Bottom line: Jesus turned the water into wine because he wants us to have every blessing - in abundance.
We will have a second basket for Haiti Earthquake Relief. And of course we are praying for all the victims of the January 12 earthquake, in particular for Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot. We also remember the survivors, especially those who lost loved ones.
This horrific earthquake confronts us anew with the question: How can a loving God allow such horrible suffering? I do not know the answer - much of human suffering comes from the misuse of the freedom God gave us. But also the natural structure of our world - tectonic plates, microbes, storms, etc. - brings suffering. Why God allows all that is beyond the grasp of my mind.
I will say this: Some have posited that the Haitian earthquake came as a consequence of a supposed pact they made with devil at the time of their independence from France. Now, even though we know the devil exists and that humans sometimes enter into commerce with him, we have no historical evidence that Haitians made such a pact. As far as I can determine, it's an urban legend. The story that they erected a iron statue to a pig after the pact and that you can still see it in Port-au-Prince is just that - a story somebody made up. It is sad that someone would repeat these urban legends in face of such terrible human suffering - and use them to claim that he knows why this terrible earthquake happened. Best to remain silent about things we do not know, to pray for those who suffer things we can barely imagine - and to do what we can to assist them. (Danny Glover would have done well to also have taken that prudent approach.)
Now, having said that, here is my homily for this Sunday...Before giving the homily proper, I would like to make a disclaimer: In the early years of my priesthood, I gave up alcohol. I did it for personal and pastoral reasons. In the course of my ministry, here and in Peru, I have seen the evil one use alcohol to enslave people so he can spread misery. And, unfortunately, children suffer most from adult abuse of alcohol. I invite anyone here to consider whether alcohol - or any other mind altering substance - is bringing suffering in its wake. I will do whatever I can to help you by prayer and an appropriate referral.
Now, with that disclaimer I am going to talk this Sunday about a miracle that invovles alcohol. It was his first miracle - and he did it at the request of Mary, his mother. At a wedding banquet, to save a young couple from shame, Jesus turned water into wine. He didn't produce a few liters for a final toast. No, he made an enormous quantity. As the Gospel says: Six stone jars "each holding twenty to thirty gallons." That's a lot of wine - between 120 and 180 gallon. Maybe we could split the difference and say, a hundred and fifty gallons. That could keep St. Mary's parish supplied for several years. Moreover - as the Gospel notes - wine of best quality.
One could say a lot about this miracle, but I would like to emphasize this: the abundance. When Jesus does something, he does it right. He gives overflowing abundance. In a supernatural sense, of course, no one can measure his abundance, as I will bring out shortly. But before talking about the supernatural, I want to speak about the everyday, natural level. Those who follow God's path can expect visible blessings.
A recent best-selling book illustrated the blessings that come to those who believe in God and practice their faith. The author has no stake in promoting a Christian agenda. He is a secular, Jewish man: Dr. Frank Luntz, who has gained fame as an prescient observer of American society. His book ("What Americans Really Want...Really") contains a chapter on religion practice in our country - and the effect of religious practice on the rest of one's life. Based on extensive studies, Dr. Luntz makes this observation:
"In general, people who have God in their lives are happier, healthier and more content compared to nonbelievers and nonpracticioners."
That is quite a statement - "happier, healthier and more content." Luntz gets specific: "They (those who believe in God and practice their faith) are more likely to be happily married and more likely to spend time with their children. They are more likely to do volunteer work and less likely to engage in antisocial activities. They are better adjusted and closer to family and friends."
After enumerating how religious belief and practice correlate with desirable benefits, Dr. Luntz makes this conclusion: "Every type of positive pathology that we believe is good for the human condition has a direct correlation with religious activity."*
So - on an everyday, natural level - following God's path brings blessings. Even though we acknowledge hypocricy and backsliding among religious folk, still - in general - people's lives do get better when they take God seriously.
God, Jesus, wants to give us blessings - not necessarily a million dollars, but those things that make for a happy, joyful life. He wants us to have an abundant life. Jesus turned water into wine to rescue a young couple from embarrassment and to bring gladness to those celebrating their marriage. This does not mean that no trials will come - they will - but Jesus gives the means to get through them.
Now, that is the natural significance of Jesus' first miracle: He desires abundance for those who follow his way.
The miracle also has a deeper, supernatural significance. John carefully notes that the six jars held water used for "Jewish ceremonial washings." Later in this same Gospel, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples - signifying his power to wash away sin. And during that Last Supper, he takes a cup of wine and says, "the cup of my blood...shed for forgiveness of sins."
Both the water and the water-become-wine point to the supernatural gift of forgiveness. Appropriately, Jesus performed this miracle at a wedding feast. No marriage can last without forgiveness. Any couple who has achieved five, ten or more years of marriage can tell you they often needed forgiveness - from God and from each other. Every human relationship requires forgiveness, but especially marriage.
Jesus loves young married couples and gives help in good times and in bad. He wants them to have abundance - both naturally and supernaturally.
Young married couples are vital for the future to our society and our Church. I know that you, like me, are concerned that so many have fallen into cohabitation, that they are not making the commitment to marriage nor are they having their marriages blessed by God. These are huge concerns, both for our society and our Church.
Still, I do see some positive signs: A recent poll brought encouraging news. It compared those born between 1961 and 1981 ("Generation X") with those born after 1981 (the "Millennial Generation"). Sixty-seven percent of those age 29-49 said they agreed with the statement, "marriage is a life-long commitment." Sixty-seven percent is a solid majority, so Generation X has a strong feeling about life-long marriage. But it's even better among the Millenial Generation - those 28 and younger. Eighty-two percent agree that marriage is a life-long commitment.**
It's encouraging that so many young people believe in life-long marriage. But it is one thing to believe - and another to put into practice. A smaller - but significant - number put their belief into practice. In spite of widespread promiscuity, many young people have decided to practice chastity - to wait until marriage. Chastity before marriage is one of the greatest predictors of satisfaction and perseverance in marriage.
I have had young people ask me to bless a purity ring that says, "love waits." That's not an easy commitment, especially today. It requires grace from Jesus. And if a person falls, it takes Jesus' help to return to the right track. Jesus can do that especially through the sacrament of confession. He loves young people - and wants them to have the satisfactions and joys of marriage, in abundance.
Today's Gospel shows Jesus love for married couples. It must have devastated those newly weds to run out of wine at their reception. But Jesus - through the intercession of his Blessed Mother - helps in a time of crisis. He gives an abundance of every blessing that brings joy. Above all, he desires for us the greatest blessing - the forgiveness of sins and the power to forgive one another. As a sign of those blessings, Jesus today turns some hundred and fifty gallons of water into wine. Yes, if we make the effort to follow God's path, he gives every blessing - in abundance.***
*In his final chapter, Dr. Luntz lists "Reestablishing the Respect for Religion in America" as Priority #3. After stating that he does not wish to offend non-religious believers, he gives interesting data on how religious belief and practice affect the way Americans behave:
Religious Americans are much more likely to reject instant-gratification ("Two-thirds [66 percent] of nonreligious Americans agree with the statement, 'If it feels good, do,' despite its selfish, dangerous undertones. By comparison, fully 71 percent of relgious Americans disagree with the concept of instant gratification.")
Relgious Amercians are more likely to prioritize family.
Religious voters vote religiously. (That, we are more likely to vote in every election that nonreligious voters.)
Religious employees are more dedicated to their jobs and more fiscally prudent.
Religious Americans are more satisfied sexually. (I will let you read Luntz' explanation, but it does give a whole new meaning to Jesus' saying, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all good things will be added unto you.")
And when a Luntz' poll asked Americans, what major institutions are most important for America's future, "The Church" ranked second: behind "Schools," but ahead of the "Federal Government," "The Military" and "Business." And way ahead of "The Media," "Police," and "Unions." On the negative side when Americans were asked to list the institutions least important for our country's future, we were only considered more important than "Unions" and "The Media." So a lot of Americans value the Church very highly, but at the same time, a large group thinks we have little worth.
**From a 2009 CARA poll, published in Jan 3, 2010 issue of Our Sunday Visitor.
And according to a Luntz' poll, out of fifteen personal priorities, American people ranked "A Loving Family" at the top, ahead of "Good Health," "Financial Success," and way ahead of "A Long Life," "Opportunities to Travel," and "Fewer Day-to-Day Hassles."
***A final note: Evidently there is something abroad today called the "Prosperity Gospel." I am not sure exactly what it is, but Wikipedia defines it as a "religious belief centered on the notion that God provides material prosperity for those he favors. It implies both that people who are favored by God will be materially successful, and also that materially successful people are successful because God favored them."
I hope the final paragraphs make it clear I am not preaching a "Prosperity Gospel" in the sense that material blessings prove God's favor or that material blessings will automatically result from religious practice. And even when those blessings come, they are not an end in themselves, but point to something greater. Both the water and the water-become-wine point to the new life God desires for us. This new life has an abundance greater than anything this world offers.
For that reason, some Christians have put aside worldly blessings to witness to that greater abundance. For instance, St. Francis: He had fine clothes, delicious food and the means to travel. He travelled with his merchant father to France and came back to Assisi singing the new French love songs. Even though he was baptized "Giovanni" (John) people started calling him "Francesco" - the French one. Francis had everything a young man could want, but one day he gave it all up to wed himself to "Lady Poverty" and thus embrace the cross of Christ - the source of every spiritual blessing.
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