In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In today’s Gospel reading St. John recounts the first recorded miracle of our Lord Jesus Christ, the transformation of water into wine at the marriage in Cana. There are many details that set this miracle apart from the others. It is a festive occasion where Jesus, His mother, and His disciples are in attendance as guests. There is no one person being healed, or freed from a devil, or raised from the dead. Rather, the beneficiary is the entire wedding party which otherwise would be out of wine even though the festivities have yet to be concluded. The miracle is largely hidden from view. Only the Virgin Mary, the disciples, and the servants know what has occurred. The dignitaries in attendance, the bride, the groom, and the host presume that the extra wine is a fortuitous turn of events; a case of the bridegroom having forgotten to bring out the good wine at the beginning of the feast. In their eyes, the die have been cast, and they are just lucky to get two sixes. God’s hand in their good fortune is neither noticed nor contemplated.
Over the years I have had the privilege to act in a number of stage plays. I started off at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco more than a few moons ago as the understudy for the role of Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It is often lamented that the understudy is a groomsman never destined to be a groom. He learns the part, wears the outfit, and is officially part of the show; but he is never the star performer, and his name is never noted except in the small print. Indeed, an understudy is even lower on the totem pole, for the groomsman at least will appear up on the stage, while the understudy sits backstage somewhere beside the colored wigs and the dust covered props. As an understudy I spent my time back there with the stagehands reading the yellowed playbills from past shows.
My experience as an understudy was not as desultory as may seem. I actually got to see firsthand what the staff did behind the scenes before and during the show to make everything come alive. What looks like magic to the audience is actually the perfect timing of many moving parts. Stagehands from all walks of life who were not always the best of friends nevertheless set aside their pettiness, their outsized egos and their soft whispers, in order to put all the pieces together. The show behind the show was as dramatic as it was seamless. No one bought a ticket to watch it, and few were even aware of it, but there were times when I could observe readily that those unsung heroes deserved a marquee of their own. These old hands with their bruised knuckles and knowing glances seemed not to mind their own anonymity. They had pride not in their names but in their work. What they did they did conscientiously, smartly, maintaining the traditions of their trade going back centuries, and passing on the secrets of stagecraft to willing apprentices. They were the chief practitioners of what we might call the liturgy of the stage. They were the guardians of those rites and ceremonies by which the art of theatrical storytelling really comes alive. I was a firsthand witness of much of this craft. I could see how God does so much with what is unheralded, unseen, and even shrugged off as unimportant. Indeed, the meek shall inherit the earth, for with God’s overflowing grace who else really is putting up the walls and laying on the paint? Who else sweeps the stage and punches the tickets?
Notice that St. John tells us more than simply what Christ Jesus did. He describes the instruments to be used: Six water pots of stone, each containing two or three firkins of water. He tells us that these are the water pots used for the purifying of the Jews. In other words, these are the water pots used by the guests for cleansing themselves before feasting. The purpose is hygienic, of course, but also liturgical; a reminder to the guests that they must wash away their tired sins first before presuming to share with one another the joys of a communal feast. The past faults must be purged so as to celebrate the promise of the future, the coming together of bride and groom, and the hope for a new family. In Christ Jesus, this liturgy is so much more than what it ever had been, for the purifying water has been replaced with His wine, the best of the wines served at the wedding, and a prefiguration of the divine blood that Christ will shed for us all upon the Cross.
After describing the instruments to be used, St. John tells us the sequence of events: Christ Jesus tells the servants to fill the water pots, which the servants proceed to do without reservation. He tells them to go out and to inform the governor of the feast, which they do. Interestingly, St. John does not tell us what Christ Jesus actually did when turning the water into wine. Did He put his hands into the water? Did He just raise his hand in the manner of a blessing? Perhaps, outwardly He did nothing at all. The omission of this detail is not an oversight. Like with every liturgy there are well-defined rites and ceremonies to be followed with care and to be passed on from one generation to the next; but in the case of the sacraments of the Church, there is also the divine mystery that passes all understanding. God’s hand ultimately transcends explanation. We must take it on faith that He does as He promises. We must do as He has instructed us without ever fully understanding how and why His grace works in our lives. We are understudies in the Kingdom of God. We may capture a glimpse of what happens on the stage, but until it is time we are meant to be back with the old props and the yellowed playbills. This is not punishment. This is our education. Life is where we learn how to be and what to do when finally, someday, we are called to step out from behind the curtain and into the spotlight. Be thankful for this time to prepare. Any actor will tell you that the first time you appear on stage you are more than grateful for every moment you spent learning your lines.
As it turns out I was not an understudy for the entirety of my first run. The primary actor portraying Stanley Kowalski had to depart from the show early. I got the news just hours before showing up for what I thought would be another evening reading old playbills. With liturgy, all the pieces come together as always in proper time and precision. We do as we have been instructed. We pass on the traditions handed onto us with the care and the solemnity they deserve. And yet the divine mysteries which we experience in the sacraments are never constrained by them. God’s love literally overflows, like the superabundance of perfect wine that surprises the guests at the marriage in Cana. Who is to say when we may be surprised by grace? How will we respond when divine joy turns our lives around and plucks us out from backstage?
We shall respond as we have worshiped, as loving stewards of grace. This really is the end point of Christian liturgy. This is why we do as He has instructed us to do. God wants each and every one of us to be ready for Him, and like the servants that carry the water pots in the marriage in Cana He wants us to know that He has been with us backstage. Let us pray that we may be willing understudies of His grace.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.