Sermon: The Love of the Bridegroom
“This day we keep a holiday in honour of three wonders, this day a star led the wise men to the manger; this day at the marriage, water was made wine; this day was Christ, for our salvation, pleased to be baptized of John in Jordan. Alleluia.”
Two weeks ago, on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, the Church rejoiced to sing this antiphon at Vespers, the official evening prayer of the Church. We associate the Epiphany with the three wise men and the star they follow, but in fact all of these three events are epiphanies. We think of an “epiphany” as a great idea that comes to your mind all of a sudden, but the original meaning of the word is a “manifestation.”
In celebrating the Epiphany, we celebrated the manifestation of Christ to the nations. That celebration continued for an eight-day octave, and was completed last week when we celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Even though today the Church has returned to the green vestments of “Ordinary Time” and the festive decorations are gone from the church, we continue basking in the glow of Christ’s manifestation to the world.
That manifestation is completed today as we recall Christ’s first miracle and the beginning of His public ministry. It’s no accident that this new beginning takes place during a wedding celebration. A wedding, after all, is a new beginning. In fact, this wedding could be seen as one of three great marriage celebrations that happen in the history of salvation as told by the Sacred Scriptures.
The Bible begins with a marriage, that of Adam and Eve, a marriage that in its beginning is perfect, holy, and complete. Unfortunately, Adam and Eve fell into sin and the harmony of their marriage was broken by the consequences of that sin. Instead of the mutual pursuit of holiness, Eve leads Adam into sin and they begin pointing fingers at each other when confronted by God.
God is not content to leave the human race in brokenness, though, and after preparing His chosen people to receive their Savior, He comes as a bridegroom seeking His bride, as Isaiah the prophet tells us: “As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.”
The third great marriage scene will come at the very end, the marriage feast of the Lamb and His bride, the new Jerusalem, the Church, celebrated perpetually in Heaven.
Christ is obviously not getting married at the wedding today, but St. John still presents Him as the Bridegroom. He provides the wine for the celebration, the duty of the groom, just as, interestingly, it remains in many cultures the responsibility of the family of the groom to provide the “refreshments” for a wedding celebration.
If you’ve ever picked up the bar tab for a wedding reception, you know it can be a significant commitment. But I bet no one here has had to pay for 180 gallons of very good wine – that’s about 75 cases or 900 bottles. For common wine usually served by caterers at big parties, that would run you at least $9,000 plus tax and gratuity. For good wine, the kind of wine that would actually impress the headwaiter, we’re looking at $50k worth of wine.
So what is the point of all this very expensive wine? For obvious reasons, in the Scriptures, wine is a symbol of joy. The psalmist says that the Lord brings forth “wine to gladden the hearts of men” (Ps 104:15). The celebration provided by the bridegroom shows the world the joy that he takes in his bride. A man who marries a woman reluctantly, perhaps begrudgingly accepting the wishes of his family who have arranged a suitable marriage-as-business-deal (as was common in the ancient world), does not spend $50k on the wine for his marriage feast. Only the spouse who is overcome with joy at marrying the best woman in the world, a woman far better than he rightly deserves, foolishly lavishes expensive wine upon his already inebriated guests.
Clearly, St. John does not intend to present the Lord of Lords as a foolish but endearing young man who has had a bit too much to drink on his wedding night. The point is much more profound – Christ is the bridegroom who delights in His bride. And His bride is the Church, which is to say, all of us.
Now this actually seems far more crazy still. Whether we think of the Church as an institution, or whether we honestly look at each of our own lives, we don’t see the sort of bride that Christ should be crazy about. We see scandals, we see the failures and infidelity of the clergy, we see the breakup of marriages and families, we see our own sins and those of our brothers and sisters.
And yet, this is the Bride that Christ is crazy for, not just for what She appears to be, but for what She is called to be and can be, Her real and deeper identity. He loves His Bride so much that He desires to purify Her and restore the splendor of holiness that She was made for.
The jars that Christ filled with wine were, St. John tells us, “for Jewish ceremonial washings.” They were made of stone, rather than the normal jars of clay. To make a jar out of stone that can hold 20 to 30 gallons is a difficult and expensive process. But because stone, unlike clay, is an impenetrable surface, Jewish law held that a stone jar whose contents had become impure could be cleansed and used again. Clay jars, though, once they had held something impure, had to be broken and discarded.
Wine gives joy to the heart, which means that the ultimate destination of the wine that Christ makes is not just the human stomach, but the heart, the inner core of the person. This wine, this joy, is poured, then, not into vessels that once made impure can only be broken up and discarded, but rather into vessels that are capable of being made pure once more.
If we do not appear to be the sort of bride Christ ought to be crazy about, then the good news offered to us by Christ today is that we are stone jars, not clay. We can be purified and made ready to receive the new wine of joy once again. This happens in the Sacrament of Baptism, where sinners receive rebirth and new life; in the Sacrament of Confession, where those sins we have committed since our baptism can be forgiven and the divine physician can heal our wounds; and in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, where that healing continues and is strengthened and we can begin to thrive once again.
Let’s go back, though, to the fact that this all takes place at a wedding. Christ doesn’t just use marriage as a convenient or coincidental setting. Marriage is the place where He wants to manifest His glory. Throughout salvation history, marriage is God’s chosen means to communicate life and grace to the people He loves.
We need to recognize that for many people, though, that can be hard to hear. It could be because their own experience of marriage – your own marriage, your parents’, other marriages you witnessed around you – were the furthest thing from a manifestation of God’s glory. Marriage, for many people, can mean pain and suffering, to put it lightly.
Or, marriage can mean fear – fear of what I might be getting myself into, fear of the pressure to get married from my family, or fear and disappointment that I’ll never find the person I’m supposed to marry.
Or, marriage might have at one point in your life been that manifestation of God’s glory, but now it’s just drudgery, putting up with the same person complaining about the same thing, nagging about the same chores, or making the same mistakes they’ve been making for 50 years.
Christ wants to heal and purify all of that too. If marriage reminds you of pain and hurt that you carry in your heart, he wants to fill your heart with the new abundant wine of His love and joy. He wants the chance to love you in the way that you have always longed to be loved.
If marriage is a place of brokenness for you, Christ wants you to know that He is not afraid of that brokenness. When Christ chose marriage to explain His love for all of us, He knew that people’s experience of marriage was broken. But He came to enter that brokenness and transform it.
The prophet Isaiah told the Israelites that “the Lord delights in you and makes your land his spouse” only after severe rebukes for the Israelites’ wanton abandonment of the Lord and His law. The Lord knows that He has picked an imperfect bride in Israel, but He still delights in in her.
If marriage provokes fear and anxiety in your heart, Christ wants you to know that you are a part of the Bride in whom He takes incredible joy and delight. He will not leave you alone or afraid if you invite Him to be a deeper part of your life and a deeper part of all the loves of your heart.
And if marriage has come to mean the drudgery and boredom of everyday life, He wants you to see that He saved the best wine for last. At every stage in marriage there is something new and beautiful to discover, but you will only find it if your marriage is founded on Him and continues to draw new life in Him. You won’t “reignite the spark” from just the right romantic date or getaway, but rather from getting down on your knees together and asking God to renew and continue to bless the love that He placed in your hearts years ago.
Whoever you are and whatever your circumstances, Christ wants to fill you with the new wine of joy today. That joy will come from the stone jars of purification. It is when our hearts have been purified by the fire of God’s love, a fire that burns away imperfections and anything that could impede the fulfillment of His love, that the new wine of joy can fill our hearts and our understanding of marriage can be purified, healed, and redeemed in Christ. No brokenness is too deep to be penetrated by His healing love and joy.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
II Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXII
Image: Juan de Flandes. The Marriage Feast at Cana, ca. 1500-1504. Source: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436801