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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Guide books to Paris recommend that travelers and visitors to the Louvre Museum see the highlights first while they still have energy to fight the crowds. The big three art works are the painting of the Mona Lisa, and statues of Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory. With these three works checked off, it is said, you will feel success. Well, having tried unsuccessfully with Janna to visit the museum twice before on previous visits in Paris, I was simply grateful that I had finally made it inside the doors. But I followed the maps and signs to the Mona Lisa. And like every visitor, I was astonished how small the painting really is and that an entire wall is dedicated to that one painting. Surprisingly, I turned around to discover on the opposite wall a truly big painting. In fact, at nearly 32 feet in width and 22 feet in width, it is the largest painting in the Louvre’s entire collection. It is the painting of 1563 by Venetian master Paolo Veronese entitled “Wedding Feast at Cana.” It is a wonderfully rich, colorful and allegorical painting depicting the ancient Jewish wedding in St. John’s gospel but in contemporary renaissance dress. Jesus is clearly seen in the center of an Italian courtyard with towing Corinthian and Doric columns, surrounded by no less than 130 guests, including kings and queens and even Turkish leaders. For two centuries the painting had hung on the wall of the dining room in a monastery in Venice, but during a war with France, Napoleon’s army had plundered the monastery, and cutting the painting in two, brought it back with them to Paris. Ever since, the “Wedding Feast at Cana” has hung in the Louvre Museum.
As a pastor, I have grown to love performing weddings. I enjoy seeing the excitement of young couples anticipating their big day, and then watching them experience the overwhelming anxiety when the day actually comes. I am moved when I see the family members tear up as the bride and groom process down the aisle to speak their vows to each other. I even look forward to the reception and the speeches when I am invited to pray, and when I surprise the couples by ceremoniously clinking the glass for the first kiss. So it’s a bit baffling to me that 450 years ago an order of pious Benedictine monks living in an isolated Italian monastery in Venice would commission the artist Veronese to paint such as celebratory wedding scene. After all, Roman Catholic monks were forbidden to marry, and they were not allowed to speak to each other during their meals. The entire scene of the painting with its noble women and men eating rich foods and drinking wine was far too decadent and worldly. So I wonder: Is there more to story of the wedding feast at Cana than God instituting and blessing marriage and celebrating the gift of love? Perhaps the story is not about marriage at all. No, perhaps the miracle at the wedding at Cana is really about life- and Jesus’ promise that he has come that you and I should have life, and have it abundantly.
In contrast to the magnificent beauty of Veronese’s painting in the Louvre, the Evangelist St. John writes that Jesus’s first sign actually took place in the rustic village of Cana about six miles from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. It was a simple village wedding according to Jewish custom. Jewish weddings were almost always celebrated on the Third Day. In the book of Genesis, God looked upon his creation twice, on the third day and said it was good. That was an auspicious reason for being married on Tuesday, the Third Day of the Week. In the ancient world, the wedding feast didn’t end when the bride and groom arrived at their new home. Instead, for the next week, they would be treated like a king and queen and for that one glorious week their word was law. In a land where the majority of the people were impoverished, this was a week to remember for the rest of their lives. It was also to be a sign of their future joy and happiness. If today, it is joked that a happy wife is a happy life. In the ancient world it was said that a successful wedding was a sign of a successful marriage. The slightest incident or misstep could easily be interpreted by the community as a bad omen. So when Mary saw that the wine casks were nearly empty, she came to Jesus to tell him that embarrassment and disaster were near.
That is how disappointment often enters our lives. It comes as an unexpected guest, and there is no provision that will hinder its coming. One day life is joyous and colorful. You expect and plan that life will be fair, and that it will unfold as intended. But then disasters come demanding more than your own human strength. It may be sickness, misfortune, loss or death. It happens in marriage as well. At the wedding ceremony, young couples promise to love, comfort, and honor each other to the end of their days. They say they will cherish each other and be faithful to each other always. And they do earnestly believe that they can do what they say not just when they feel like it, but for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health and even when they don’t feel like it at all. I dare say, it’s true for those of us who have been married many years. On a bright, shiny day when the wine glasses are full, all seems possible. And then moments later, when the glasses are empty, .and the good folks abandon you, and the musicians end their songs, suddenly all seems hopeless. That is how it feels when the wine is spent.
The story of the wedding at Cana, however, beautifully reminds us that hopelessness is not God’s plan for our lives. No, my friends, God desires that you should have life and live it abundantly.
In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, Jesus’ mother Mary plays a significant role at the wedding. It is written that Mary was “prompted by her merciful heart” to help this family by bringing her concern for them to Jesus and to intercede on their behalf. The compassionate heart of Mary may be important to the story, but I think the message is about truth telling. In times of need, someone needs to tell the truth. There are moments in life and in marriage, when someone has to tell the truth that action are immature, that more time is needed together. And at the Wedding in Cana, Mary was that truth teller. You see, no one knew who Jesus truly was at the wedding. He hadn’t performed any miracles yet, or given any teachings; but Mary took the servant’s worries of having no wine to her Son anyway. Mary didn’t need to explain the situation or even ask Jesus to do anything; she just trusted and believed in him. I often remind wedding couples, that that little line of scripture is important to every mother and future mother-in-law. It reminds us that if Jesus could listen to his mother, so can they.
None the less, Mary’s words and timing do seem to irritate Jesus. He speaks brusquely, “Woman, what concern is that for you and me? My hour has not come.” Jesus’ response seems to suggest that the young couple should have hired a better wedding planner. Regardless, Mary turned to Jesus. It was as if she knew instinctively who to turn to, and into whose hands she should place that burden. That is another form of truth telling. She wasn’t too clear what the outcome would be, but she was confident that whatever Jesus would do it would be the right thing. And so she told the servants to do whatever Jesus said. It is precisely at that darkest hour that truth tellers are needed, and those who will direct those in need to Jesus.
According to St. John, there were six stone vessels set aside for the rites of purification. Now, if each of those vessels held between 20 and 30 gallons of water, then Jesus gave the party 180 gallons of wine. That may not have been what Mary was thinking. She might have imagined Jesus running down to Haskells and picking up a couple bottles, but what St. John describes is at the heart of the gospel. When the grace of God comes to those in need, there is not just an adequate supply but an abundance. He takes what is good and makes it better. The wine steward himself proclaims the wonder of God’s transformation. “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” You see, there is no human or physical need that can exhaust the amazing and joyful grace of God.
My friends, is the wine spent in your life? Has abandonment and emptiness come to your home? Have you heard a truth teller say, “They have no wine.” Do not be afraid. The good news for you is that doesn’t have to be the final word. Christ has come that you should have life- and to have it abundantly.
You see, the story of the wedding at Cana offers a personal word for you and me. If you want to see and experience a miracle of grace in your live, whether you are single or married, widowed or divorced, you must prepared to do what Jesus says. Ponder the wedding in Cana once again, and consider this question: Who really experienced the miracle of Jesus changing water into wine? As far as we know the bride and groom were unaware that the miracle had occurred. The majority of guests may not have been able to taste the difference in the new wine from the old. Even the steward wondered where the wine had come from. Surprisingly, St. John teaches us that the least of all at the banquet, the servants who labored to fill the giant stone jars were the ones who witnessed the miracle- no one else, except for Mary knew where the good wine came from.
The abundant life God has promised is free, but it is also work. It was hard work for the servants to fill the purification jars with water. They had to manually lower the jars into the well and haul the water to the banqueting hall. Love, my friends, even in marriage is like that. It is work to keep a marriage and a family life vibrant. There will be time spent that may seem empty, but we do it because we trust that God can see the larger picture, and that he continues to enter in with his abundant grace and love turning our labors into the finest wine. The good news, you see, is that when you follow God’s ways, he directs you to do, you too will see the miracle of change in your life. Yes, you will see and experience forgiveness, transformation, fulfillment and contentment. That is the good news. With God as a guest in your home and in your life, the best is yet to come. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.