by Br Julian McDonald cfc

The mother of Jesus said to him: “They have no wine.” Jesus said in reply: Woman, why turn to me? My hour has not come yet.” His mother said to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.” John 2, 1-11

John’s Gospel is markedly different from those of Mark, Matthew and Luke in that it is densely written, loaded with symbols and carries multiple levels of meaning. For example, today’s account of Jesus changing water into wine is a symbol of what can happen to people who open themselves to the Spirit. They are renewed and transformed. On another level, we can read today’s gospel as a story of how Jesus can bring true joy into our lives, defeating gloom and sadness. We can also come to appreciate how Jesus, himself is “the best wine kept till now”. So we have to be ready to paddle around in all the symbols and metaphors.

This gospel reading also gives us an insight into the emotional side of Jesus: While he speaks fairly dismissively to his mother, it is clear that he is no stranger to a wedding celebration. Later in John’s Gospel, we learn how he wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus and eventually faced his own execution with fear and trepidation. John presents us with a Jesus who was a flesh and blood human being, not a divine puppet. In Jesus, divinity became fully human, thus lifting humanity to the level of the divine.

But let’s look at the remark made to Jesus by his mother: “They have no more wine.” Jesus clearly heard it as more than an observation. Effectively, his mother was asking: “Can you do something to save the newly weds from being embarrassed?” And his response seems like a blunt: “Please don’t push me. Don’t put on me expectations that I can’t meet right now.” But John is also using Mary’s remark as a metaphor or symbol for his audience, inviting them to ask if the energy, the vigour or the meaning has disappeared from their lives. And we are not just observers watching from the sidelines. We’re meant to be participants in the gospel reading, asking ourselves if the life, meaning and purpose have ebbed out of us. And if so, what might we do to have them charged up again? Of course, the suggestion is that we may need Jesus to breathe life back into whatever is dead in us.

Last week I referred to the message President Bush sent his wife on the morning of their 70th wedding anniversary (I should have named him as George H.W. Bush instead of giving him his son’s name). This week I want to refer to a man by the name of Lee Atwater. He was the campaign manager for George H.W. Bush during his bid for the presidency. Atwater was a self-educated, street-wise man who had earned a reputation for being ruthless in dealing with rival politicians, and hard-as-nails in just about all his relationships. He knew well the tactics of political campaigning, so he set about brushing aside and pushing into oblivion anyone who stood in the way of the campaign of the man he supported. Atwater openly admitted that his main tactic was to identify an opponent’s weakness and attack it relentlessly, irrespective of whether the weakness he identified was based in reality or invented by Atwater himself. He was probably the single, most influential person in getting George H.W. Bush into the White House in 1988. He once said to Bush during the campaign: “Your kinder, gentler approach is very nice, but it won’t win votes.”

However, in March 1990 with George Bush well settled in Washington D.C., Atwater suffered a seizure at a fundraising breakfast in support of a US Senator. He was diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer. And that changed his life so dramatically that he wrote letters of apology to political opponents whose reputations he had demolished. He found religion and converted to Catholicism, guided by a priest whom he had met during his hospitalization. He even gave an interview to Life magazine in 1991 in which he said: “My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The 1980s were about acquiring – acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn’t I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn’t I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don’t know who will lead us through the ’90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul.” He could have said those words about almost any country and government in the present, so called, “developed” world. In recent months and years, Pope Frances has repeatedly stated that our world “is in desperate need of brotherhood”. It was through life-threatening illness that Lee Atwater grew into being the kind of man that he had not known before. It was by listening to his sickness that he blossomed into the man that he previously had not recognized. As the Augustinian priest and writer, Thomas a Kempis wrote centuries ago: “Sickness does not so much contribute to our frailty, but rather shows us who we really are” (The Imitation of Christ, circa 1427). In his sickness, Atwater discovered who he really was.

Could it be that today’s gospel reading is inviting us to listen to what our own frailty, brokenness and lack of centredness are asking of us? And many of the mystics reminded themselves and us that another name for listening is prayer. In time, the prayer of listening might lead us to take the risk of saying to Jesus: “You know, your mother was right. The wine of my life has been draining away. And I need your help to do something to stem the flow.”

So, there it is. Today’s gospel confronts us with a woman who knew what she was about. She had come to realise that her son didn’t do things by halves. As the story unfolds, we learn that his generosity converted more than 200 litres of water into fine wine. But picking up the levels of symbolism in John’s story of this wedding celebration in Cana, we have to hear that his mother’s words to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you”, are also directed to us. Lee Atwater came to hear those words and set about the work of reconciliation, of mending broken relationships, of bringing heart and brotherhood to the ordinary encounters of each day. A clear message of today’s gospel is that Jesus is ready and willing to touch the very ordinary of our daily lives and to make it sparkle. But just as he was invited to join in a wedding celebration in Cana, so, too, he has to get an invitation from each of us to come as a guest into our lives. Are we ready with the invitation?