Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Wedding at Cana: They Have No Wine!

The Wedding at Cana- Paolo Veronese (1528-1588)

(Wednesday of the Novena of La Festa di Maria Santissima 2014; This homily was given on 16 July 2014 at St. Mary Church in Cranston, R.I.; See John 2:1-11)

Have you been to any really good weddings lately?  Chances are you have not, at least according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey.  According to that survey, Rhode Island was third from the bottom in the entire country on the percentage of married couples.  We are the most Catholic state in the nation, per capita, and yet we rank 48 out of the 50 states when it comes to people choosing to marry.  That is not a very encouraging statistic, and while the situation seems somewhat dire, we can come back to that.

For now let us look at our Gospel for tonight’s Novena Mass, The Wedding Feast at Cana.  Now there was a situation that was dire!  This young couple had gathered all their family and friends to celebrate their union together.  They even had Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the first Christian disciples.  Quite a “who’s who” for tying the knot!  But suddenly the entire event is about to take a turn for the worse when the wine starts running low.  Imagine a great Italian wedding when the wine runs out.  Quando il vino é finito, la festa é finita!  When the wine runs out the feast is over! 

Weddings in Palestine at the time of Christ would usually take place over the course of several days; they were a major cultural event.  Without any more wine it would have ended in a disaster, and yet almost no one noticed that impending crisis… except the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Our Blessed Mother, Maria Santissima della Civita, always notices us and intercedes for our needs.  Whatever our circumstances here tonight or whatever the needs are that concern us, Mary sees us; the Blessed Mother brings our needs to Christ.

They have no wine.
—John 2:3

Our Lady brings the needs of that newly married couple to the attention of Jesus and, as we well know, He changes the water into wine.  Christ reveals Himself in this, His first miracle, the first sign announcing that He is the Messiah, the Christ of God.  St. John tells us that here, “his disciples began to believe in him” (John 2:11).  What had started out as a dire situation becomes, with the intercession of Our Lady, a tremendous outpouring of Divine grace. 

But St. John the Evangelist is communicating so much more than even the miraculous power of Christ.  He tells us that the water was originally contained in six stone jars that were used “for Jewish ceremonial washings” (John 2:6).   These ceremonial jars are reminiscent of the old covenant, the way of relating with God established by the Mosaic Law.  Central to that law was the sacrificial dispensation, the offering up of bulls, goats and lambs in atonement for sins and in thanksgiving to the God who saves.  The sacrifices offered up by the priest were central to the way the people related to God.

Jesus Christ comes to establish an entirely New Covenant, written not in the Mosaic Law and in the blood of bulls and lambs but established on the altar of the cross and written in His own blood, shed for love of us.  Christ changes the water into wine, revealing that as wine is so much more substantial than water, even so the New Covenant is the super substantial and eternal covenant in which we have become united to the living God.  Now that is a miracle to behold!

Christ will pour out His love for us from the cross, offering His body and His precious blood for the forgiveness of our sins and to establish an eternal covenant with God.  On the night before He dies He institutes the sacrament of this self-offering in the Eucharist, the bread and wine that becomes the Body and the Blood of Christ.  In all of the Sacraments of the Church, Christ will give new life, new vitality, new hope.  This is the water changed into wine and distributed to the Church down through the centuries! 

But how sad, that in our time and in the culture we live in, there is a turning away from the Sacraments of the Church.  God’s people no longer come as frequently to His feast to partake of the wine that is life in Jesus Christ.
  • Rhode Island is third from the last in percentage of marriages celebrated in the United States.  What a dire situation, that in the most Catholic state in the country the most foundational relationship and union for the transmission of the Gospel is found wanting.
  • Holy Orders finds a parallel to Marriage in this same regard.  This year the Diocese of Providence has not ordained a single man to the priesthood.  Now, to be clear, we have 21 outstanding men studying for the priesthood of Jesus Christ for the Diocese of Providence.  These men, in a few short years, will be doing great priestly ministry in our parishes.  We are doing better than many dioceses and we thank God for each one of these fine men. Yet without a single ordination in the year 2014, the Lord would call our attention to the need for prayer and sacrifice so that those whom God is calling to the priesthood even now will have the grace and the courage to say, “Yes.”
  • The Eucharist.  Fewer Catholics are seeking the Lord in the Sacrament of the Eucharist on Sundays.  Mass attendance is down in many places as the radical secularization of our culture continues to have a profound effect on the religious fervor and priorities of those who consider themselves to be Catholic.
  • The Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Every priest will tell you how remarkably beautiful it is to bring God’s forgiveness to those who seek Him.  Yet every priest could also tell you of how many times he has sat alone in the confessional reading or praying the rosary, waiting for souls to come to God for that forgiveness.  So few practicing Catholics today acknowledge the need even to receive forgiveness for grave sins, so few seek out that absolution, that restoration of new life for the soul. 

These are signs of our culture’s radical secularization, a world in which people find themselves bored with the things of God, the very things which should be sustaining them and giving them new life.  They seek it elsewhere, in television and on the internet, in distractions of a thousand different kinds, and yet they find themselves dissatisfied, disappointed and unfulfilled.

They have no wine!

However dire the situation might seem from a faith perspective, we can count on the Blessed Virgin Mary to notice our needs, and in her love for us she brings those needs to Christ.  They have no wine, Jesus!  They have no vitality!  They do not have what they need most of all, because, Jesus, my Son, they do not have you!

Friends in Christ, if we do not find vitality in the Body and the Blood of Christ then we will not find vitality at all!  If we do not find love and new life in the Sacrament of Matrimony then we will not find love and new life at all!  If we do not find satisfaction and hope in the Sacrament of Reconciliation with God then we simply will not find satisfaction and hope at all! 

We need God.  We need Jesus Christ.  We need more wine!  The Blessed Virgin Mary knows what we need, and she calls out to us especially now to turn once again to Jesus Christ so that we can receive it.

If you have ever been to the Louvre in Paris, France then you probably know that one of the most popular pieces in that museum is the Mona Lisa.  Painted in the early Sixteenth Century by Leonardo da Vinci, it is one of the most famous works of art in the world.  It is also one of the smallest.  People that neither know nor care for art in general will flock to that little painting because our culture has told them, “If you go to the Louvre, then you’ve got to see the Mona Lisa.”  They will stand in that enormous room, shoulder-to-shoulder, just to snap a picture of that painting with their smartphone.   

Yet if you are standing in the midst of that crowd of people, looking at the Mona Lisa, and suddenly turn 180° you will find, covering the entire length of the back wall of that room, the largest painting in the Louvre.  It is an enormous Sixteenth Century piece, called "The Wedding at Cana" by Paolo Veronese.  It is breathtaking in size, beauty and in its detailed depiction of that miracle we listened to in our Gospel this evening.  Unfortunately, few people in that museum turn around from the Mona Lisa to look at it.

Our Lady calls out to us today, like she does in every age, to turn around.  She intercedes for us so that we might turn away from the things that distract us and keep us from fulfillment, and turn towards the Sacraments and the source of vitality that comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  May we drink deeply of that wine and truly experience that abundant life flowing from the cross on Calvary and leading us headlong into the Kingdom of God. 

Sunday, July 06, 2014

God Comes to Us

Sunrise on the Sea of Galilee

(14th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 6 July 2014 at St. Timothy Church in Warwick, R.I. and at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Cumberland, R.I.; See Zechariah 9: 9-10 and Matthew 11:25-30)

There is a specific, fundamental dimension of our Christian faith that separates us from nearly all other major world religions.  We see it clearly in our first reading this morning from the Old Testament, and certainly in the Gospel for this weekend, as well.  Negatively speaking, we do not believe that our faith is primarily a search for God or a quest to live as well as possible on this earth in preparation for heaven.  We are not, in fact, striving to make progress in this life as we move towards God, who waits somewhere in heaven to meet us in the end. 

No, what we believe is precisely the opposite.  What we believe instead, and what makes our religion and our faith distinct, is that God comes to us. 

God, who knows that we could never ultimately find Him and make our way to Him by ourselves, instead comes to us in great mercy, with remarkable gentleness and breathtaking humility. God reveals Himself, makes Himself known.  In our deepest need, our loneliest moments and in those many experiences when we are never quite expecting it, God comes near and seeks us out.  He finds us, and begins to guide us home.

In the first reading this weekend we listen to the words of the prophet Zechariah.  Zechariah is writing to the people of Israel just after the Babylonian exile.  Our reading takes place after one of the darkest moments in their nation’s history.  They had flagged in their commitment to the covenant of God; they were no longer faithful to the covenant relationship that God had made with them.  He had sent to them prophet after prophet, urging them to return to fidelity and to faith.  When they refused to listen He allowed them to be carried off captive to the Land of Babylon.

They had lost everything.  The City of Jerusalem was in ruins and the Temple was destroyed.  The Promised Land, where they had forged a new life with God and had made a new beginning, had become nothing more than a memory.  They resided in Babylon for years and many of them had died there.  Finally they are returning home and perhaps wondering how they will find God or even if such a possibility exists for them.  They had failed Him; perhaps they felt as if God would now abandon them forever. 

Suddenly the prophet Zechariah, at the outset of the restoration of the city, announces:

Thus says the Lord: Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion, shout for joy, O Daughter Jerusalem!  See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.
—Zechariah 9:9

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in their writing of the Gospels, will rightly see a direct connection here with the entrance of Jesus Christ as the Messiah entering the City of Jerusalem just before His passion.  God comes to us.  In our darkest hour and our deepest need, He comes to us.  In great gentleness and deep humility, He comes into our lives and creates a new beginning and a restoration of hope.

Such is the case in the Gospel of St. Matthew this morning.  Jesus finds a people worn, weary and heavily burdened.  Who among us could not identify with that!  He sees a people struggling to practice their faith and overwhelmed with the challenges of life.  He does not wait for them to figure everything out and make their way to Him.  No, He walks directly into their lives—literally God stands in their midst—and beckons:  Come to me!

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.  For my yoke is easy and my burden light.
—Matthew 11: 28-30

God does not have the time for us to figure everything out and make our way to Him.  He comes directly into our lives, with gentleness and humility, and creates a new beginning for us.  He joins Himself to us with great love and teaches us how to walk with Him in this life and journey with Him to eternal life. 

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me . . . A yoke is a farm instrument—in Jesus’ time it was made out of wood—which usually joined together two oxen and allowed them to work in tandem as they plowed a field and worked the land.  Jesus is inviting us to walk with Him, to learn from Him, to discover Him anew in our lives.  He alone can give us rest, meaning and purpose.

This is the great lesson we find in the lives of all the saints.   St. Peter and St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, and countless others; they all came to the end of themselves and discovered that without Christ they could do nothing.  Every one of the saints had to declare spiritual bankruptcy before God and acknowledge that they were in desperate need of a savior.  They all took Christ up on His offer, took the Savior seriously and joined themselves to Him.  Will we?

Because we are all—every single one of us—called to be saints.  We are all called to holiness of life and eternal bliss with Christ.  And no matter how far we may feel from Him or how weary we become with the challenges and difficulties of daily life, there is always hope of that reality.  No matter how lost we may feel at any time in our lives, we can count on this: He will find us.  He will come to us.  He will invite us to be joined more intimately to Himself.

Jesus Christ comes to us here, now.  Whenever the Gospel is proclaimed, it is Christ who speaks to us.  Whenever we gather together for the Eucharist, it is Christ who make Himself present in His body and His blood.  He comes to us this morning, in great gentleness and breathtaking humility, in the humblest manner under the auspices of bread and wine that will become our God, present: body and blood, soul and divinity.

He comes to us today and invites us to Himself:

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.  For my yoke is easy and my burden light.
—Matthew 11: 28-30