Saturday, January 19, 2013

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

The wedding feast at Cana, from my experience, is an episode in our Lord’s life which is widely unappreciated and misunderstood. For instance, several years ago I heard a radio preacher claim that "Jesus is a party animal!" because he changed 180 gallons of water into wine. In case you’re wondering or worried, however, that entirely misses the point.

To fully appreciate this story, we need to realize that John’s gospel presents the crucifixion as Jesus’ marriage to his bride, the Church. The wedding feast at Cana anticipates this sacred union, and to make the connection, the evangelist links these two events in subtle ways. First, the Cana account mentions both the "hour" and the "glorification" of Jesus- each of which describes the crucifixion, in John’s terminology. In addition, Mary is identified at Cana not by name but with a title: the "mother of Jesus." Whenever this is done in John’s gospel, we know that a character is playing a symbolic role. In this case, Mary is a traditional Hebrew Queen Mother, one whose duty and joy it was to prepare her kingly son for his royal wedding. This is what Mary does at Cana. She notes the lack of wine, symbolic of the new covenant Jesus was to establish with all humanity on the cross. Then, through her intercession, Jesus produces an immense quantity of wine, foreshadowing the superabundance of grace he now pours out upon his people.

The significance and importance of Cana, then, is that Jesus commits himself to his people in covenant- a sacred, unbreakable promise- just as a bridegroom pledges himself to his bride at a wedding. This was foretold in today’s first reading: "As a bridegroom rejoices in his bride," proclaimed the prophet, "so shall your God rejoice in you."

Indeed, this is a theme that runs throughout the entire Bible. We encounter it in the Old Testament, in Paul’s letters, and in Revelation, which presents heaven as the wedding feast of Jesus, the spotless lamb of God. In Christian tradition, the Church has often been referred to as "she," because "she" is the bride of Christ, and the Eucharist has been described as a foretaste of the heavenly wedding banquet.

All this language and tradition referring to Jesus as the bridegroom and the Church as bride is reflective of the love, intimacy, fidelity, and permanency of the covenant relationship Jesus has established with us. However, in light of this imagery, we might well ask ourselves: "Why was it that Jesus himself was not married?"

We know that Jewish rabbis in his day were practically expected to be married, meaning that Jesus’ single status would have been seen as highly irregular at best. In addition, Scripture tells us that several of the apostles were married- even Peter himself! - as were many of the Church’s first bishops, including some of Jesus’ cousins. So why not Jesus?

It’s not because Jesus didn’t esteem women. In fact, Jesus had many close women friends such as Mary and Martha, and he included women in his band of followers who traveled with him- something that no rabbi would have done, and a practice that may very well have raised some eyebrows! It’s not because there’s anything wrong, or unholy, about the physical intimacy shared by husbands and wives. In fact, official Church teaching, in addressing this subject, uses words like love, nobility, honor, pleasure, and enjoyment. And it’s not because Jesus didn’t value marriage. Jesus praised and defended the institution of marriage in his preaching ministry, and it’s our faith that he raised the marriage covenant to the dignity of a sacrament.

So then, why was it that Jesus was not married? I’d like to offer to you a few possibilities. First, Jesus remained unmarried in order to be a sign to the world that a person can be a whole, healthy, happy, and well-integrated human being without being sexually active- a message that our culture desperately needs to hear.

Second, it could be that since Jesus knew his ministry would be dangerous, that it would involve lots of traveling, and that it would ultimately end in execution, he decided that it would be inappropriate to bring a wife and children into the equation. In a similar fashion, there are many people today who choose not to marry in order to give themselves totally to an important cause- such as caring for sick or needy family members, or to focus on their profession or some other honorable mission. And of course, God continues to call men and women to a celibate state of life so they can devote themselves totally to the service of the Church and the world.

Third, Jesus remained unmarried so that he could give all of himself, not just to his ministry, but also to all of us! By the very nature of their relationships, the spouse and children of a married person have an exclusive claim on him or her- and that’s the way it should be! But because Jesus wan not married, nobody has an exclusive claim on him. Therefore, he can give himself to all of us, and make himself available to all of us, equally, and without limit. He knows that there are so many people who need him and want him. Indeed, everybody needs Jesus.

And that brings me to my final point: By remaining unmarried, Jesus united himself in solidarity with all the lonely people of the world. In his lifetime, Jesus knew suffering, poverty, pain, betrayal, even death itself. When he cried out on the cross: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" he knew the alienation from God caused by sin, even though he never sinned himself. He knew loneliness in Gethsemane while his friends slept together, and he loneliness because he always slept alone.

So many people today are lonely- married and unmarried- but Jesus knows and understands our loneliness because he was lonely himself. So we might say, then, that Jesus never gave himself exclusively to any one person, so he could give himself absolutely to all of us. Or to put it differently: Jesus embraced loneliness, so that he could embrace us, whenever we are alone.

(My book of daily meditations for Lent is now available from Ave Maria Press: It is available also at Amazon: )

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