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From Water into Wine to Death into Life

Ordinary Sunday 2: 13 January, 2013
Fr Philip Gill
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill and Lazarus Centre Chaplain

Years ago while reading a book by the Jesuit Palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin I came across a phrase that left a deep impression on me. And I think of those words every time I read the story of the changing of the water into wine because this story has a jolting freshness as well as a challenging earthiness about it. Fr Teilhard wrote about the evolutionary process as a "zest for life" and that our zest for life had its completion in the Omega Point.

The story of the changing of the water into wine is the first of the "signs" of John's Gospel. There are three points that highlight the connection between changing water into wine and Teilhard's "zest for life". The first point is that Jesus was at a wedding at all. His presence indicates a willingness to participate in the happy celebration of man and woman becoming one. Let's assume that the bride and groom will understand the realities of marriage and that all will go well. Like the man who at the celebration of his 100th birthday was asked the secret of his long life. He answered that his longevity was due to the fact that he walked every day of his married life. He and his wife had a pact — that if they had an argument the one who was proven wrong had to get out of the house and go for a walk.

Nowhere do we hear that Jesus hid away in the corner as though he was a prudish, reluctant participant. Even the exchange between Mary and Jesus, which can sound so dismissive to our ears, is much gentler in the original language. Jenny, my wife, is preaching at St Philip's Collingwood today and so I have the advantage of her scholarship. Jenny has discovered:

The Greek word gunai is not at all harsh but gentle and respectful. Another way of understanding this interchange is "Dear friend woman, fear not, `it is all right'," adding, "it is not time for me yet". [1]

Indeed I think we can assume that he wasn't a reluctant or even dutiful guest but a willing and grateful one because of what happens next.

The second point is that there was wine at this wedding and that all the guests must have been celebrating with great gusto. Now I am not advocating over indulging in alcohol. I do want to challenge the clichéd image that Christianity should fill people with a fear of God with the intention of making them good — even nice. I want to challenge the notion that Christianity is a religion with the aim of ensuring people toe the moral line so that the ledger will be in their favour at the last judgement. Somehow, in this understanding of Christianity all the feasting and sharing around the meal table has been lost or sanitised. So the presence of Jesus at a good old-fashioned neighbourhood wedding is an important insight into the intention and meaning of the incarnation. As a version of the Thanksgiving Prayer in our Prayer Book reminds us, "You have given us this earth to care for and delight in."

The third point is the one I find most astonishing. It is likely that the mention of the jars, put aside as they have been for purification rituals, stands for the Jewish Law. Even the fact that they are stoneware suggests their ritual purpose. Earthen ware jars were more susceptible to ritual spoiling. It is significant that the jars are empty — perhaps a reference to a perceived emptiness of the Law. Jesus shows no reluctance in taking the jars, set aside as they are for use in religious ritual, filling them with water, providing wine to be consumed by wedding guests. For the author of John's Gospel, the Jewish Law and ritual system, illustrated by the jars, is at best incomplete. We drink water to survive: we drink wine to celebrate. Following the Law one hopes to keep on the right side of God, following Christ one lives fully for God. Christian life is filled with the zest that Fr Teilhard wrote about.

Fr Teilhard believed that the primary driving force in the universe was the "zest for life". Not a fight for survival not an evolutionary process not an unbridled ambition, but a zest for life. In his own words:

By 'zest for living' or 'zest for life' I mean here, to put it approximately, that spiritual disposition, at once intellectual and affective, in virtue of which life, the world and action seem to us, on the whole, luminous — interesting — appetizing...
...— In the first place because, when considered in its most fully developed forms, it displays the character of being dynamic, constructive and adventurous.

— and secondly, because, however readily it may envelop itself in an atmosphere of intoxication and delight, deep beneath it there lies hidden ... a cold and primordial determination to survive and super-live: what Edouard Le Roy, carrying on from Blondel, has so well called the 'rock bottom will'. [2]

In Fr Teilhard's day he bemoaned the fact that millions were being spent on studies in economics, psychology, science etc. but no one was studying the zest for life and worse, no-one seemed to be tending to "zest" as a crucial notion in the quality of our lives.

After a long time things have changed a little. Martin Seligman went boldly where few had the courage to venture by choosing to research what was positive about human existence instead of what was wrong with it. He writes about the six virtues: wisdom and knowledge, courage, Love and humanity, justice, temperance, Spirituality and transcendence. These virtues are achieved through the strengths of character. Seligman notes 24 of these, of which zest is one. [3]

But way before this laudable movement in psychology we had the Gospel of John — and Teilhard de Chardin for that matter. Early on in the Gospel, the second chapter in fact, we have this amazing story of this call to follow Jesus in his zest for life. We are led from stone cold emptiness to God's zest-filled life. And stories illustrating this zest for life others follow. To Nicodemus Jesus proclaims that God loves the world and offers eternal life. To the woman at the well Jesus offers water that will quench spiritual thirst. To a man who had been incapacitated for 38 years he offers healing. To an adulterous woman he offers forgiveness and to Lazarus he gives back life. In Chapter 10 Jesus spells things out quite clearly, "I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly." To his followers, to us, he offers life in the Spirit and a place in the mansions of God.

However, if the Gospels teach us anything about the zest for life, they teach us of its costliness. People who live with zest look beyond their own ambitions and wants. Strangely, we get the most out of life when we are prepared to forgo our immediate desires. As Jesus taught, "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life."

Some psychologists today say that zest for life is enhanced by our level of fitness and it can be sustained through hope and optimism. At the heart of real zest for life is the belief that we are loved by God and that the energy with which we live is best directed towards the well-being of others. I've met them. I hope we all have — perhaps we are among them. Those people who are so engaged by life that nothing seems to get them down. And yet, like us, they all face the same or similar disasters, mistakes, errors of judgement that we face.

Later in the mass we will hear these words: "On the night he was betrayed Jesus took bread; and when he had given you thanks he broke it and gave it to his disciples..." On the night he was betrayed!

On the night he was betrayed he gave thanks and he gave bread. True zest for life sees beyond immediate circumstances to the greater good beyond. Jesus goes from changing water into wine to changing death into life.

Jesus was once a guest at a wedding, a guest willing to help the host out of a pickle. He also provides us with a sign that in him our relationship with God is not one of stone cold emptiness but meant to be filled with zest for life as the wine suggests — lives of celebration, refreshment, healing, and resurrection.


Notes:

  1. Jennifer Inglis, Wedding in Cana in Galilee, Sermon Preached on Epiphany 2 at St Philip's Collingwood
  2. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, trans. Rent Hague, Activation of Energy, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich) 231.
  3. Martin E.P Seligman, Authentic Happiness, (Sydney: Random House, 2002) 125-161.


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