St Stephenís Lewisham

18th January 2004

Miracles Manifested

 

On the Sundays after Epiphany the Readings draw our attention to the miracles which Jesus performed in order to help people recognize who he was (and still is!) Ė God-made-Man. By these miracles Ė or signs as St John calls them Ė Jesus was epiphanizing (or "manifesting") his glory. "Manifesting" means "uncovering something hidden", "taking the wrappings off a parcel" or "unlocking a treasure- box".

Understanding Jesusí miracles is vital to understanding Jesus himself: so Epiphany-tide is a good time to think about them. Like anything else, the trouble we take in thinking about miracles will be repaid many times over.

St John in his gospel prefers the word "Sign" rather than "Miracle" to denote what Jesus did when he cured people or, in todayís instance, turned water into wine.

The everyday signs we see are there to direct people away from the sign itself and towards the thing it is signifying or sign-ifying. Whether itís a road-sign at a junction pointing us towards Lewisham or Bromley, or a street-sign informing us where the nearest public convenience may be found, the purpose of that sign would be frustrated if pedestrians or drivers stopped in front of it and went on gazing at it without following the direction it is pointing.

The signs of Jesus are no exception. They point away from themselves and towards the truth God wants us to discover, and itís only those people who are sufficiently alert to notice the sign, and take the trouble to follow itís leading, who discover the truth towards which it is pointing.

Thatís what happened at Cana. The only people who understood what the sign meant were Jesus himself, his Mother, the Apostles and the servants. The steward, the bridegroom and the guests only noticed the sudden improvement in the quality of wine.

Thatís true about much of what God does for us as individuals. For instance, if we take our Baptism and Confirmation seriously, our friends and family may indeed realize that a change has happened in us; but what they see is as nothing compared to the difference we are aware of in ourselves.

Baptism and Confirmation doesnít from then onwards make our life plain sailing and solved all our problems at a stroke. Far from it! The Bump happens sooner rather than later. But they do signify for us the start of a new sense of direction and, most importantly, the beginning of a new relationship between ourselves and the God-in-Trinity whom we worship.

So thatís one thing the Sign of Water-and-Wine is pointing towards. If, like the servants at Cana we do as Jesus tells us, we shall discover something better: the Sign of Baptism and Confirmation will lead us towards finding a Significance about ourselves that we never imagined possible till then.

But thereís another significance to the water/wine sign that people could easily miss unless they have it pointed out to them: itís the connection between Water and Baptism on one hand, and Wine and Holy Communion on the other.

All wine starts off by being water. Without rain there would be no grapes, without grapes no grape-juice, and without grape-juice no wine. In other words there is something absolutely basic about water. But the process of turning water into some other type of beverage, whether itís tea, coffee, wine or beer requires a certain amount of human co-operation.

Whereas water is usually just there in the nearest stream or lake and can be drunk by merely bending down to access it, what we might call the more advanced drinks require at some stage more processing in the form of human intervention if they are to become available. Grapes have to be grown, picked and squeezed and the juice fermented if we are to have wine to make our hearts glad, coffee beans have to be roasted and ground and have boiling water applied to them, and the same is true of tea-leaves.

This difference points towards the other Great Sacrament, Holy Communion. Water points to our baptism. As something fundamental to all life water reminds us that our Baptism by water in the threefold Name is the work of the grace of God alone and is where the process of our salvation must always begin. But Wine, which suggests Holy Communion helps to remind us that our human co-operation is vital if the grace of God is to grow in us in the way he intends it to.

The distinction between baptism and communion is like the difference between being born and being fed. Birth is something that happens to us. Being fed requires co-operation from the very start and sooner or later we learn to do for ourselves, .

Of course God still provides the necessary food for Communion, just as mothers continue to provide the food for their children; so thereís no question of our dependence upon God being any less in the case of Communion than it is in Baptism; and Communion without Baptism will do us no good at all.

But having said that there still is a difference between the two sacraments, and that is why those Christians who try to make out that only Baptism really matters are so mistaken. Yes, water and baptism are the necessary pre-condition to our becoming children of God, thatís for certain. But the one-off nature of Baptism, like being born, needs to be complemented by the regular and careful reception of the Blessed Sacrament as well Ė something which simply wonít happen unless we take the trouble to allow it to do so.

Going back to the example of water turning into wine, we might say that the process of being a Christian (as opposed to becoming one in the first place) may be compared to the process of fermentation Ė something requiring the cooperation of man with God if it is to be at all successful. Of course itís still the grace of God at work within us that enables the process to continue to its perfection; but it is a process, like fermentation in which the quality of the end-product will also depend upon the amount of trouble which each of us individually, and corporately as a Church, is prepared to take in bringing it about.

The bridegroom and the guests at Cana were no doubt well satisfied with the outcome of the miracle. God will only be satisfied when the good work which he has begun in us is brought to perfection. How long that will take depends, at least to some extent, on our willingness or otherwise to co-operate with the grace which God so plentifully affords us.

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