Frederick Buechner Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11)
In our blog post each Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.
Next Sunday we will celebrate the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of John:
On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples. When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast." So they took it. When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, "Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now." This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Here is Buechner’s sermon entitled “The Wedding at Cana”, from The Hungering Dark.
Like so much of the Gospel of John, the story of the wedding at Cana has a curious luminousness about it, the quality almost of a dream where every gesture, every detail, suggests the presence of meaning beneath meaning, where people move with a kind of ritual stateliness, faces melting into other faces, voices speaking words of elusive but inexhaustible significance. It is on the third day that the wedding takes place; the third day that Jesus comes to change the water into wine, and in the way of dreams the number 3 calls up that other third day when just at daybreak, in another way and toward another end, Jesus came and changed despair into rejoicing. There are the six stone jars, and you wonder why six—some echo half-heard of the six days of creation perhaps, the six days that preceded the seventh and holiest day, God's day. And the cryptic words that Jesus speaks to his mother with their inexplicable sharpness, their foreshadowings of an hour beyond this hour in Cana of astonished gladness and feasting, of a final hour that was yet not final. But beyond the mystery of what it means, detail by detail, level beneath level, maybe the most important part of a dream is the part that stays with you when you wake up from it.
It can be a sense of revulsion at some hidden ugliness laid bare. It can be a kind of aching homesickness for some beauty that existed only in the dream. There are dreams which it is impossible to remember anything about at all except that they were good dreams and that we are somehow the better for having dreamed them. But taking this story in John as a dream, I think that what we carry from it most powerfully is simply a feeling for the joy of it—a wedding that almost flopped except that then this strange, stern guest came and worked a miracle and it turned out to be the best wedding of all. Certainly it is because of the joy of it that it is remembered in the marriage service.
But joy or no joy, people also cry at weddings. It is part of the tradition. Women are said to cry especially, all dressed up in their white gloves and their best hats with the tears running down, but I have known grown men to cry too and sometimes even the minister forgets to worry about whether his robe is straight and whether the best man has remembered the ring and has to hold tight to his prayer book to keep down the lump in his own throat. Sometimes the tears are good tears, tears as a response to the mystery not only of human love but of human finitude, the transience of things; but more often than not, I suspect, the tears that are shed at weddings are not to be taken too seriously because they are mainly sentimental tears, and although I suppose that they do little harm, I would be surprised to hear that they ever did much good. To be sentimental is to react not so much to something that is happening as to your own reaction to something that is happening, so that when a person cries sentimentally, what he is really crying at very often is the pathos of his own tears. When we shed tears at a wedding, our tears are likely to have a great deal less to do with the bride and groom than with all the old dreams or regrets that the bride and groom have occasioned in us. In our sentimentality, we think, "How wonderful that they are going to live happily ever after," or "How terrible that they are never going to be so happy again," and then we relate it all to our own happiness or our own lost happiness and weep eloquently at ourselves. It is all innocent enough, surely, except that it keeps us just one step further than we already are, and God knows that is far enough, from the reality of what is going on outside our own skins; and the reality of what is going on outside our own skins is the reality of other people with all their dreams and regrets, their happiness, the pathos not of ourselves for once but of them.
The reality of the bride and groom, which is also their joy, is of course that they love each other; but whereas sentimentality tends to stop right there and have a good cry, candor has to move on with eyes at least dry enough to see through. They love each other indeed, and in a grim world their love is a delight to behold, but love as a response of the heart to loveliness, love as primarily an emotion, is only part of what a Christian wedding celebrates, and beyond it are levels that sentimentality cannot see. Because the promises that are given are not just promises to love the other when the other is lovely and lovable, but to love the other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and that means to love the other even at half-past three in the morning when the baby is crying and to love each other with a terrible cold in the head and when the bills have to be paid. The love that is affirmed at a wedding is not just a condition of the heart but an act of the will, and the promise that love makes is to will the other's good even at the expense sometimes of its own good—and that is quite a promise.
Whether the bride and groom are to live happily ever after or never to be so happy again depends entirely on how faithfully, by God's grace, they are able to keep that promise, just as the happiness of us all depends on how faithfully we also are able to keep such promises, and not just to a husband or a wife, because even selfless love when it is limited to that can become finally just another kind of self-centeredness with two selves in the center instead of one and all the more impregnable for that reason.
Dostoevski describes Alexei Karamazov falling asleep and dreaming about the wedding at Cana, and for him too it is a dream of indescribable joy, but when he wakes from it he does a curious thing. He throws himself down on the earth and embraces it. He kisses the earth and among tears that are in no way sentimental because they are turned not inward but outward he forgives the earth and begs its forgiveness and vows to love it forever. And that is the heart of it, after all, and matrimony is called holy because this brave and fateful promise of a man and a woman to love and honor and serve each other through thick and thin looks beyond itself to more fateful promises still and speaks mightily of what human life at its most human and its most alive and most holy must always be.
A dream is a compression of time where the dreamer can live through a whole constellation of events in no more time than it takes a curtain to rustle in the room where he sleeps. In dreams time does not flow on so much as it flows up, like water from a deep spring. And in this way every wedding is a dream, and every word that is spoken there means more than it says, and every gesture—the clasping of hands, the giving of rings—is rich with mystery. Part of the mystery is that Christ is there as he was in Cana once, and the joy of a wedding, and maybe even sometimes the tears, are a miracle that he works. But when the wedding feast was over, he set his face toward Jerusalem and started out for the hour that had not yet come but was to come soon enough, the hour when he too was to embrace the whole earth and water it with more than his tears.
And so it was also, we hope, with the bride and groom at Cana and with every bride and groom—that the love they bear one another and the joy they take in one another may help them grow in love for this whole troubled world where their final joy lies, and that the children we pray for them may open them to the knowledge that all men are their children even as we are their children and as they also are ours.
Holy Lord God,
Thine is this fair world in all its splendor, but ours is the freedom to destroy thy world. Thine is the beginning and the end of all our lives, but ours are our lives themselves, to hoard in misery or to give away in joy. Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, but ours is the ear that is deaf, the tongue that is mute, the eye that is blind. Thine is the Christ, but ours is the cross he died upon.
Have mercy upon us. Have mercy upon all to whom we ourselves show little mercy—the unloving and the unbeautiful, the bitter and the lonely, the very slow, the very old.
Have mercy upon those who love and who in their love are beautiful, for they too are often forgotten by us, their joy itself a barrier between their lives and ours.
O Lord, in sorrow and in joy open thou our lives to one another that we may live. Open thou our lives to thee that even in dying we may never die.