.” Moments later, the One who turned water to wine at a wedding in Cana says, “I thirst,” before he surrenders his spirit and a centurion pierces his side, from whence blood and water flow. And early artistic representations of this moment will show angels around the crucified Savior, one with a chalice filling with the blood from his side: the wine of the wedding feast of the New Jerusalem.

This is the flood beneath the frozen surface of the wedding of the couple whose names we don’t learn. And these are the raw, untamed waters over which the Spirit first brooded in the very beginning. The same Spirit who, three days before this wedding, descended on Jesus as a dove, a voice from heaven speaking, “This is my Son, my beloved...” And we remember this language, beloved, from the Song of Solomon, this great, relentless, sensuous, blush-inducing love that is the heart of the Trinity and the hope of God for God and humankind. We remember the Prayer Book’s description of marriage as signifying the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church. And we remember the promise of Isaiah, read tonight, which has taught us to long for this union:

...you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the LORD delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.

A minor miracle tonight at an unknown couple’s modestly well-attended wedding, so that people will have wine to not appreciate because they’ve had too much to drink already. On the surface, hardly compelling. Beneath the surface, there, in deeper waters, the announcement that the love that first moved the sun and the stars is wooing his Beloved, breaking in the new kingdom, supplying the feast, fulfilling the dream of God which is joy with God’s, their joy made complete.

Tonight, another seemingly minor gathering of supporting characters. January 20, 2013, a handful of us gathered from out of more than 40,000 of our closest friends before a semester so new it hasn’t started in the presence of God to, one more time, break bread together, share the cup of that wine…On the surface, eccentric at best.

Beneath the surface, the announcement that the love that first moved the sun and the stars is wooing his Beloved, wooing the world, wooing us, breaking in the new kingdom, supplying the feast, fulfilling the dream of God which is joy with God’s people, even you, that your joy would be complete.

If you didn’t hear it last week, hear it now: you are beloved of God. In you, God rejoices. Be reminded, tonight, you who have come to taste of this wine, the wine of the wedding of God’s People and their God, Christ himself, you who long for God, remember that you are made one with Christ, and you stand at the center of God’s longing and joy.

And do not fail to see the power of these moments: still moments, on the surface, nevertheless carried by the waters of deep waters of baptism: moments of faithful, supporting actors in the story of God becoming breadth and depth for the imagination of God, visibly witnessing, waiting for, announcing, pointing with their lives to the victory of God, which is everyone, all people, gathered at the feast, delighting in the joy of the Lamb. Like ice fishers, even: seeking out the place where life is.


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