That was the tearful lament of a patient I met one day. He was married, with kids and extended family, and even as he faced yet another horrific treatment plan, he knew in his body he might not make it. He was facing death. But nobody who loved him would admit it. "You're going to be all right," said his mother-in-law. "Keep fighting! We need you!" said his wife. "We're just going to stay positive," said his brother. So he was all alone. OK, racked with pain, and with no cure in sight, and feeling all alone, what could help? Just having somebody who didn't contradict him or cajole him or choke him with positivity, at least for 15 minutes. In that short a time, he was experiencing less pain, more energy, more peace, and there was a smile on his face.
I've come to view the Wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-11) as John's transfiguration story, and this has transformed my own preaching on this powerful passage. I invite you to consider with me what I see as a very fruitful way to open up the import of the pericope for today's hearers of the Gospel.
I see it as a transfiguration story not just because the wine is transfigured, but because of the unique way in which Jesus' glory is revealed at Cana. As so often happens in John, an element from the synoptics appears much earlier in John's timeline, and it both parallels the Synoptic tradition and expands upon it. The glory that is revealed to the disciples at Cana is not the glory of a wonder-worker, but the glory of the Host of the heavenly messianic banquet. Only the disciples see it, and they are led to "believe" in him -- which is a powerful concept in John, and goes far beyond assenting to a proposal, as many scholars have noted before me.
These elements are present in the synoptic transfiguration stories that take place on a mountain top. But John's story is different, in that Jesus' physical appearance doesn't actually change. In fact, other people right around him see nothing noteworthy about him. Only the disciples see. What do they see?
To me, the key to the revelation of Cana is in the two verses immediately preceding: "'You will see greater things than these.' And he said to [Nathaniel], 'Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.'" (Jn 1:51-52) I read the Wedding at Cana as a fulfillment of that promise: what the disciples (but not the other wedding guests) saw was "the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." Of course, that image is straight from Genesis (Jacob's ladder), and it identifies Jesus, the Son of Man, as the unique connection between heaven and earth. That's the "sign," the revelation of this story.
So how does this story establish Jesus as "Beth El?" By letting the water point to him. It points to him by irresistibly taking on its heavenly nature in his presence. Why? Because Jesus is The Bridegroom: he is the host of the heavenly Messianic feast that is going on all the time,. And in the context of an earthly wedding, it's almost as if the category "wedding" is enough to collapse the great divide: as if the curtain is torn open and we -- with the disciples -- can see and experience him presiding at that feast right in our presence.
For me, one of the key elements is a cultural one: in that culture, the bridegroom of any wedding was the host. He hired the caterer (steward), provided the food and drink that the caterer served, paid for everything. And it was expensive -- days of feasting, not just one huge meal as in our current culture. That the caterer of the earthly wedding in this story gave the earthly bridegroom the credit for the wine tells us this loud and clear. That Jesus is the one who provided the wine marks him as the true host of the feast. That only the disciples knew that Jesus provided the wine, and saw that he is the true Bridegroom, is clearly parallel to the synoptic transfiguration stories, in which only the disciples (and only certain ones) are privileged to witness the revealed glory.
John is famous for moving the ascension or "lifting up" forward in his time line to the crucifixion. I'm proposing that he has also moved the transfiguration, which comes in the synoptics just before he begins his journey to Jerusalem, forward all the way to the very first experiences the disciples have of him. And the result is the same: the disciples believed in him.
I am very moved by this story, now, in a way I never was before I started looking closely at it. (I started working on this more than ten years ago.) I can almost feel the excitement and awe of the disciples as they feet the earth shift under their feet and the curtain between heaven and earth cut open as they glimpse themselves as guests at the messianic feast, and their rabbi as the eternal heavenly Host of that feast. In my preaching, I now try to invite a congregation to experience themselves as honored guests at the messianic wedding feast right in the here and now. And I've written a poem to try to capture some of the feelings of that experience. You'll find it on this site on the page "Snippets/Schnitzli/pericopies."
The work in this posting is all my own. I have made efforts to find anybody's else's work that points in the same direction, and have not succeeded. If you know of any such work, please let me know. And do let me know what you think, and if this changes in any way your preaching on this story. I'd love to hear from you. Feel free to use this reading of John's story in your preaching, but please give attribution, especially if you publish it anywhere (on line, your newsletter, etc.).
Actually, most of the people I see in a day's work at the hospital are far from dying. Many are getting well. But an important part of what a chaplain does is be with someone who is dying, and with their family members keeping vigil. It's something I did not get to do with my own parents, or with any of the people I love who have died, except for my Grandma Mary. Going to see her a day or two before she died, on a dark January evening in 1971, I didn't know what to expect. She wasn't alert. She didn't move or make a sound. But the nurse who stayed with her (at her home) told me to told her hand, and to talk to her. "I know she can hear you," she said. "She knows you are here." That was all I needed. I'm still so grateful for that nurse and what she taught me.
The photo above is a knitting work in progress. It's a throw made of log cabin squares for my son and his wife. I made one for my daughter, and it took two years. This one is on target for about that long. I've always got at least three projects going at once, and I try to do at least a little bit every day. On Sundays, I can sometimes spend all of Masterpiece Theatre knitting, or maybe a movie. But the goal is to have some time every day for the pleasure of seeing something new take shape under my hands, the pleasure of the colors and texures of the yarn, and of the needles, the pleasure of knowing my sister Anne and good friend Susan (both of whom have given me skeins and skeins of yarn at various times) know what I'm working on, and I know what they are working on. So many pleasures. So much to give thanks for.
Most years, I find that I don't have to look for a Lenten discipline -- usually a Lenten discipline is handed to me on a platter. Like the year my mother was dying. You hardly have to give up chocolate when you're dealing with your mother's death. If that doesn't bring you back down to earth, nothing will.
This year, inspired by a haiku collection I found on line, I've decided to write one haiku per day for Lent. There's a few reasons for this. For one, haiku is intended to focus on sensory experience, preferably in nature. I've been spending way too much time indoors, and not getting enough exercise. So I'm planning to take a daily walk and to focus my attention on what I see, smell, hear and feel outdoors and use that to feed my haiku. For another thing, I need to become more aware of my feelings, so I don't get lost in my own head and end up ruminating. That road leads to unnecessary suffering, and I've had enough of that. Haiku, with its extremely tight structure, forces me to zero in on the essentials of what I'm feeling. And I need and love to write, to play with finding le mot juste. So put it all together, and you will find my Lenten Haiku elsewhere on this site. Let me know what you think. Constructive criticism is most welcome.