I was elsewhere this Sunday and so Mother Anne-Marie was in charge at St. John’s. Here’s her sermon.
When did Christmas begin?
When did it begin, not this last year, which in the shops was probably September, but when did it originally begin?
Well, you might want to say “When Jesus was born of course”. Well perhaps – did they have birthday parties in 1st century Palestine so in Nazareth Mary and Joseph hung up balloons and sent out invites to Jesus’s fifth birthday party and thought of age appropriate games to play, or find a children’s entertainer to invite. I doubt it! As in many societies birthdays were not remembered or celebrated in the way that we place such significance on our birth date. So Christmas didn’t begin on Jesus’s first birthday. Christmas comes quite late in our Christian tradition. It is pre-dated by Epiphany – the celebrations of the manifestations of Christ. Epiphany coming from the Greek word epiphaneia, meaning appearance or showing is much older than Christmas. It began to be celebrated in the Eastern Church in the 3rd century when four manifestations of Christ were commemorated: to the shepherds, to the kings or magi, at His baptism and in His first miracle at Cana.
It is only later that in the church in the West – basically Western Europe, that the first manifestation of Christ – to the Shepherds – became known as Christ Mass and its date was not fixed until 5th century – actually in 440 AD. At that point in the western church Christ Mass became the celebration of the birth and the showing to the Shepherds, and the Feast of the Epiphany became the celebration of the manifestation of Christ to the wise men. The Baptism of Jesus and the first miracle were then commemorated on the two successive Sundays after the Epiphany. We have now made the Epiphany season a bit longer and it stretches to the Presentation of Christ in the Temple or Candlemass on the 2nd February, the official end of the Christmas season in the church. So if commercial Christmas begins in September and Church Christmas ends in February, we could say that Christmas lasts for half a year!
But back to Epiphany. We are still in that season – that extension of the Christmas season. Today is the third Sunday of Epiphany. We still keep the Baptism of Christ on the first Sunday of Epiphany, as was done in the fifth century, but the Wedding at Cana now moves about in the season. Our lectionary – that is the list of readings for each Sunday – is a three year one with Years A, B and C. The Wedding of Cana reading is kept in its traditional place – if we take tradition from the 5th Century – on the 2nd Sunday in Year C, but in Year A it is on the 4th Sunday of Epiphany and in Year B, the year we are in now, it is read on the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany. Don’t ask me why!!
Well there is a kind of explanation. For those of you interested in such things the Church of England Lectionary largely follows the Revised Common Lectionary, which is followed by most Christian churches in the Western tradition – Roman Catholics, Methodists etc. But in Epiphany the Church of England deviates from the revised common lectionary in order to keep all the Manifestations of Christ every year. The Revised Common Lectionary only has the Wedding at Cana once every three years – in year C, when it is in its traditional place on the second Sunday of Epiphany. But in the Church of England it is considered so important to the Epiphany Season that it is kept in every year – even if the Sunday moves about!
I must just put in one aside about the lectionary in the Epiphany season, because there maybe some sharp person in the congregation who has been here every Sunday since Christmas and is thinking, “I don’t remember the Baptism of Christ this year. When was that?” Well you see we kept it on a Monday!! If we always kept feasts on Feast Days, this wouldn’t happen. But this year we followed the increasing practice of keeping feasts on a Sunday, so Epiphany – the wise men bit of it, got transferred from 6th January to Sunday, 8th which pushed out the Baptism of Christ to Monday 9th. Got it? And the same thing can happen to the Wedding at Cana in Year A, when it is on the fourth Sunday of Epiphany. If the Presentation of Christ in the Temple is kept on the nearest Sunday instead of teh 2nd February, the Wedding at Cana reading gets pushed out in Year A.
So after that lesson on the lectionary, let us return to the Manifestations of Christ. Remember that there were originally four of them. Christ showing himself to the Shepherds, then Christ showing himself to the Magi, then showing himself in the Baptism – the voice of God saying “This is my Son, the beloved” and the fourth one, Christ showing himself in his first miracle, the turning of water into wine at the Wedding at Cana. In the first manifestation Christ is revealed to his own people – the shepherds represent the people of Israel. Over the years the shepherds have also come to represent the poor and the outcasts. So Jesus born in poverty in a stable, revealing himself first to the lowliest of the low has become significant. In the second manifestation Christ is revealed to the gentiles, who the Magi represent. God’s message through this manifestation is that Jesus Christ is not just the Jewish Messiah but the saviour for all people. So really this is our bit, unless we are Jewish – the manifestation to the Magi is God showing that Jesus is for us too – the gentiles, those outside of the Jewish faith. In his Baptism Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, the Son of God. No guesswork anymore. God’s voice declares from heaven “This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased” and the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove.
Then comes the fourth manifestation, Christ revealed in his first miracle. But what is being revealed here? It now gets a bit more complex. Is Jesus being revealed as a miracle man. Well it’s a strange miracle to begin with if this is the Jesus of the later miracles, because none of those are of the water into wine variety. They are miracles of healing and deliverance, and raising from the dead. Is it a revelation of the significance of the Eucharist. Some have said this – like the feeding of the five thousand – it does have some Eucharistic connotations – there is wine involved, there is transformation involved and it is shared. There is certainly some connection.
Jesus is being revealed as different and someone who can make a difference. This is someone who can turn water into wine. If he can do this, what else can he do? He is also revealed as someone who does things for people without them necessarily knowing the source. How many people at that wedding knew why there was suddenly such an abundance of excellent wine? The chief steward of the wedding praised the bridegroom for saving the good wine till last – he and the guests had no idea of the origin of this wonderful wine. The servants knew the source of the good wine in abundance, but not the guests, not even the bridegroom. Layer upon layer of meaning. What is being shown to us in this manifestation of the Christ?
Well let us ponder just one aspect. Words of St Augustine:
“He who made the wine that day at the marriage feast does this every year in vines. But we do not wonder at the latter because it happens every year;
it has lost its marvel by its constant occurrence.”
Jesus is revealed as the Christ in his first miracle at Cana in Galilee. Jesus is revealed as having divine powers, being divine, through this miracle. Augustine is saying “isn’t this what God does for us all the time? We are surrounded by miracles.” Vines grow and produce grapes – the vines need the right soil, the right amount of moisture, the right amount of sunshine for the grapes to ripen. Then the grapes are picked and transformed into wine. I remember attending the celebration of the grape harvest in a mountain village in Crete. Part of the celebration is the treading of the grapes. I’ve only been to one of these, so I don’t know whether what happened in this village is what happens in every village, but in this celebration it seemed to be the privilege of the oldest man and oldest woman to tread the grapes. And the sight of their bare feet mushing up the grapes was enough to put you off wine for life! It didn’t in my case – but it could have done! I remind myself that wine isn’t actually made this way anymore but the grapes instead go into clean machines to be crushed. But the miracle is still there – this unprepossessing mush can become the finest wine. Not often in Greece perhaps, but certainly in the vineyards of Burgundy.
Amongst many other things this story reveals a secret about life. Miracles happen. Signs of God at work appear around us all the time. They happen whether we recognise them or not. The good wine in abundance was there for everyone at the wedding – only a few spectators knew how the wine had got there and what its significance was. These miracles of God around us benefit us whether or not we notice them. But imagine being at the wedding. If you were a guest who just thought that was jolly good wine they served at the end, you will simply remember a good “do” when you drank far too much and perhaps regretted it a bit the next day. You experience miracle without knowing it. But if you were one of the servants, who knew you filled the water jars with water, and then this Jesus somehow changed that water into wine, what is the memory you have of that day? Your experience of a divine miracle must live with you for the rest of your life. Does it open for you the possibility of other miracles of other transformations?
To grow in the Christian faith means to become increasingly aware that everything in life is a miracle, a sign pointing to Christ. St. Basil says:
“All the objects in the world are an invitation to faith, not unbelief.”
Perhaps the Cana story has taken on such significance, because it shows us how God views the world – the world is a wedding celebration. Here at Cana Jesus transforms the water of ordinariness into the wine of miracles. And Jesus goes on transforming ordinariness in the world – Cana continues. Everyone benefits from these transformations, though some know the cause of them, and others do not. To share our faith means this: letting others know that signs are abundant, and Christ is the one to whom they point.
Cana continues. It continues not simply at the holy table, where in a short while we will share the Eucharistic feast and bread and wine will be transformed. But also Cana continues when we leave here to encounter Christ active throughout the whole world. Not only here in Church at this Eucharist, but out there in the world as well, he changes the ordinariness that wearies us into the wonder that renews us and makes us glad. So look eagerly, look with intent, as you go about your business in the coming week; and you will find signs of Christ everywhere.
Cana continues. Give us Lord the eyes to see you at work transforming the ordinariness of our lives and of the world into vats that overflow with the very best wine. Amen