Not Yet at the Wedding Banquet

Second Sunday after Epiphany
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 62:1-5
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

This is one of those blessed Sundays in which the Catholic and Revised Common lectionaries are almost exactly concordant, the only differences being the inclusion or absence of a few verses in the first two readings. How interesting, then, that today’s gospel reading is often mined to text-proof theological positions in direct contradiction to one another.

That details of the wedding at Cana passage – an episode that appears only in John’s gospel and designated by the author as the first of Jesus’s signs – should be interpreted variously by different ecclesial traditions comes as no surprise. Traditions shape not only what we do and believe, but how we see, read, speak, and hear. What troubles me is how easily differing interpretations can be turned into hammers to smash the heretical Other.

Some exegetes, for example – presumably alarmed at the high status Catholic, Orthodox, and Oriental churches accord Mary, the mother of Jesus – point to Jesus’s rather sharp reply to his (here unnamed) mother, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?,” as evidence that Mary was, in every way, nothing special. Others point to what Mary does – she alone brings to Jesus’s attention a communal need, tells the servants to “do whatever he tells you,” and then recedes into the background, letting Jesus address the matter – and claim that Mary is, in fact, quite special indeed.

Some argue that Jesus’s use of ritual stone jars, “filled to the brim,” for his first public miracle is a declaration that God’s covenant with the Jewish people has run its course and come to an abrupt end. Others, aware of the historical evils justified by supersessionist readings of the New Testament, note that Jesus acts as an observant Jew in this story and in no way rejects God’s people.

There are scholarly arguments over where in Galilee this “Cana” was, whether the village existed at all, and whether the beverage referred to is wine or beer. There are less scholarly debates over the presence and use of alcohol – or not – in the passage. Then come the truly creative readings, such as John Shelby Spong’s claim that the Cana wedding is actually Jesus’s union with Mary Magdalene, or the assertion by Orson Hyde, a mid-nineteenth century Mormon elder, that Jesus was marrying Mary Magdalene, Martha, and Mary of Bethany all at once.

I consider myself a fairly traditional Trinitarian Christian, so I’m prepared to dismiss Spong’s and Hyde’s interpretations as tendentious eisegesis (“leading in”, as in “reading assumptions into the text”) rather than careful exegesis (“leading out”). I’m also content to let scholars go about their often helpful and illuminating work. I have my own tradition-shaped opinions regarding Mary’s status and God’s covenant with his people, but this is not the place to argue for them. Disagreements on such important issues are longstanding and unlikely to be resolved by anything I say or write.

My point is this: Doctrine is vitally important and doctrine is neither the sum nor the true end of the gospel. An obsessive need to prove we’re right and you’re wrong is poisonous. The smug certainty that “we” have all the right ideas in our heads (and you others – to the precise extent you think otherwise – don’t) infects Christians of all sorts: Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. The scandalously persistent divisions in Christianity dwarf the divisions and scandals of the early church in Corinth that Paul, in today’s second reading, is trying so hard to heal.

I have no interest in cheap ecumenism that pretends our differences don’t exist or our historical misdeeds and injuries are irrelevant. Reconciliation without truth-telling is a sham, a midwife to simmering resentment. Paul’s first Corinthian letter names that community’s many illnesses and addresses them, each in turn. His extended image of the body in chapter twelve underscores our mutual interdependence, our need for one another despite the ongoing quarrels.

The Corinthian church had an edge on us, though. Even if they celebrated the Lord’s Supper poorly, they had Paul, calling them back to proper observance and understanding of that unifying practice of the gathered Body of Christ. Our divided churches either lack or deny the shared resources to answer Paul’s invitation. That’s why the Ekklesia Project doesn’t celebrate the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper at its annual gathering. That conspicuous absence in our shared worship reminds us of our painful divisions, our as yet unhealed, self-inflicted wounds.

Instead, EP gatherings draw on another water-related sign in John’s gospel, when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17). We prayerfully wash and dry one another’s bare feet, often after having first shared a common meal. It’s not the Lord’s Supper, but it calls vividly to mind the physical reality and material needs of our individual bodies and our “already, but not yet” unity in the Body of Christ.

As a Catholic Christian, I have learned much from my Protestant sisters and brothers at EP. Perhaps they have learned something from me. I have never felt the need to deny the convictions of my tradition. I hope I’ve let others experience that same freedom: to speak and listen across divides without effacing one’s rootedness in a particular tradition. What a grace it is to learn how gospel details look like from another’s eyes. How good and pleasant it is for separated sisters and brothers to listen, reason, and pray together in unity.

It may be helpful to remember that orthodoxy (with a small “o”) has never meant right belief or teaching as opposed to right action (so-called “orthopraxy”). As the late Aidan Kavanaugh writes, the Greek for “right belief” is orthopistis, while “right teaching” would be orthodidascalia. Orthodoxa, properly rendered in English, is “right worship, praise, or glory.” (see Kavanaugh, On Liturgical Theology)

Today’s readings from Isaiah and the Gospel of John speak of glory as well as fulfillment and marriage. Today, we see what they gesture towards without fully realizing them. Our real and unresolved divisions prevent us from that longed-for wholeness. By the grace of the God revealed in Jesus Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are already but not yet the “crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD… a royal diadem in the hand of…God.” We hear the sounds of the wedding banquet, hunger for the feast, thirst for the good wine, but we are not yet there. May our shared, if imperfect, worship of the One God further enflame our desire for unity.

Doxa to Theo! (Glory be to God!)

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