Back last March, I was asked by our bishops to enable this blog to be used as a vehicle for reflections on what we have been living through over much of the past year. So from April- June last year the blog was temporarily renamed ‘Discipleship in Difficult Days’ and it was very good to have a wide range of contributions from a considerable number of different people in our diocese on their experiences of living with and through the crisis of the moment. When we got to July I thought it was about time to shift back to the focus on the lectionary, which had been the original idea for the blog when it started in December 2018.
Perhaps now – though I intend that a contribution should continue be offered each week linked to the lectionary – we need also to go back again in these ongoing ‘difficult days’ and publish further thoughts that are linked directly or indirectly to our COVID experiences, especially in the Diocese in Europe. If you have something you would like to share, please do be in touch.
To set the ball rolling again, I offer a delicious short poem that my husband Alan Amos wrote at the end of last year. To understand it you need to be aware of the Jet d’Eau, the iconic symbol of Geneva, which springs up from Lake Geneva (Leman) and which used to be visible (just) from an apartment Alan and I lived in in France voisine. The poem is called Living Water, and it complements in some interesting ways the biblical reflection linked to next Sunday’s lectionary Gospel, John 2.1-11, which I have called Flowing Wine. I hope that both the poem and the biblical reflection offer you some joy in these continuing days of difficulty. We also include a link to a powerful reflection on COVID and Communion (understood in a broad sense) offered by Revd Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin in the Fields which is well worth exploring.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship
A friend said ‘all this Zoom, reminds me of my doom!’
I added. ‘rhymes with gloom and tomb.’
And then I thought of happier rhymes
Maybe ‘neum’ a music note to bring us cheer
as we approach the ending of the year;
but then, a-sudden, broke in that plume
of life, the jet’d’eau!
the bursting energy, living water
Zooming up from Leman’s depths
calling us to hope, in lake and sky
to read the signs of life’s continuing
joy and mystery. Alan Amos
Do take a look at Real Communion in Online Community a sermon preached by Revd Dr Sam Wells the Sunday before last (10 January) at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London: https://www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/real-communion-in-online-community/
I was very grateful to Bishop David Hamid for drawing my attention a couple of weeks ago to the ancient Latin antiphon on the Benedictus at Lauds on the Feast of Epiphany which, as Bishop David, rightly said, has always fascinated him (and me too, now that I have made its acquaintance!).
‘Today the Church has been joined to her heavenly bridegroom, since Christ has purified her of her sins in the river Jordan; the Magi hasten to the royal wedding and offer gifts; the wedding guests rejoice since Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.’
In this antiphon are listed all three of the great Epiphany themes of the journey of the Magi, the baptism of Christ, and the wedding at Cana – all Gospel narratives which ‘make manifest’ the incarnate divinity of Jesus Christ. But as Bishop David pondered in his note to me, what is intriguing and perhaps strange about the antiphon is the way that it uses wedding imagery to link the three Gospel stories together.
Well, I didn’t have the time to respond to Bishop David a couple of weeks ago, but in effect my reflections in this blog, which focus particularly on the story of the wedding at Cana, John 2.1-11, the lectionary Gospel for the coming Sunday, are my answer to him.
I have written elsewhere, both in a short book Beginning over again: through Lent with Genesis and the Gospels, and in various articles, of my view that all four of the Gospels invite us to ‘re-read’ the story of Genesis in the light of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. It is most obvious with the Gospel of John.
It is in fact impossible to read John’s Gospel without being immediately aware of the resonances within it of Genesis. Even a quick glance at the first few verses of the Gospel (John 1.1-18) shout out the deliberate echoes of Gen. 1. Both of course begin with the same three words, ‘In the beginning’, both are reflecting on how life came into being, both remind us of the fundamental place of light in the story of creation. The Gospel tells us that creation came into being through the ‘Word’, and according to Genesis it was by the act of speaking that God’s work of creation proceeded.
But we also find the echo of Genesis continuing to the conclusion of the Prologue in verses 14 and 18. For as we hear of the ‘glory’ of God that is revealed in the Word become flesh (verse 14) there is, half hidden, an allusion to the concept of ‘image’ that introduced humanity’s vocation in Genesis 1. The best understanding of what the word ‘glory’ meant to the biblical writers – and certainly to the writer of John’s Gospel – is to describe it as ‘the visible presence of God’. In the Word becoming flesh in Jesus Christ, and showing God’s glory, humanity has at last come into its birthright as the image or icon of God: what human beings were always meant to be. This cannot be said too strongly. So often we see the fact that we are ‘human’ as something negative – the opposite, if you like, of divinity. Yet our problem may be not that we are too human – but that we are not human enough. As the glory of God, Christ is humanity’s perfection – and its goal. In this Gospel, whose stated purpose is to help us have life (John 20.32) we are going to have enfleshed for us the statement of Irenaeus, ‘The glory of God is humanity alive – and the life of humanity is the vision of God.’
But if Genesis clearly shines through the beginning of John’s Gospel it is also etched into the final chapters. As Jesus breathes the Spirit into his disciples after his resurrection (John 20.22) he reiterates the action of God in Gen. 2.7 when life was first breathed into humanity. In doing so, of course he reminds us that that a Gospel which has up till now focused almost entirely on Jesus, will only reach its ultimate goal when all human beings can fully reflect the ‘glory’, can image God in such a way that the ripples spin out to entice and excite others with the transforming vision.
And the story of the Gospel between its beginning and its end treads out the path that makes this possible. It is a story in which Genesis’ themes of life and death are revisited, as we discover that in fact life comes through death. It is a tale to which knowledge will be the key – but not knowledge sought for power, independence and control as was the case in Genesis 3. Rather it is the truth, and Jesus who is the truth, who is to be the goal of this knowledge. Above all it a love story, which will re-tread the original vision of creation, of man and woman both made in the image and likeness of God, and will encourage the full maturity of ‘becoming’, of a relationship between men and women which will go beyond the imbalance and the distortion of love which the ‘fall’ of Genesis 3 leaves us with. Let us get the love story right this time, John seems to be saying. For it is only love that is as strong as death.
What does this mean? I believe that the Gospel of John is choosing to take us on a journey … Not just a geographical journey traveling from Jordan, Cana, Samaria, Bethany, Jerusalem, but a journey in which women will play a central part, for it is a journey about women, about their capacity for love, for being the agents of new birth and life. It is a journey which is not afraid of sexuality, for love in all its forms is what will make possible the gift of life which is the treasure offered by this Gospel.
John’s Gospel makes crystal clear that Christ is the bridegroom of humanity (John 3.29), and it is as men and women both respond to his love from the depths of their being that the life and love lost in Eden can be regained. That of course is actually the message that our Epiphany antiphon is singing aloud.
The ministry of Jesus in the Gospel begins with a marriage at Cana (John 2.1-11) – something significant in itself, especially if Christ is indeed the bridegroom. But if Christ is the bridegroom, where is his bride? She is strangely absent from this tale: The Gospel never mentions her, perhaps the ultimate statement of the invisibility of women in a world, where, as in the New Testament era, men dominated and a woman’s marriage was seen as little more than the moment when, as a chattel, she passed from the custody of father to husband. When my husband and I lived in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s Alan took several weddings. He recalls how the wedding registers that had to be signed had no space for the bride’s signature – it was the bridegroom and bride’s father who were required to witness together to the ‘transaction’.
The hour of change has not yet come. There is a woman playing a part in the drama, but she is mother, not wife, and addressed curtly by the title ‘Woman’ reminiscent perhaps of the title the first Adam used for his first Eve as she was taken from his side. ‘What have you to do with me?’ Jesus demands harshly (John 2.4, literal translation), in a phrase that is elsewhere only used when he has conversations with the demons – for the old secure relationships are a temptation to hold on to – and yet if this bridegroom wishes to enjoy with his bride the wine of new life, those old patterns must be superseded. One cannot enter into one’s mother’s womb and be born again, certainly not at one’s wedding feast! Such an attitude would be characteristic of a refusal to accept new and adult relationships, relationships where men and women exist in equality and true agape with each other. To enable the good wine of marriage to flow Jesus needs both to hearken to yet distance himself from the maternal symbol of the old ways and attitudes.
The way is change,
The truth unchanging leads to life through change
Or else the water never would be ready for the feast,
Nor we ourselves be present as the guests…
Perhaps, over the crisis and challenges of the past year we have come to learn this truth in in new and different ways.
I find the painting of the Wedding at Cana by the Chinese He Qi (see above), which has become increasingly well known, a fascinating commentary on this Gospel passage. There are in fact some alternative interpretations of the picture, but I would suggest that the mysterious figure shrouded completely in red (the traditional Chinese colour for weddings and celebration) is what I refer to as ‘the blanked-out bride’, invisible in the story, and hidden in this way in He Qi’s picture. She is framed by figures that I believe represent Jesus and his mother – though the depiction of Jesus in some sense also reflects the bridegroom. Do take a close look at He Qi’s picture and reflect on the other insights it offers into the story.
The account of the wedding ends with the brief note: ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory…’ (John 2.11). ‘The first of his signs’ is the usual English translation, but a more literal rendering of the Greek would be ‘this beginning of signs’. It is useful to note this because it reminds us of two important ‘clues’ to the meaning of the story of the wedding. First, the words ‘glory’ and ‘beginning’ both appear in this episode as well as John’s Prologue (John 1.1-18) , and this suggests, I think, that the account of the wedding is the conclusion of the opening section of the Gospel which has begun with the Prologue. I think the Christian liturgical year has instinctively understood this as it locates the account of the wedding as a highlight towards the end of the Epiphany section.
But secondly, and perhaps even more important, the phrase ‘this beginning of signs’ reminds us that the sign which has just taken place is not simply the first one in a chronological list, but rather the ‘key’ or ‘archetype’ which opens the door to understanding all the other signs that John will tell us of later in his Gospel. It is the sign which undergirds all the others. This vivid and dramatic image of transformation, of water become wine, is actually a ‘sign’ of the meaning of the whole work of Jesus Christ which the Gospel writer will lovingly unfold for us in the following chapters of the Gospel.
Back to the bride. If the Gospel refuses to let us meet her at Cana, with exquisite artistry – and irony – we are introduced to her in the shape of the raddled old woman that Jesus will meet in Samaria (John 4.5-42). But that is, as they say, another story, or at least the next episode in this one…
(to be continued…)