Sunday, January 14, 2007

God Saves the Best for Last

(2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given on 13 & 14 January, 2007 at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; See Isaiah 62:1-5 and John 2:1-11)

It is called dramatic irony, and we see it all the time on television and in the movies. It is what happens when the entire audience can see what is happening in a particular scene, even though one or all of the characters in that scene cannot. It’s what makes sit-coms work, and leaves us on the edge of our seat, yelling into the TV set, because we can see exactly what is taking place while they don’t seem to have a clue.

St. John the Evangelist uses dramatic irony in today’s gospel to tell the story of Jesus’ first miracle. Jesus changes the water into wine at that wedding in Cana, and immediately He gives it to the servants to bring to the headwaiter. The headwaiter, of course, has no idea what just happened. He tastes that wine and is thoroughly impressed. He calls the bridegroom over, and proudly announces:

Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.
—John 2:10

Of course, he’s wrong. Everyone, including the bridegroom, knows that. But without even realizing it, he praises not the bridegroom but Jesus Christ, and expresses one of the deepest truths of the gospel: that God really does save the best for last!

The fathers of the Church comment on the miracle of the water into wine and they say it represents the relationship between the old covenant—the Mosaic Law and the precepts that followed it—and the new covenant that is Jesus Christ Himself.

St. John describes the scene at the wedding in Cana, and how there were six stone water jars for ceremonial washings. They represent the old covenant, and how the Jewish people would wash and purify themselves in preparation for the wedding feast.

Jesus comes and changes that water into wine, because He is the new and everlasting covenant. He comes to suffer and die on the cross to obtain for us the forgiveness of sins and new life in the Holy Spirit. His sacrifice cleanses not our hands and bodies, but our souls as well. Jesus, who is that new covenant, cleanses us from sin.

Just as wine is so much more substantial than water, even so is Christ more substantial than the old covenant. He is that new wine, flowing in abundance from the merciful heart of God. He really does save the best for last!

It is significant, though, that Jesus reveals this new covenant at a wedding. There is a deeper dramatic irony being played out here, because the theme of the wedding is one of the richest biblical themes in both the New and Old Testaments. Isaiah the prophet, in our first reading today, talks about the marriage between God and the people of Israel.

The background is that Israel has just returned from exile in Babylon. They return to a land that is desolate, abandoned. Many of them had felt abandoned, and struggled to trust in the promises of God. Did God still want them for His chosen people? Would He join them now that they had finally returned home? God answers those questions through the prophet Isaiah:

No more shall people call you “forsaken,” or your land “desolate,” but you shall be called “my delight,” and your land “espoused.” For the Lord delights in you and makes your land his spouse. As a young man marries a virgin, your builder will marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.
—Isaiah 62:4-5

Of course God has not forgotten them. He will always be their divine Husband, watching over them with care. It is truly beautiful imagery, but could it ever be more than that? Israel could never really be married to God. None of us could ever be joined to God in that way. We are not divine. In order for that to be a true spousal relationship, a real and living marriage, God Himself would have to become human . . .and that is what we just celebrated two weeks ago.

God has become man in the person of Jesus Christ so that we could be wedded to God for all eternity. All throughout the New Testament this spousal imagery is used to describe how we, the Church, are the Bride of Christ, and how we are called to an eternal union with our divine Bridegroom. That’s the goal of the Christian life.

Now, that sounds very theological; it sounds like something beyond us, out of this world and our own everyday experience. In some ways, it certainly is. Yet God gives us signs right here on earth that remind us of that union that we are called to in heaven with Him. One of the clearest signs is celibacy.

Celibacy is not a sign that is welcomed or appreciated in the world and culture we live in. People often ask the question: Why can’t priests be married? They want to know what the value or purpose is for celibacy. Whenever I am asked about that, I mention the practical aspects of celibacy. Celibacy allows the priest or religious to be radically available to serve God and His people.

Priests are sometimes called in the middle of the night to go to the hospital and anoint those who are dying, or to pray with a family that has just lost a loved one. Other times circumstances might warrant the priest or religious to drop everything and take care of some pressing need that simply doesn’t fit into the average daily schedule. As a priest I am “on call” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To be honest, I love that about my life. That is part of what it means to be a priest. And so radical availability is a very practical and relevant aspect of celibacy.

But when Jesus Christ talks about celibacy—and He does talk about celibacy—he doesn’t mention any of the practical aspects at all. When Christ talks about celibacy, He talks about the Kingdom of God; He talks about heaven; He talks about eternal life.

In chapter 19 of St. Matthew’s Gospel, verse 12, Jesus mentions three reasons why some people remain in a celibate state. He says:

Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so.

On account of some defect from birth, there are some who simply are unable to have marital relations. They remain, from birth, celibate. Secondly He says:

Some, because they were made so by others.

Jesus lived in the time of kings, and the king would often have servants whose entire work was to wait on the queen and serve her hand and foot. Naturally, he wanted to make sure that was all they did! Therefore, these servants would be “made” celibate. They called them eunuchs. But finally Jesus says:

Some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.

Celibate men and women are a sign of the Kingdom of God. They are a reminder to us that God’s plan for redemption and to make us His own forever begins here in this world, but that it doesn’t end there. Celibacy is a sign—and right now, in the midst of the world we live in, a very loud and clear sign indeed—of the eternal relationship and the heavenly calling we all share with God.

This week is Vocations Awareness Week, a time when we focus in a particular way on the vocations to the priesthood and to religious life that God has never ceased to bring forth in every age and time in the Church. I would ask you this week to please pray for two things:

Please pray for the men and women of this parish whom God is calling right now to serve Him in the Church as priests or religious. Secondly, please pray in gratitude to God for all of the men and women whom God has given to this parish in great abundance as priests and religious throughout the years. We are blessed at Our Lady of Mercy to have many religious sisters, Brother Roger who leads us in music so faithfully each week, and the numerous priests that have served here in this parish.

Let us thank God for that, because they are signs pointing us to eternal life. They remind us that this world is not all there is. This is not the final chapter of our lives. We have a place in heaven, and a Divine Bridegroom who is waiting for us. Because God has saved the best for last.