By George Westhaver
… thou hast kept the good wine until now. This beginning of signs did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory…
John Keble, the young father of the Oxford Movement, mentor to both Dr. Pusey and J.H. Newman, offers a succinct and clear description of this “beginning of signs” that Jesus did in Cana of Galilee. Keble’s words:
“The beginning of all His Miracles is a token of the way all His miracles tend, to change the worse into the better: water to Wine; the Law to the Gospel; sinners into Saints, and men into Angels!
So it is all through the Christian Religion, all thorough the Services and Sacraments of the Holy Catholic Church. Everywhere, and in all things, the grace of Almighty God is working some miraculous and merciful change, on something or other which we willingly offer to Him.
This is the promise of the Gospel, that what Keble describes would be real for us:
‘that in ‘the Services and Sacraments of the Holy Catholic Church, Everywhere, and in all things, the grace of Almighty God would work some miraculous and merciful change, on something or other which we willingly offer to Him’.
This miraculous and merciful change is described in practical terms in the epistle:
“Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another: not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer.”
This is what water into wine looks like in our lives, how our natural gifts and inclinations can be given the rich and complex character of a good wine, intense and balanced at the same time.
This kind of transformed life is also an Epiphany, the manifestation of divine life in the present of our lives. This is also the glory which the sign reveals. John Keble himself seemed to manifest something of this divine light. Those who knew him describe the powerful influence of the beauty of his character on those who knew him. “He was so sweet, and noble, and humble, and loving” was a typical description of one acquaintance. The miracle at the wedding is an invitation to us to seek and to taste something of that sweetness, for ourselves and for one another, “beauty for ashes,” in the words of the sermon last Sunday — the wine of divine love welling up in and through the water of human life.
In October 1939, a young Canadian Rhodes scholar arrived at Balliol to read law. George Grant was destined to be one of Canada’s greatest philosophers, and he helps us to see not just the gift of the miracle, but the urgency of finding the Lord Jesus at the wedding feast. During that year, 1939-40, when Grant was still able to pursue his studies, he visited Salisbury Cathedral and found it exquisite “beyond words.”
“He admired [the cathedral] but found it challenging: ‘We have no goal like that — no ends — and yet we cannot take theirs. We are hungry yet we cannot eat their decayed meat. We must find something different”’ (see George Grant: A Biography by William Christian [University of Toronto Press, 1993], p 62).
I’m sharing this with you because my theory is that Grant was not only hungry, but thirsty, thirsty for the better wine of the feast of Cana.
Grant returned to Oxford after the war and earned a DPhil in theology. Twenty-five years after his arrival at Balliol, in 1964, Grant was back at Canada and speaking at a conference on social welfare. He prophesied that in the years to come we would find more people suffering from new forms of mental illness that come from splitting apart of day-to-day practical living of our lives from the great purposes and goals that give us sense. This, he said, is the function of myth: “Myths are the way that systems of meaning are given to most human beings.”“Christianity,” Grant argued, “is more than myth; it is the truth. But it is [also] mythical in the sense that it has revealed to countless millions their own mode of being in the world” (see Value and Technology, p. 230).
But in world which Grant saw, the “belief that man’s essence is his freedom” cuts us of from such systems of meaning, disconnects us from the ends and goals he saw embodied in the stone and brick of Salisbury Cathedral.
The absolute priority given to human freedom, a freedom to choose disconnected from higher purposes, makes it harder and harder for people to see all the little choices and tasks of their lives connected with higher purposes which give direction and meaning. Grant looked into the future — and he prophesied that for many, the sovereignty or tyranny of choice would mean a kind of alienation, an experience of the world as empty of meaning, a place where we are not given identity— sons and daughters of God, “partakers of [Christ’s] life, part of his turning water into wine, his transformation of the creatures of time and space into his body and blood, part of his gurning of lack and limit — we have no wine — into love eternally poured out,” a people who hear “the continual invitation into discipleship — the continual call to offer our lives to be taken up with Christ’s.”
Instead, said Grant, an increasing number of people would feel the burden of creating an identity, finding or generating one, and so would by troubled by a “sense of existence as arbitrary and contingent”, the wine run out. The world would seem threatening, arbitrary, dangerous. This, Grant predicted, would “produce new forms of mental illness.”
Whether “mental illness” is the right characterization, it’s easy to see in Grant’s description something of the different forms of temptations to despair, suffering, and loneliness with which our age does struggle. The miracle of Cana and Galilee is in this context an antidote and a medicine, it is an invitation to connect the particular struggles and opportunities of our lives with the big picture which gives them meaning.
How does the miracle help us in the present? On one level, it’s a revelation not just of the glory manifest that day in Cana of Galilee, but of the glory that touches our lives. The form of the solemnization of matrimony, the marriage service in the prayer book, describes marriage as a “holy estate” that “Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle, that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee.” But the promise is much greater and more all-inclusive, that in coming to the wedding, our Lord does not beautify the state of matrimony only; he adorns and beautifies all states of our life.
The Venerable Bede sums up the tradition for us:
Therefore the Bridegroom is Christ, the bride is the Church, and the friends of the bridegroom, or of the marriage, are each and every one of his faithful.
[You and I are guests at the marriage of the divine and human in Christ.]
The time of the marriage is that time when, through the mystery of the incarnation, he joined holy Church to himself. Thus it was not by chance, but for the sake of a certain mystical meaning, that he came to a marriage celebrated on earth in the customary fleshly way, since he descended from heaven to earth in order to connect the Church to himself in spiritual love. His nuptial chamber was the womb of his incorrupt mother, where God was conjoined with human nature, and from there he came forth like a bridegroom to join the Church to Himself.
There is a certain danger in just reading Bede’s description as if he were applying a mechanistic code to Scripture. Rather, he is inviting us to encounter a real person, to discern Christ who comes to the wedding not in some past age, but now, Christ who seeks to adorn and beautify the whole of our lives, to connect our moments and days to his.
That’s the revelation; what about the how? Well, in one sense the revelation is the how — the Scriptures become the good wine, the better wine, rich and complex, when we discern Christ in them, and when they teach us where to find him. The beauty which adorns our lives, the beauty of Christ present, is a kind of “splendor that gathers all things toward itself and into itself” (see David Bentley Hart, Beauty of the Infinite, p 177). It is like the light of an Impressionist painting, any great painting, a light that “flashes onto everything its own well-spring ray … [‘Beauty’ which] gathers everything into itself” (see Dionysius, The Divine Names, 4.7, Complete Works, ed. Rorem, p 76).
We are also invited not just to see but to drink the new wine, the good wine, the best wine of the Bridegroom’s love poured out for us. We don’t just hear about Christ; he gives himself to us in the sacrament of his body and blood —deeper than what we see or hear or learn, he pours out his love into our loves, not in an idea, but for real.
How do we drink the wine? — in word and sacrament, for sure. But we can see this drinking in two forms. The wine is poured out as a kind of medicine for our wounds, the wine which the good Samaritan poured into the wounds of the man half-dead by the roadside.
We are like the couple and the guests, the wine has run out — we have no wine. It’s true, we have gifts and abilities, but strictly left to ourselves, without the divine light and presence, these gifts tend to run out. We know all too well that we have the capacity to bend and to twist these gifts; the presence of the divine Bridegroom reveals, not only adorns; the light shows what is ugly in our lives. So, his presence is an invitation to a discipline, to a process of fermentation which transform the grape juice, the water of our lives, into the good wine of his life in us.
St. Paul is not just giving us an arbitrary rule; he is describing this process of fermentation, and he is inviting us to choose the beauty by which Christ adorns our lives: “in honor preferring one another: … given to hospitality.”
This fermentation comes as a trial; it is only possible if we are genuinely attentive to one another. The awareness of what is not adorned, not beautiful, the taste of sour wine in our lives and in our relationships, is an invitation to look more closely at ourselves and at one another. “Let love be without dissimulation” — let love be genuine, pure, not mixed up with so much which is ugly. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good.”
This is a process of fermentation which we have to choose for ourselves, and in choosing it we expect the struggle which comes with it. Fermentation, takes time. When complete, making a good wine is still a work of waiting and patience.
It is only possible to “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep” if we enter into one another’s lives in love. No wonder St. Paul invites us to be “instant in prayer” — this is the discipline of over and over seeking Christ for ourselves and for those we love, seeking him in the Scriptures, seeking him in prayer for the world and for one another, seeking him in the moments and tasks, all of which is a seeking to do what he has already done, connecting our lives to himself in spiritual love. The time of the marriage is now, in which he joins the holy Church to himself through the mystery of the Incarnation.
He has kept the better wine until now, we have come to the feast, and we are invited to drink deeply of his love poured out for us. It’s risky business, it smarts and purifies, even as it heals and makes whole, it quenches our thirst by enabling us to taste and see a wine more rich and complex, more thirst-quenching, and gladdening, than we thought possible.
The Rev. Dr. George Westhaver is principal of Pusey House, Oxford.