Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

Water and Wine: The Wedding at Cana as a Symbol for Repentance

In the readings for this week – the Second Sunday in Ordinary Times – one overarching theme is that of repentance. In the first reading – taken from Isaiah 62 – the prophet Isiah begins by saying,

 

For Zion’s sake I shall not remain silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I shall not remain quiet, until her vindication shines forth like the dawn and her victory like a burning torch. Nations shall behold your vindication, and all the kings your glory… (Isaiah 62:1-2)

 

This makes sense if we look at it in light of the previous chapter. The prophets often responded to periods of social and political corruption, decline in religious devotion, and other similar ills plaguing Ancient Israelite society. They saw the plights afflicting the People of Israel as a sign of God’s punishment. Yet contained within these fire-and-brimstone messages was the proclamation that God’s covenant with His people is never negated. Our fall into sin has everything to do with us turning away from or abandoning God, and nothing to do with God abandoning or turning away from us. In the previous chapter – chapter sixty-one – the Prophet Isaiah writes that he has been”anointed” by the Lord and that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon him,” that he may “bring good news to the afflicted…bind up the brokenhearted…proclaim liberty to captives, [and] release to prisoners.” (Isiah 61:1) The Prophet Isaiah asserts that God has sent him to “announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God,” which will serve to “comfort all who mourn; to place on those who mourn in Zion a diadem instead of ashes, to give them the oil of gladness instead of mourning.” (Isaiah 61:2-3)

 

God’s judgment is real, but so is his mercy. The prophet Isaiah is thus proclaiming that if Israel repents of their sin, God will liberate them from all the forces that weakened or threatened to destroy them as a nation and end their suffering. How does this apply to us Catholics today? For those who repent of their sins – which necessarily includes recognizing the depravity of our sin and feeling sorrow for it – God will liberate us from the spiritual bondage of sin and the sorrow that results from it. By “sorrow” one can understand the negative effects of our sin, which the grace of God empowers us to overcome, or sorrow for our sins, which, since it leads to repentance and the acceptance of God’s mercy, gives way to joy.

Chapter 62 continues on with this theme. Isaiah will not be silenced: he will continue to proclaim the message that God has bestowed onto him – a message of repentance, a message that Israel’s relationship with God is not as it ought to be, and therefore they need to be converted – because it is only by this that Israel’s relationship with God can be restored. When Israel’s relationship with God is renewed, all the forces of evil that once oppressed the people of Israel will be defeated. It is for this reason that the day of Israel’s repentance is called “a day of vindication.” It is a sign of God’s victory over the forces of sin and evil playing out in us. As it was in Israel’s repentance, so too it will be with our relationship with God.

 

Therefore, the Prophet Isaiah continues by saying, “No more shall people call you ‘Forsaken,’ or your land ‘Desolate,’ but you shall be called ‘My Delight,’ and your land ‘Espoused.'” (Isaiah 62:4). When people are in a state of sin, they are spiritually forsaken, for they lack the grace of God and God’s presence in their lives, which they have rejected through their sin. They are thus spiritually desolate – they are incapable of bringing forth the spiritual fruit necessary for salvation, and even bring forth bad spiritual fruit. Yet, by repentance, we are united to God. And whereas prior to this point, we, due to our sin, and the separation from God and the spiritual fruitlessness that results, we are hateful to God, despicable in His, by His grace and our repentance we are purified of our sin and thus become a delight to the All-Good God.

 

The reason why the act of turning from our sin makes us pleasing to God is because it is by our repentance we chose to accept the grace of God, which elevates us out of our sin. The overcoming of our sin is thus the result of God’s grace at work within us. Considering that those in a state of sin are enslaved to sin, even the act of repentance is itself the result of God’s grace at work within us. It is for this reason that the Prophet Isaiah says, “…you shall be called by a new name pronounced by the mouth of the Lord.” (Isaiah 62:2). Prior to our conversion, the human condition is marked or defined by sin. After our conversion, we are elevated out of our sin and our existence then begins to become defined by our union with God. This change comes about because it is pronounced by the Lord. It is for this reason that the Prophet Isaiah goes on to say that the vindication of Israel is a vindication by or from God. Man doesn’t vindicate himself; He must be vindicated by God. Our vindication is the result of God’s act of elevating us our of our sin.

 

We see this alluded to briefly in the reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 12, St. Paul is responding to divisions in the Church in Corinth caused by spiritual gifts. Some people believed that having certain spiritual gifts made them somehow better than people with other spiritual gifts or with no spiritual gifts. St. Paul asserts that ALL spiritual gifts share a common origin, namely God, and this common origin implies something about the nature of spiritual gifts, namely that no one spiritual gift is superior to any other. Further, if God grants you a particular spiritual gift, it is not for the sake of feeding your ego, but rather is meant for the building up of the Church. St. Paul explicitly asserts this in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, as well as in chapter 13 verse 4, as well as in chapter 14 verse 12. This is the overarching theme of chapter 12, which St. Paul unpacks the implications of in verses 13-14.

 

But, let us look at how St. Paul describes these gifts with regard to their source. He says in verse 6, “…there are different workings but the same God Who produces them in everyone.” (1 Corinthians 12:6) God is the one Who produces or brings about spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts were seen as a sign that one had been filled with the Holy Spirit, and thus was a sign of true or authentic conversion. Thus, even though we have free will, the act of us turning to God and the act of God working within us were seen as closely related.

 

This, I believe, is one of the meanings of the story of the Wedding of Cana. The Gospel reading for this past week is taken from the account of the story of the Wedding of Cana mentioned in John chapter 2. According to the text, the wine that was customarily served during weddings was depleted. Something that should be there was absent. This seems to parallel the traditional view of evil put forward by many Christians, namely, evil as the absence or corruption of the good. This privation leads to another loss or privation, namely the loss or privation of grace.

 

Further, note how the text says in verses six and seven that Jesus had the waiters fill some jars with water. The jars, the text says, were jars that were traditionally used for Jewish ritual washings. This seems to indicate, on a symbolic level, how the grace which saves purifies us of our sin. But, the core of the message is seen in the miracle itself: Jesus turns the water into wine, and, as verse 10 says, the headwaiter notes how this wine was better than the wine that had previously been served.

 

What we see in this story is God takes what already existed, and turned it into something that it had previously not been, and something superior at that. This is what it means for God to vindicate us, and for God to be vindicated in us. When we are united to Christ by grace, all that man is and all that man has is elevated and radically transformed by Christ. This is one way of thinking about salvation particularly seen among Eastern Christians: salvation is a matter of God, by grace, restoring the image and likeness within us which was warped by sin. And this is what theosis or deification is: by grace we become partakers in the things of God, particularly His immortality and incorruptibility, things which we partake in only through grace and which we loose through sin. [2]

 

This line of reasoning is also reflected in the view held by some Eastern Church Fathers on the relationship between human merit and God’s grace. Fr. Khaled Anatolios, a scholar of theology and Catholic priest of the Byzantine rite, noted that much scholarship on the thought of St. Athanasius has noted an underlying tension in Athanasius’ thought – namely, the tension between the notion of salvation as a result of human moral striving and the notion of salvation as a participation in some higher, transcendent reality, namely the grace of God. Some scholars have implied that Athanasius is, in a subtle manner, drawing a distinction between these two views and, as an orthodox Christian, rejecting the former and endorsing the former. Fr. Anatolios, on the other hand, rejects this view, asserting that Athanasius’s thought is purposefully paradoxical. As Anatolios wrote: “Nowhere in fact does Athanasius differentiate what is by ‘grace and participation’ from what is by will and merit. … Athanasius seemed to take it for granted that our exaltation by grace and participation was also ‘in consequence of virtue’ and through moral progress.” [3]

 

As Fr. Anatolios points out, in his Festal Letters, St. Athanasius says that humans, as moral agents, have the responsibility to properly respond to God’s grace – which takes the form of accepting God’s grace, feeling a sense of thankfulness towards God for His grace, and acting accordingly. Yet, our response to God’s grace is itself the result of God’s grace at work within us. [4] Athanasius says something similar in his The Life of Antony, in which he describes the life of St. Antony the Great. In this text, he says that Antony’s moral striving was successful only because he had Christ as a coworker. Salvation is thus the result of syngergia, a Greek term that roughly translates as the coworking or cooperation of God and man. Man’s moral efforts are meritorious or salutary only because Christ attaches His activity to our moral efforts, thereby elevating and transforming them. [5] We see something vaguely paralleling this in the Thomistic concept of infused virtue, that is, the notion that there is a certain level of virtue necessary to living a life worthy of salvation which is possible only because God infuses into the soul the capacity to do this.

 

 

What Athanasius points towards is what seems to be said in a symbolic manner in the story of the Wedding of Cana: those who are striving towards salvation are the water turned to wine. Christ, when He attaches His salvific activity to our moral striving, transforms it into something radically different, something pleasing to God and meritorious of salvation. It is by thus that we are vindicated by God, in that it is in this God is also vindicated in us, for our growth in virtue, our growth towards salvation, is the playing out of God’s larger plan of salvation.

 

 

Sources:

  1. To read this weeks readings, visit this link: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/012019.cfm
  2. Fr. Georges Florovsky, “St. Gregory of Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers,” in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, vol. 1. Accessed on: http://orthodoxinfo.com/phronema/florov_palamas.aspx
  3. Fr. Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought (London: Routledge, 1998), pg. 173
  4. ibid., pg. 173-177
  5. ibid., pg. 177-186

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