“On the Third Day”
Our Gospel reading from John is a beautifully symbolic story, perfect for this season of Epiphany. The symbolism already begins in its first few words, which speak of a wedding “on the third day.” In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah—and this is not the only Old Testament passage in which this happens – a wedding becomes a symbol for the hoped-for reunion of Israel with its God. The wedding spoken of here symbolizes the end of exile, the return of the Jews from Babylon, their triumph over all the nations that have oppressed them—in short, the beginning of the redemption of the world.
So the wedding is the controlling symbol here, but there’s also symbolism in the fact that it takes place “on the third day.” John doesn’t usually tell you what day events occur on; he’s usually content with vague expressions like “after that.” So when he does tell you about a particular day, it’s worthwhile to pay attention. And probably John’s first audience couldn’t have heard this expression, “on the third day,” without thinking of Jesus’ resurrection “on the third day” after his crucifixion. A little later in this chapter, Jesus will refer to his resurrection elliptically by saying, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”And the other miracle that Jesus performs “on the third day” is his resurrection of Lazarus. So the third day is especially associated with resurrection. So when, at the end of the story about the wedding at Cana, we are told that Jesus “revealed his glory” by the actions he performed at this wedding, it seems clear that this is meant to foreshadow the glory that will dawn on the world when he is raised from the dead, and thus begin the restoration of the world that Isaiah prophesied.
But this manifestation of God’s glory takes place, in our story, against a background of dearth, insufficiency, and anxiety. The third verse of the story begins, “And when the wine had run out,”and the significance of this depletion is highlighted by Jesus’ mother saying, “They have no wine.” The lack of wine is what Alfred Hitchcock called the “MacGuffin” in the story—the problem, or absence, or question, which sets the plot in motion. The whole narrative is based on the contrast between the promise hinted at by “after three days” and the problem hinted at by “when the wine had run out.”
This phrase, “when the wine had run out,” points to a familiar feature of our world—the pervasiveness of dearth. Your gas tank approaches empty. Your refrigerator runs out of food. Your town runs out of clean water. Or you yourself run out of energy–you just don’t feel like you have the resources to face the world anymore.
Perhaps most immediately for most of us, there’s the fear of our money running out. I think back to the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and what a sickening feeling it was to see your retirement savings going down the drain. I remember trying to stop myself from checking the Dow Jones average every few minutes on those days when it fell six or seven hundred points. I remember sitting there at my computer, trying to concentrate on the lecture I was supposed to be writing. And eventually I managed to do so, because I finally realized that, for the moment at least, there was nothing in the world I could do to stop the Dow-Jones average from plunging. Maybe the economy would come to a standstill, maybe I’d end up losing my job. But for right now I still had it, and there was a lecture to be written. So I finally managed to turn off my browser.
So this is the sort of reality that Jesus confronts in our story: the experience of dearth that is endemic to our human condition. “They have no wine.” But at first this seems like a trivial complaint compared to the other sorts of dearth that abound in our world. Okay, so the wine’s running out—so what? Apparently it’s run out because a lot of drinking has already occurred. At the end of the story, the toastmaster says to Jesus, in effect, “Most people bring out the cheap wine at the end of the wedding, when everybody’s already good and drunk, but you’ve reserved the good stuff for the end.” In other words, even if Jesus hadn’t done his water-into-wine trick, there still would have been a goodly number of people at the wedding ending up drunk. The miracle in this case seems almost gratuitous. No one is going to die or even be greatly inconvenienced if the miracle does not occur. It is not absolutely necessary.
That phrase reminds me of the story a woman once told me about her mother and her father and grandmother. Let’s call the father Tom and the mother Victoria (the names have been changed to protect the guilty, but the story is substantially true, at least as true as sermon illustrations usually are.) My informant’s father and mother, Tom and Victoria, had both grown up in relative poverty, and they were both rather frugal as a result, but Victoria more so. In fact, she was frugal with a vengeance. And being so frugal, she greatly resented the small sums her husband sometimes gave his mother, who was living in a retirement community. Tom’s mother used this money to maintain a small garden, which was her pride and joy. And Victoria kept complaining to Tom about the garden, in a tone informed partly by the poverty of her upbringing and partly by her conviction of her own righteousness. And she kept saying to him, “Tom, it’s not absolutely necessary.” And Tom, being a meek man, didn’t say anything, but he also didn’t stop slipping his mother a few bucks every once in a while to buy a new plant. Until one day when Victoria complained about it again, stating her opinion that the latest plant in the garden was not absolutely necessary, and Tom, before he could censor himself, heard himself saying, “Victoria, nothing is absolutely necessary.” And maybe that’s how we should think of the extra wine at the Cana celebration. It wasn’t absolutely necessary, but it made some poor person happy for a few minutes on their wedding day. So Jesus provided it.
But at first, of course, he seemed to refuse to do so, and in a rather rude way. His mother had not even asked him to do anything directly; she just pointed out to him that the wine was gone. When people understand each other well, they don’t have to spell everything out; and there’s something beautiful in the deference she shows, and in the subtlety with which she makes a request without overtly making a request. He, on the other hand, responds in a way that seems distancing and even rude when you’re talking to your mother, especially in a society that sets a high store by the fifth commandment. “Woman, what do I have to do with you?” In other words, what do I care about your concerns? And then he adds myseriously, “My hour has not yet come.”
But this too is a parable, because it reflects the fabric of our own lives with God. Because so often God’s response to our prayers and entreaties seems to be, “What do I have to do with you?” We can pray all we want, and we can pray for good things. We can ask for mental and physical healing for our sons and daughters and wives and husbands and mothers and fathers and students and friends and co-workers, we can ask for healing of the wounds in our country and in our world, and the response we seem to get from God is, “What is that to me?” There are support groups for people who find themselves in this sort of situation, groups with names like Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, and caregiver support groups. They’re full of people who have been beating on the doors of the unjust judge for days and months and years and have not received the things they were asking for. Because the hour has not yet come, the time for the earth to be healed of her ancient woe has not yet arrived. It’s almost as if God were saying, “Yes, I could heal your loved one or end their suffering. But it’s not absolutely necessary.” One of Emily Dickinson’s poems captures this trial of faith with characteristic terseness:
No other — was denied —
I offered Being — for it —
The Mighty Merchant sneered —
Brazil? He twirled a Button —
Without a glance my way —
“But — Madam — is there nothing else —
That We can show — Today?”
Luckily, “Can’t I show you something else?” or “What do I have to do with you?” is not the end of our story. Mary hears what Jesus says, and she doesn’t argue with him–but she also doesn’t exactly let the matter drop. Instead she says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” This is a picture of faith. The request may not have been answered—yet. It may even seem to be rudely rebuffed. But Mary does not stop hoping. She leaves the matter in Jesus’ hands.
How can she do this? Because there is a loophole in what Jesus says in response to her unspoken request. He doesn’t actually say no; he just poses a counter-question, “What do I have in common with you?” And the answer to this question in John’s Gospel, in the end, is, “Much in every way.” Because Jesus, in John, has not remained the transcendent God in heaven; he has instead become the Word incarnate. And that means that he cannot in the end resist our appeals to his pity. His hour to fully manifest himself everywhere and in every way may not yet have come; but the message of the Gospel is that sparks of his glory cannot help piercing the darkness even this side of the End. The End has not yet come; but the power of the End has already entered our world, and that gives hope.
I love this story, in which so much is left unsaid and nothing is as it seems. A mother, moved with compassion, makes a request that is not a request. Her son, reading her thoughts, seems to rebuff her, but the rejection is not a rejection. She follows through, directing the servants to follow instructions that have not yet been issued. And when these instructions are followed, the master of ceremonies unknowingly reveals the theme of the whole narrative—that God has reserved the best gifts for last, when all hope is gone.
It may seem, then, that the wine is running out. It may seem that God is saying, “What do I care?” But that is a question, not an answer, and the answer may be that we just have to keep doing our bit and looking expectantly for his light to break into our lives. Amen.