Today’s readings are all about marriages : the marriage of God to the people of Israel, a symbol of his faithfulness; the gift of the Holy Spirit by which God joins us to God’s mission of love and redemption in the world; and then the wedding at Cana. I’m struck by how marriages to God are at the same time both intensely personal and yet have a communal dimension. On the one hand, the Spirit gives each person different gifts; on the other hand, the gifts are given for the good of the whole. On the one hand, God’s “betrothal” is to the entire people of God; on the other hand, these words from the first reading can also be an apt description of God’s relation to the individual soul in relation to God: “As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so shall your God rejoice in you.” This language of love expresses God’s desire for each one of us. God’s encourages each of us to locate our desire for God, and to return to God again. When we are responsive to God’s invitations, we are brought into greater union with God. This greater union with God individually also brings us into greater harmony with one other, for then God’s love is joined to our own.
As nearly every homilist I have ever heard on the first letter to the Corinthians has reminded: Paul wrote the letter to the Corinthians at a time when they were in faction with one another. Paul was not so much saying to a happy community, “Celebrate your gifts! You are awesome.” Instead, Paul was telling others to stop putting their own gifts ahead of others, and to stop being so competitive. We all see the world a bit through our own lenses, our own ways of doing things. This can show up in even the smallest of ways. For example, I have a cold and have been every so slightly cranky (since I only got over a bad bout with bronchitis in early December), so I spent the afternoon making homemade chicken soup to take care of myself a little. As I made it, I was thinking, “Why does this recipe call for egg noodles in it? My mom made delicious little dumplings in her soup. That’s the best way to make chicken soup!” I made it with my mom’s recipe for little dumplings. Of course, how we eat soup is not likely to lead to a quarrel with anyone—though you never know—but other differences that come down to little more than preference, rather than ethics, often do create discord. The Corinthians were acting competitively and defensively, thinking some spiritual gifts were superior to others.
What is the remedy? St. Paul encourages us to pay attention not so much to our own gifts as to others’ gifts. Instead of seeing differences between us as reasons for converting another person to be “more like me”, or worse, dismissing another person altogether, we are invited to pay attention to what can be good in those differences. A capability that I don’t have, another person might possess. For each one of us it is our task to look into how someone else is experiencing the world and to try to enter imaginatively into that point of view. Then perhaps we can see our gifts as complementary, such that my weakness is supported by your strength, and my strength supports your weakness.
Imagine how different the worlds of politics, homes, workplaces, parishes, and other communities would also be if we celebrated the ways the Spirit works in such varied ways, instead of insisting that our way of being in the world is “better”. (Of course I am here not talking about ethical vs unethical behavior, but personality traits and preferences.) Our weaknesses then might even turn out also to be our gifts, because these weaknesses are what lead us to be in relationship with one another. We need each other. We were made to need each other, and this is part of God’s gift to us.
I love the interaction between Jesus and his mom in the story about the wedding at Cana. Mary doesn’t tell Jesus what to do. She just brings him a problem: “The wedding hosts are out of wine. Here’s the situation.” Jesus’s reply initially sounds a bit dismissive, although I like to imagine he is being playful— in a way that I am familiar with as the mother of a grown son! Mary seems to know that Jesus will take care of the problem, no matter what he says to her or how he says it. So she leaves it to him to handle. Here, Mary is a good model for us: we can boldly ask God for what we desire in prayer, and in some situations where we are powerless, we need to leave it to God to take care of the “how”. At the same time, like the people around Jesus, we have to cooperate with God’s actions, while we recognize that the real power is God’s. God often acts in mysterious ways, ways we cannot anticipate. Perhaps Mary was not expecting a miracle—but maybe we all ought to expect miracles more often than we do.
Jesus turns water into wine. In the ancient world water was mixed with wine in part because the wine helped to kill off the germs in the water. Water on its own was not sparkling clean water coming from a kitchen faucet, but more likely water from a well that could be expected to have some contaminants. So Jesus is taking something that is impure and imperfect, and turning it into fine wine, so that everyone at the wedding can continue in sharing in the joy of the bride and groom.
We human beings are like this water being turned into wine. Sure, we have plenty of faults. We are not perfect. We sin. We also have a variety of quirks and personal traits that are maybe not always ideal. Just as the Spirit distributes gifts in a variety of ways, human faults get spread around, too. However, Jesus works to turn that water into wine. What is interesting about it is that this transformation seems to take place not so much by getting rid of what is unique about us, as by transforming who we are into gifts that can be used for others. We remain more or less “who” we are through the course of our lives. We tend to retain our individual strengths and some of our weaknesses or at least preferences. But God transforms us, such that we do not cease from being ourselves, but rather are able to be ourselves in a way that is a little freer, a little more forgiving, and a little more loving. This action is God’s transforming work. It is God’s power and not our own.
What then are we to do if it is God’s power that is at the real heart of human transformation? Follow Mary’s advice: “Do whatever he tells you to do.”
We can pray and bring all of who we are, and all of who others are in our lives—our spouses and children, families and friends, and even members of our community with whom we have sometimes been in faction. Then we can listen for the voice of the one who wants to lead us back into harmony and community, who wants to turn water into wine, and “do whatever He tells us to do.” Perhaps that is to work for social change and advocate for justice. Perhaps it is to serve, knowing that those we serve are as gifted as we are albeit in different ways. Perhaps it is to be an agent of love in our personal relationships, or to express gratitude to those who have shown us care and kindness. Perhaps it is putting noodles in the soup, this time.
This transforming love of God that turns water into wine is all God’s action, but it also becomes our own action, when prayer joins us together with God and in God. God’s love and faithfulness to each one of us —loving us as we really are and encouraging us to love others as they really are—brings us back to a place of celebration together.