Sunday, January 20, 2013


   Second Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

It startles many people who read through the Scriptures
just how many racy parts there are.
(I sense a lot of dusty Bibles being taken off their shelves very soon…)
Now, I’m not talking about long lists of rules on the subject;
I’m talking about lots of stories of love and romance,
including the greatest love story of them all:
God’s passionate love affair with his people.
As we read again and again in the prophets,
so we hear in our first reading this Sunday:
As a young man marries a virgin,
            your Builder shall marry you;
and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride
            so shall your God rejoice in you.
Those are strong words!
God’s love for the human race is that deep!
And God desires a relationship with us that’s that intimate!

When we’re aware 
of this matrimonial background,
we shouldn’t be at all surprised
that Jesus’ first public miracle 
takes place at a wedding.
What we have here is more 
than an act of sympathetic charity
for a couple of newlyweds whose party plans
have grown beyond their means—
a story with which many couples today can easily relate.
No—this is clearly a case of “more than meets the eye.”
That’s why John, in writing his gospel,
calls this the first of Jesus’ signs
and not the first of his miracles:
it points to something else, to something more.
(That’s also why the Church 
has such strong opinions about marriage: 
by God’s design, every wedding 
is meant to point well beyond itself—
to point all the way to heaven.)

All those huge, stone jars which just happen to be there in Cana:
what are they intended for?
For Jewish ceremonial washing.
These big, old vessels already had a purpose
before Jesus asked that they be filled—
and that purpose was a thoroughly religious one.

So could it be more than mere coincidence
that this is the water Jesus turns into wine?

Jesus, of course, has nothing against ritual purification.
Just last Sunday,
we heard of how he submitted himself to John’s baptism.
But Jesus’ repeated concern
is with cleansing the inside of a person, and not just the surface.
And maybe that’s why this is the water he’s chosen to change.
Jesus has come to establish a new way of relating with God—
to establish a new covenant.
As the surrounding wedding reception makes clear,
it has exactly the same goal as the old one:
God passionately loves his people,
and God wants a personal, intimate relationship with them.
But in order to accomplish this,
some things need to change—and not only in outward appearance.
Like water into wine,
Jesus has come to transform religion from within.

I heard an interview the other day
with several Americans in their 20’s and 30’s
on the topic of religion and its practice.
The general feeling among them
was that they’re interested in God and faith and prayer,
but not committed to any specific path—
“spiritual, but not religious,” as the saying goes.
Many, in fact, admitted to shopping around
for a religion that seems to fit:
one which best agrees with what they already
think and feel and believe.

You know what struck me right away?
They’ve got it entirely backwards!

British author T. S. Eliot captured this conundrum well
in a poem he wrote back in the 1930’s:
Why should men love the Church?  
     Why should they love her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, 
     and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, 
     and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, 
     and other unpleasant facts.
from Choruses from "The Rock" (1934)

Generally, when people make
loud, public complaints about the Church—
about her disciplines and her teachings—
it’s usually because they want the Catholic religion to change.
It’s perfectly true:
the Church as an institution is in constant need of renewal and reform.
She should always be seeking ways to be better and to do better.
But at her heart, the Church simply cannot change.
The Church, as Christ’s faithful Bride and as Christ’s living Body,
is Christ’s enduring presence here on earth.
The Church was established by Christ
not to be continually transformed by the tastes of the day
(and when she’s tried that she’s gotten into heaps of trouble),
but that we—her members—might continually be transformed 
according to God’s master plan.
If we want to talk about making changes in the Church,
we must remember it’s not
about remaking the Church in our own image;
it’s about the Church helping us to be remade
in the image and likeness of God.

When I counsel couples before marriage,
one thing I always try to mention:
Don’t think you’re going to change him—or her.
Maybe someone should have told that to God before he proposed!
And yet God persists, and God pursues us,
showering his beloved with a wide array of spiritual gifts.
God’s love for his Church is relentless:
he keeps taking her water and making it wine—
wine both abundant and good.

In May of 1962, American writer Flannery O’Connor
gave a talk on a southern college campus.
A student who heard her was too shy to address her in person,
but wrote a series of letters concerning his crisis of faith.
In one of her replies, O’Connor said:
If what the Church teaches is not true,
then the security and sense of purpose it gives you
are of no value and you are right to reject it. 
One of the effects of liberal Protestantism
has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy,
to make truth vaguer and more and more relative,
to banish intellectual distinctions,
to depend on feeling instead of thought,
and gradually to come to believe that God has no power,
that he cannot communicate with us,
cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so,
and that religion is our own sweet invention. 
This seems to be about where you find yourself now.
Of course, I am a Catholic and I believe the opposite of all this. 
I believe what the Church teaches—
that God has given us reason to use
and that it can lead toward 
a knowledge of him, through analogy:
that he has revealed himself to us in history
and continues to do so through the Church,
and that he is present (not just symbolically)
in the Eucharist on our altars. 
To believe all this I don’t take any leap into the absurd. 
I find it reasonable to believe,
even though these beliefs are beyond reason.
from a letter to Alfred Corn (June 16, 1962)

The mother of Jesus said to the servers,
“Do whatever he tells you.”
How often in prayer we try to tell the Lord
just how things ought to be done!
Mary advises us to do just the opposite.
And Mary’s advice goes beyond reason:
to honor and obey the wishes of another
(as some old wedding vows put it)
results not from well-reasoned arguments,
but can only be the result of love:
of being intensely, passionately, even eternally loved—
and then choosing to love in return.

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