What Kind of Relationship Does God Want?
Updated: Mar 1, 2022
Homily given on the
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Times, Cycle C, St. Jude, January 15, 2022
Deacon Ken Steponaitis
At about 16 years old, I declared to myself that I no longer believed in God. Some contributing factors may have been that my mom was divorced when I was eight and I watched as my mom and stepfather struggled to reconcile that divorce through the Church. I heard the word “hypocrisy,” as it related to the Church, in their discussions. My mom and stepdad’s relationship with the Church and their faith, was, to say the least, shaky at best.
Another contributing factor to my declaration of atheism, was my false notion of who God is and God’s relationship to me and humanity. When I was 7 years old, I remember an incident in our apartment in Wiesbaden, Germany (My father was stationed there, for the Air Force). I was running around the apartment, not taking great care to see where I was going. As I turned right to go down a short hallway to my bedroom, and turned a bit too late, slamming my forehead into a corner of wall. As I dropped to the floor and sat crying, my mom came to me asking what had happened. I whimpered my explanation and as she took it all in, she asked if I remembered what she had told me about not running in the house. After looking me over to be sure I hadn’t over injured myself, she took a deep breath and proclaimed, “See? God punishes!
So, for me, God was an authoritarian, not a friend and certainly not present with us and within us. God was out there, and we were here and that was not a God I could connect with. So, as I got older, rationalizing the non-existence of God, was easy.
But to really come to an understanding of God and the Church, it took a very difficult and profound life experience, one that I can’t tell you about today, but one that certainly caused me to reevaluate things. Now in my 30’s I became ravenous to understand life’s purpose, issues of good and evil, suffering, religion and the role it plays in our lives. In this journey I found myself being led back to the Church. I began to understand our relationship with God and more importantly God’s relationship to us.
In 2008 or so, I was asked by my pastor Msgr. Don, to be an RCIA director. For those of you who are unfamiliar with RCIA, it is a process that adults and older children go through to become Catholic.
As I learned about RCIA, I was intrigued by a set of preparation rites. These rites are little ceremonies that can take place just before people are initiated into the Church with baptism, confirmation and first communion at the Easter Vigil mass. One of the special rites that can be done is called the “rite of choosing a baptismal name.” If someone feels it appropriate to be baptized in a Christian name rather than their birth name, through this rite we declare them to have a new name and call them by that name for baptism and confirmation. The beginning of this rite starts with a reading from scripture and one of the options is to read what we read in our first reading, today.
God says, through Isiah, “you will be called by a new name.” Of course, this alludes to the renaming of several individuals by God, much like Abram was renamed to Abraham and his wife Sarai was renamed to Sarah, Simon to Peter and Saul to Paul, etc. Whenever God calls us to a new purpose we are sometimes renamed. Even the Pope upon his election is renamed. Isiah, in our reading today, though, was not speaking only in terms of an individual, He was speaking about the entire Israeli nation, a people who had been exiled out of the promised land. Some of those people were returning to their homeland after the Babylonian exile.
But notice what happens after God declares that Israel will be called by a new name. God says, “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 first time I really read this reading, it was a turning point in my understanding of who God is and how God wants to relate to us. In 2008, I was only about nine years into my return back to the Church. At this point I understood that God could have a relationship with us as parents do to their children. I even understood Jesus’ relationship could be like a friend, or sibling, when we become sons and daughters of the Father through baptism. But this was the first time I really realized that God also relates to us in terms of a spouse!
I began to realize there were references throughout scripture that carry this motif. For example, the entire book of Song of Songs, while most directly talks about an intimate relationship of a man and woman, and their consummation of a marriage, Song of Songs is also seen as a metaphor of God’s relationship with his people. Our reading from Isaiah is not the only place he talks about God’s spousal relationship. There are several other places in Isiah as well. The prophet Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, and Jeremiah use this motif. So does St. Paul in his letters, St. John in the book of Revelations, and all the Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Our Gospel reading today has this beautiful story of Jesus’ first miracle. It is what John calls a “sign.”
John choses the story of a wedding at Cana for the first miracle of Jesus. Why the backdrop of a wedding and why water into wine? There must be a reason for it beyond the miracle itself. At the end of the story, we read, “and his disciples began to believe in him.” So certainly, one reason Jesus performed this miracle was so he could reveal His divinity to his disciples. But why didn’t John use a story of removing an evil spirit, like Mark did. Or giving sight to the blind like Matthew. Or make himself disappear in a mob of people seeking to kill him, like Luke? What about walking on water or raising the dead? All these miracles would be great first miracles.
Knowing what we know about this spousal motif throughout scripture, it’s possible John put this as the first of seven signs because of what marriage means in terms of a relationship. We all know the Church speaks of marriage in terms of union, “the two shall become one.” It’s about fidelity and a covenant.
Jewish tradition during the time of Jesus required about a year-long betrothal. At the end of the betrothal period, an official act of marriage took place. The bridegroom would go and get his bride from her parents, take her to a public place, where they would go through prayers and rituals. The whole wedding would culminate in their consummation, their coming together as one, and then a wedding feast would ensue. The whole wedding took 5 to 7 days. One of the responsibilities of the bridegroom and his family was to provide enough wine to last through the entire wedding. To not have enough wine would not only be humiliating to the bridegroom’s family, but it would also end the feast, it would end the bringing together of the community.
How often do we hear Jesus as being the bridegroom? In chapter 3 verse 39 of the Gospel of John, John the Baptist was testifying to who Jesus is. In his testimony he declares himself the best man and Jesus the bridegroom. In chapter 2 of Gospel of Mark, the Pharisees were complaining that neither Jesus nor his disciples fasted. Jesus responds by saying, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?”
If Jesus is the bridegroom responsible for the wine, then we can begin to see a parallel in the story John provides. When Jesus’ mother says, “They have no wine,” of course directly we can see she is referring to the bridegroom’s dilemma. But looking at it from the perspective of Jesus as the bridegroom, this may be a way that John is referring to the people of God, that they are running out of that wine that keeps the banquet going, that keeps the community together. Of course, we also know how wine is used in the banquet we call the Mass. So, from the that perspective, look at what happens.
Jesus’ mother says to the attendants, “Do whatever He [Jesus] tells you.” Jesus asked them to fill not one thirty-gallon jar, but six! And they were filled to the brim! John is showing how Jesus provides more than we need, an overabundance. Think about the miracle of the loaves and fishes, even after the crowd of thousands were satisfied, there were still seven baskets of leftovers from 5 loaves and 2 fish … an overabundance.
This sign, this miracle of turning water into wine is about the wedding of Jesus to His church. It is about an intimate relationship of God who is willing to consummate his relationship with humanity through a virgin, who is willing to give his very body to his bride, the Church, by allowing himself to hang on the cross. Which, by the way brings up a very controversial phrase in this reading.
After Jesus’ mother says, “They have no wine,” Jesus says something that many theologians have speculated about. He says what seems to be a rebuke to his mother. Like Jesus was disrespecting her. He says, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” A book could be written on that one phrase. But imagine calling your mother, “woman!” She might just slap you.
Well, you may have heard that the mother of Jesus is seen as the new eve. If you go to the book of Genesis, chapter 3, Eve is named once, but described as the woman 11 times. You may have also heard that Jesus is seen as the new Adam. Is it possible that John, in this story, is describing a new beginning, like a wedding is a new beginning for the wedding couple? Just as the book Genesis describes the first beginnings of creation and our relationship with God, John is describing a new beginning with our marriage with Jesus. Look at the first words of the Gospel of John, chapter 1. It says, “In the beginning” just like the first words of the book of Genesis. And to say my hour has not come is to say that Jesus was questioning whether it is the Father’s will that Jesus begins his mission. The hour refers to Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, the hour evil is overcome.
Mary concedes and responds, “do whatever he tells you.” As if to say, Jesus is in charge, he will determine if this is the beginning of his ministry. And, as it turns out, it was.
Whatever you may think about God and our relationship with God, it is hard to miss the fact that God through Jesus, sees Himself as the Bridegroom. That the Church is the bride. That Jesus will provide everything necessary to keep this wedding banquet we call heaven, going. God is not some spirit that resides in some ethereal location in the sky. God is a loving creator that wants to be one with us in a very intimate and spousal way, as partners and as one. Just as spouses work together to bring about life and love, Jesus too wants that same kind of relationship with you and me and all the Church. That’s the kind of God we have! That’s the good news we read about today.
If I had understood God back when I was 16 years old, the way that I see God now, I would have never considered atheism as a possibility. Think about that as we see people walk out of the Church never to return. I would have never seen God in some distant place lording over us, punishing us for doing wrong things. I would have seen God, through the actions and self-descriptions of Jesus as a friend and mentor, a brother, and most intimately as a spouse who wants to be one with us and is willing to do anything in abundance to keep us in relationship, here and now and into eternity.