Living through a global crisis such as the present pandemic has paradoxical effects on faith: some people turn to God in a new way, some people turn away from God, and some people turn to God with new questions. One of these new questions is the old question about suffering: if God loves us, why does he allow this plague to afflict us? Why doesn’t he just put a stop to it? Instead of trying to answer that question I would like to refresh our appreciation of the love of God.
Christianity is a love story. It centres round the love of God – the love of God for us and the love that he seeks from us.
The Bible itself is structured around weddings. First comes the union of Adam and Eve in the opening chapters of Genesis, and then at the end of the last book of the Bible comes the marriage feast of the Son of God and his bride, the church.
In between these two – and providing the clue to how those two weddings relate to each other – is the wedding at Cana in Galilee recorded in John’s Gospel. Jesus is invited to a wedding, along with his very new disciples. In that culture weddings would often last for a week or so, which meant that the catering was a big deal. On this occasion the catering fell somewhat short and the wine supply ran out (perhaps because the host family was poor). Jesus’ mother, who was also a guest at the wedding, tells him about the problem and waits to see what he will do about it. His response is to produce a large quantity of the very best wine. This is his first miracle and the occasion when, according to John, “his disciples believed in him”. Apart from his baptism, this is his first public act and the launch of his ministry.
The wedding at Cana links the human marriage represented by Adam and Eve to the divine-human marriage of the book of Revelation. This is how it works. Jesus tells the servants at the wedding to fill the stone water-jars used for ritual purification with water, and then to draw some out and take it to the steward of the feast. The steward is so impressed that he summons the bridegroom to express surprise and delight that he, the bridegroom, instead of serving the best wine first, has in fact kept back the best wine until the guests are already a bit tipsy.
The bridegroom is responsible for providing the wine. What the steward doesn’t know – though the servants know and we the readers know – is that this time it is Jesus, not the bridegroom, who has supplied the wine. Because Jesus is the true bridegroom. The other Gospels make this explicit. Some people criticised Jesus for failing to make his disciples fast (fasting being common practice for the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist). Jesus responds:
The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day (Mark 2.19-20).
Human marriage is a picture and a foretaste of the divine-human marriage. There will be no human marriage in the new creation, according to Jesus, because by then human marriage will have been superseded by the thing it was always pointing to: the union of God with his people.
Paul communicates the same understanding of marriage in his letter to the Ephesians. Talking about the duties of husbands and wives to each other he weaves back and forth between the love between the spouses and the love between Christ and the church. He can’t separate the two stories. He can’t do justice to human marriage without setting it in its proper context, which is the divine-human marriage which will be realized in the new creation.
The Book of Common Prayer Marriage Service sums things up perfectly, describing marriage as:
… an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church…
Times of crisis can lead us to question the love of God. Putting the wedding at Cana at the front end of his Gospel, John tells us that the love of God is the point of the whole thing – both the starting-point and the destination of the story. And God’s love is not niggardly – it is fabulously generous. The happy couple and their friends are given at least 120 gallons (the equivalent of about 280 standard modern wine bottles?) of the very best wine.
Somehow God is working out his loving purposes, even in and through a pandemic.