John 2:1-11, Feast of the Sto Nino
I’ve prayed over this gospel many times, over many years. But only recently did I seriously realize that the water Jesus turned into wine was not drinking water. It was water for ceremonial washing. Now, in a gospel like John which is exceedingly symbolic, the word “water” typically signifies “life”, doesn’t it? Or the quenching of spiritual thirst. But see, that was not the sort of water Jesus turned into wine in that first-ever miracle of his. It was water for purification.
As you know, the Jews were very fastidious about purity. You washed before meals, you washed before going to temple, you washed before praying; you washed plenty after menstruation and childbirth. So, the average household stocked up on heavy jars of purification water. If you were hosting a party like the banquet the Lord was in, you were compelled to load up on plenty of water so your guests could purify. Otherwise, no one would touch the food.
So, think about it; the Lord turned washing-water into fine wine. He turned water into a “spirit,” literally, didn’t he? Alcohol! What was supposed to cleanse tainted hands and grubby feet would now gladden lips, and “take off the edge,” and unstiffen inhibitions, and make new friends; in one word: celebration! Remember, this was his first-ever miracle, and it betokened what the rest of his ministry was going to be all about—or, more exactly, what it was not going to be all about. We know very well that the Messiah was not big on ritual purity. There was something much more important to his Father than purity. (In fact, didn’t he have the choicest words for the Pharisees who were drunk with their own purity?)
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I confessed yesterday. But I forgot to confess something. Father, I didn’t observe the one-hour Eucharistic fast.” “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I did not go to mass for two consecutive Sundays because I was down with typhoid fever.” “Father, there’s a couple in my church who are living together, unmarried. But they line up for communion, and the priest gives them the body of Christ! I’m so shocked and angry!” “Father, I’ve been a devout Catholic all my life. We raised our children to be Church-going Catholics. But my daughter just came out to me, that she’s a lesbian. Where did I go wrong?”
Many of us drag invisible heavy jars of water for purification as we live our faith; we may not even be aware of it. Many of us were raised with the impression that the, quote-unquote, “religion started by Christ,” is all about—and pretty much only about—purity and impurity, confession and absolution, personal sacrifice and divine reward. Well, as Jesus had shown, religion is that, yes. He was a devout Jew. But I can almost hear the Lord say, “Well…I hope your faith in me ferments into something much…finer than that. I hope that our relationship matures into something of a more delicate…vintage than that.” Because for many of us, priests included, faith is mostly purification rather than celebration. We want to be dead sure we’re washed clean, rather than toy around with the fine yet complex wine the water’s been changed into by the Lord’s very own loving hands. Yet, there is more to our faith than waters of purification, sisters and brothers. Taking a hint from the second reading, the Spirit blesses our faith with manifold gifts: healing, for example, mighty deeds; the gift of prophecy and discernment of spirits; the gift of tongues and interpretation of tongues. In other words, our faith is also wine of gladness, wine that strengthens community, wine that relaxes our self-righteous rigidities, wine that makes us go from “Who is a true Catholic; who is untrue?” to “Who is my neighbor? Besides myself and my family, whom must I help save? What more must I do to gain eternal life?”
“Father, I have a question. This year of mercy, does this mean we just forgive those who committed abortion, or use contraception, or gays getting married?” This was what I was afraid of…. Because we drag around invisible jars of water for purification, some of us have pigeonholed “mercy” into a box labeled “sexual morality”. Then we feel that the Pope is forcing us to forgive transgressors of morality—the names of whom we have on a list, and that list bookmarks the pages of our religion. Well, no. Pope Francis says, “God’s mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God.” Sisters and brothers, God’s mercy is based on divine love, over and above sexual morality, over and above the most favorite damnable impurities we’d love to wash off of other people. In God’s eyes, we are so much more than our sinning. And you who are parents know exactly what this means, when you look at your children and cannot resist still loving them—even when they’ve broken your heart to deliberately hurt you. Well, like you, God is so inebriated with deep and merciful love for us that there is no purifying ritual in the world by which God would wash himself off and clean of us—not even with the finest water for purification.
In this year of mercy, then, let us set our heavy jars down at Jesus’ feet, and have our heavenly Vine-grower, our loving Vintner, turn our water into wine, that we may ever more gladden God’s merciful heart. Amen.