The Revd Brutus Green
Humans, in general, like to present well. We invest in expensive personal grooming, wear bright colours and finely cut garments, go on diets and to gyms after Christmas excesses. On meeting people we often try to be funny, or clever, or sophisticated, or generous, or some George Clooney-like combination. We might not be good at it but we attempt to give other people the impression that we are someone they should look up to, or at least across at. But why is this? Vanity? Insecurity? Some personal “dress for success” motto?
A friend of mine told me this week that he only buys books when he likes the cover. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” I joked; he correctly replied though that actually, targeted advertising what it is, you’re much more likely these days to get what you want if you go by the cover. Is that superficial? Perhaps but sometimes you don’t actually want to wrestle with Jackson Pollock and Jack Vettriano will do.
John’s Gospel is the Gospel with depth. Mark rushes along with its high-speed narrative, Matthew and Luke collect up all the sayings and stories they can collage together, but John’s is a thoughtful, structured narrative written with direction and purpose, and a high level use of symbolism. There are certain things missing from the Gospel though - quite shocking things. For a start you’ll notice in today’s Gospel that the mother of Jesus isn’t named. She is not Mary, she is just the mother of Jesus. In fact she is never named in the whole Gospel. More shocking is the total absence of sacraments. Jesus doesn’t get baptized and his discussion of it is cryptically encoded in his talk of being ‘born again’. And then there is no last supper. No ‘this is my body’ or ‘do this in remembrance of me’. Instead John moves the crucifixion itself to the Passover, when the other Gospels put the last supper, making literal the symbolic words of the other Gospels at his final meal.
But this is no mistake, not a contradiction or alternative tradition. It is quite deliberate. It is unthinkable that John did not know the name of Mary, or that he did not himself take part in the eucharistic liturgy, which the letters of Paul make clear immediately became the focal point of Christian fellowship. Early Christian worship was controversially a private affair and John, it seems, takes pains not to reveal any Christian practices, perhaps to prevent them being falsely used as magical rites outside of Christian circles.
Instead then we get, bubbling below the surface, these many references to the sacraments: “I am the bread of life”; “I am the true vine”, the washing of the disciples’ feet, the feeding of the multitude and this turning of water into wine at this wedding. Note, then, the six stone jars for the Jewish rite - the Christian rite supersedes and completes the old rite. Six is an imperfect number, not quite seven; and the ordinariness of water is transformed into the riches of wine, or as Crashaw put it, “the modest water saw its God and blushed.” And the wine of the feast is transformed - ‘everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ There is a new plenitude now that does not run out and a new joy - like discovering a bottle of champagne at a party where everyone has brought Lambrini.
There is an old Jewish expression, “without wine there is no joy”, and John conveys the feeling that the Jews relationship with God has run out of juice, has run dry. That it has been incomplete to this point, insufficient and unfulfilling - a party without wine, though we should perhaps not be too carried away with this thought. I am reminded of the pivotal scene in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited when Cara differentiates between how Charles drinks and how Sebastian drinks. Charles drinks for joy, but Sebastian drinks to escape: ‘a respite from his everyday life or an entry into an alternative, happier world.’ On the surface they are two men enjoying their youth, but beneath there is complexity - in the one case joyous exuberance, in the other fear and depression.
And all people are like this - on the surface usually amiable, well presented, charming - we like to believe. But beneath the surface lurks the complexity - a deep, ambivalent mixture of motivations, insecurities, fear and desire. Perhaps we find in vino veritas, but here the vino is the veritas, the wine is the truth.
Because beneath this story of water turned into wine, is John’s experience of the eucharist as the transforming power of God. Not so much water into wine as wine into blood. But more importantly finding in this transformation the miracle of God’s presence, in Jesus, in the miraculous wine. And while we often present better than we are, our surface beats our depth, the good wine is the later wine, depth with God makes for a better, a more refined vintage. In simple terms, the more time we can spend with God, the greater our joy. And why is this? Because to get depth with God is to get acceptance of ourselves for all our crooked souls. Augustine writes in his fancy way that God is closer to ourselves than we are, that if we follow God we will find peace with ourselves - ‘our hearts are restless unless they rest in thee’. This naturally implies that our fears and insecurities actually take us out of ourselves. In our panic we deceive others and ourselves and think and act as people that we’re really not, finding ourselves then at the mercy of guilt and our own false sense of judgement.
Most of the time these fears and insecurities are related to the pursuits of superficial things, because beneath every superficial thing there is a whole host of darker complexity. To return to an earlier analogy, for every nice coffee shop Vettriano painting of ladies and butlers with umbrellas at the beach, you’ll find adisturbing Vettriano S&M painting with all the lust and violence you could wish for.
St Augustine writes that ‘This miracle of our Lord’s turning the water into wine, is no miracle to those who know the God who worked it. For the same that day made wine in the waterpots, who every year makes wine in the vine: only the latter is no longer wonderful, because it happens uniformly. And therefore it is that God keeps some extraordinary acts in store for certain occasions, to rouse men out of their lethargy, and make them worship Him.’ To paraphrase we might say that every sip of wine is a little miracle. And this is the point because at a deeper level this miracle is really about the eucharist - the ordinary occurrence of bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ. And as the wine made blood goes deeper into us the presence of God challenges us with the transformation of ourselves. As the lively effect of alcohol whispers to us of joy, so God calls us to lives that our reconciled with ourselves and others. He calls us to look at the very depths of our crooked lives to see ourselves for who we are and, freeing ourselves of fear and insecurity, to discover peace. This is the ordinary miracle of the eucharist hidden beneath the surface of John’s Gospel, but incarnate in the souls of all God’s creatures. It is the love of God waiting for us beneath our fine clothes, chiseled or hidden abs and occasional charm. George Herbert describes it perfectly in his poem, ‘Love’:
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes but I?'
'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.