A Servant at Cana

The weekend of January 15-16, some Christian denominations will hear this reading from John 2:1-11

My toes curled, I tell you.

Watching burgundy sheen

lapping the limpid water,

tinting the stone. A blush

warmed my own limbs.

There’d been commotion,

a woman’s voice so earnest

I hurried: not the usual crisis.

The steward clueless as always.

Before he even tasted, I knew:

this was good stuff. Now I

extend my empty glass,

yearning for your wine.

Color my diluted days again.

If water glows like ruby, so can I.

In my world, being a woman AND a servant was the double whammy. Long, exhausting days faded numbly into each other, each identical to the last. No wonder we anticipated a wedding, even though it meant more work. At a wedding banquet, people who never feasted got to eat more than they’d ever dreamed. Even we servants sneaked more food. From a meager diet, we plunged into seven days of eating. For once, we all felt full.

Slogging heavy stone jars, I simply cursed the weight of 120-180 gallons of water. My aching arms were stiff, but the woman’s voice I overheard in the crowd was unique. She didn’t speak loudly, but the force of her conviction was powerful. Usually I’d question—she was just an ordinary guest–but something mysterious compelled me to follow her words: “Do whatever he tells you.” What had she said to her son, or he to her?

What force of his hand shifted the color in the water jar? Was he an artist? A magician? I had no idea, but still: crazy-hopeful, I sneaked a ladle-full. That unexpected wine surpassed anything I’ve ever tasted!

Sipping it, I understood for the first time what the rabbis had always taught. Marriage was a symbol of the relationship between Israel and God. I’d always loved the promise God made through Isaiah of rich food and well-aged wines (Isa. 25:6). I could picture it because I’d served a few of those feasts. But I never thought I was invited to the banquet.

Now with incomparable deliciousness filling my mouth, I thought: God chose me. From the beginning of time, God sought me like a bride. Always God’s compassionate hand had reached towards me. Maybe it was through a friend, or an angle of light as I walked home after a long day. Maybe it was morning energy after exhaustion, or my reliable good health. My name means “green herb,” and I felt the vital juice running through me. Words couldn’t capture my awe, but water-turned-wine could. This odd intoxication wasn’t the usual drunk. It lasted long.

Life afterwards became dull again, the daily trudge repeated endlessly, grueling hand-to-mouth survival with no relief in sight. But I would remember how the colorless water became effervescent. I’d carry that taste within.  

Just when I thought I might be getting used to this radical about-face attitude, a friend told me a story from that surprising wedding guest, whose name I learned later: Jesus. He shocked people when he told the story of the servants being served (Lk. 12: 35-40). This man seemed to have an odd affinity with us bottom-of-the-heap sorts. A master acting as a servant? The rumors even said he called himself a servant. Almost as if God cared about folding sheets and blankets or mopping the mess on the floor! Maybe it’s not so startling. Jesus also said only the “little ones” get it (Mt.11:25). Couldn’t get much littler than me!

Now, after that dramatic shift of water-into-wine, I don’t feel so belittled and denied. I can picture an endless series of rooms opening up, each doorway marked “yes.” I walk nobly through the arches, sipping a glass of That Wine. Strong and confident, I wonder what powerful effect this stranger’s had on me. When the rabbis or my boss tell me I’m evil and filled to the brim with putrid sin, I close my eyes for a minute and return to the taste of loveliness that better shows who I most truly am.

Was the wine in his words? It’s as if he said, “I don’t want you to ever feel small again.”

Excerpt from More Hidden Women of the Gospels, Orbis Press, 800-258-5838, OrbisBooks.com.

Jesus’ Baptism

Scholars say that the mythic elements in today’s story– the sky opening, the voice of God, the descent of the dove—are common to spiritual experiences in many religious traditions. What makes Jesus’ unique?

Even in more ordinary circumstances, he remained attuned to the source of that experience: to God his father. Whether he was engaged in hot debate, confronting hideous disease, or teaching in the marketplace, Jesus didn’t forget that voice, that spectacular affirmation. He acted always as God’s beloved child. Furthermore, he saw everyone else through that same lens—no matter how cantankerous, sick, or stupid they were.

Do we? When doing dishes or driving, do we remember we are precious? Confronting a crisis, do we carry into it the same qualities that have gotten us this far: our courage, strength or skill? When we’re angry, mistaken, rejected, exhausted, ill, betrayed, depressed, unemployed, or told we’re worthless, does that sense of affirmation rise up within? 

What God said to Jesus, God says to us: “you are my dearly beloved child. I’m pleased with you.” That should matter more than all the applause or awards in the world. And we should in turn hear that same description of everyone we meet.

This experience marks a pivotal point for Jesus: he emerges from it energized and inspired for his public ministry. Even in the long desert days, he must hear the echoes of that voice. When we’re tempted to focus on the criticisms, we could turn instead with joy to that life-giving praise.

Epiphany: “Welcome, Everyone!”

It’s not over yet. Sad to take down the Christmas decorations, but three lights still burn bright: the feasts of Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord and Wedding at Cana.

Long before Jesus preached inclusivity, Mary practiced it. Imagine being the mother of a newborn, exhausted from a trip to register for the census in Bethlehem. Then picture giving birth in a stable, which was probably not as cozy and clean as most Christmas cards depict. Mary is far away from her support system, so she can’t rely on her mother, sisters or friends for help. No casseroles, no baby blankets. 

Then, according to Luke, a crowd of shepherds arrives. They must be strangers, but there is no record of Mary feeling uncomfortable with these uninvited guests. Instead, she “treasures” the memories and is filled with gratitude. Matthew’s account of the magi doesn’t mention Mary’s response, but she must have wondered: how many more strangers would crowd into their temporary housing? These surprising visitors aren’t even Jewish–and bring the strangest gifts. 

Mary’s experience should give us fair warning. If we hang around with Jesus, we’d better keep our doors open. He brings along an odd assortment of friends. They may not bring frankincense or myrrh, but they arrive unexpectedly when there are only two pork chops for dinner. They come disguised as the children’s friends or the lonely neighbor who talks too long while the rolls burn. They phone at the worst possible times and they interrupt our most cherished plans. And in these, says Jesus, you’ll find me. This feast seems to celebrate James Joyce’s description of the Catholic church: “here comes everybody!”  

Christmas!

Perhaps the challenge of this season is whether we can hear familiar stories and songs with wonder, not the yawn of “déjà vu.”  Our model might be the three-year old boy, who,  entering a vast, baroque cathedral for the first time at Christmas, seeing the trees, banners, huge statues, a jillion tiny white lights, glittering mosaics arching overhead into infinite space, breathed one word: “wow.” Can we allow the stories we’ve heard a thousand times—of a journey to Bethlehem, a stable, angels, shepherds and magi, to resonate at a deeper level this year? Can we attend with care to whatever God wants to birth in us during this season? As Eugene Ionesco warns, “over-explanation separates us from astonishment.” Perhaps the rest of the year can be cut-and-dried, but this is the season for mystery to flourish.

If ever we misperceived God as stingy or punitive, the scriptures of this season should correct that image, as God pours forth God’s self in the only Son, who begins his great adventure now. Like beautiful bells, the prophets foretell: something spectacular is on the way!

The psalms keep the focus where it belongs: on the praise of God, not on human predicaments nor flaws. They bring out today’s equivalent of the big brass band: lute and harp, the songs of forest, plains, earth and sea.  And limited human beings brush shoulders with angels as all sing God’s glory.

John’s letters after Christmas might startle those who spent their childhoods following the rules, pleasing authorities and winning awards. God gives everyone gold stars, an inestimable gift of adoption as God’s heirs that no one can deserve. This inheritance would fill us with confidence and gratitude if we weren’t numb to the implications. One response might be to break into the glad abandon of dance—or to carry that exuberance more quietly within. The season also celebrates saints who took the lavish promise seriously, raising the question, “Can I too believe that God delights in me?”

Fourth Sunday of Advent—A Joyful Noise

Notice the angel Gabriel’s first word to Mary: “Rejoice.” The baby in Elizabeth’s womb as she greets Mary “leaps for joy.” Let’s remember that tone this week, which can be one of the most hectic in the year. The angel says, “rejoice.” Not “spend. Clean. Cook. Decorate. Shop. Bake. Wrap. Shop again. Create the perfect holiday ambiance. Work to exhaustion. Make everyone in the family sublimely happy.”

In his Rule, St. Benedict says, “each day has reasons for joy.” Maybe at this time of year, they are more obvious. The shared belief of Christians is that Jesus has become one with humans, indeed has pitched his tent within us. None of us deserves this, so we celebrate God’s lavish abandon, the pure gratuity of God’s gift.

If this seems a tall order, if we’re too tired or depressed to rejoice, we can take heart from the ambiguity of the feast. Mary’s reaction to the angel is to be “much perplexed.” Indeed, the whole experience is for her a two-edged sword: joy tempered by natural, human fear.

In Christian liturgies this week, we’ll hear two songs of praise, Mary’s “Magnificat” and Zechariah’s “Canticle.” Hers somehow overcomes the doubt and fear she must have felt. His breaks a long silence, welcomes new possibility, and expresses a hard-won trust in God—and his wife. As we shop, bake, decorate, etc. this week, may our mantra be one of gratitude and praise: “Let me do it all with thanks.”

Third Sunday of Advent:  High Expectations

When John the Baptist appeared, “The people were filled with expectation” (Luke  3:15). How splendid if those words could still describe us: open to wonder, chins uplifted, eagerly responding to words of hope.

This season seems permeated with impossibilities like the dead stump of Jesse budding. Even if we could wrap our minds around the idea of God becoming human, “pitching a tent in us,“ it’s an even longer leap to see ourselves as God’s children, heirs to the divine kingdom. Irish poet John O’Donohue writes of “being betrothed to the unknown.” Christmas means we are also married to the impossible, getting comfortable with the preposterous. It all began with Mary’s vote of confidence: “For nothing is impossible with God.” During liturgies when we hear Mary’s “Magnificat,” we might remember Elizabeth’s words that precede it: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord will be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45).

It’s a good time to ask ourselves, do we let bitterness and cynicism poison our hearts? Ironically, WE are conscious of our own limitations. GOD keeps reminding us of our high calling, royal lineage and a mission so impeccably suited to our talents and abilities, no one else in the world can do it. Again, Mary is the perfect model. She might not understand half the titles given her son in the “Alleluia Chorus” of the “Messiah.” Mighty God? Prince of Peace? Such language is better suited to a royal citadel than a poor village named Nazareth.  While her questions are natural, she never wimps out with “I don’t deserve this honor.” Instead, she rises to the occasion.

What’s become of our great dreams? Have we adjusted wisely to reality, or buried ideals in a tide of cynicism? Mired in our own problems and anxieties, do we struggle more with good news than with bad? If these questions make us squirm, perhaps we need the prayer of Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB: “God help me believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is.”

Remember that the adult Jesus hung out with some unsavory characters: crooks and curmudgeons, loudmouths and lepers, shady ladies and detested tax guys. In his scheme of things, our virtue trips us up more than our sin. The ugly stain of self-righteousness blocks our path to God more than natural, human failures.  Limited as we know ourselves to be, we might ask ourselves the question raised by novelist Gail Godwin, “who of us can say we’re not in the process of being used right now, this Advent, to fulfill some purpose whose grace and goodness would boggle our imagination if we could even begin to get our minds around it?” (“Genealogy and Grace” in Watch for the Light. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004, 167)

So the “Gaudete” or Joyful Sunday represented by the pink candle on the Advent wreath invites us to forget our lame excuses (Oh not me! I got C’s in high school, I can’t tweet or sing on key, I’ve always been shy, blah, blah, blah) and come to the feast, join in the dance. To put it in the simple terms of “Happy Talk,” a song from “South Pacific”: “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

Second Sunday of Advent:  Embracing What Comes

The human ego resists change, especially as we age. “Gimme my safe rut, even if it’s miserable!” we say, defying logic. But Advent presents a different approach to change.

Mary models the perfect response to God’s unexpected, even scandalous intervention in her life. When she told Gabriel, “May it be to me as you have said,” she had no guarantees, no script foretelling the future. All she’d learned was the trust handed on by great great-grandmothers: if it comes from God’s hands, it must be perfectly tailored for me.

In times of central heating and plentiful food supplies, we no longer battle the winter as our ancestors did, finding it a precarious season to stay alive. Isolated from others, running low on resources, great-grandparents endured many cold, gloomy nights. How they must’ve rejoiced at those glints of light in dark forests , when almost imperceptibly, the planet tilted towards spring, and the days became longer.

We too have reasons for despair, crippling fears, anxiety over how much we need to do before Christmas. If problems are more serious, do we run from them, or lean into them, wondering what they might teach us? Can we befriend our pain, knowing we’re more than its sting? Could we embrace for once an imperfect holiday, not scripted by Martha Stewart, but perhaps closer to the first, where an unmarried couple had to scrounge an inhospitable place to have a baby?

The Mood of Advent

We start Advent not with dread or foreboding, but with joyful anticipation. It’s like welcoming into our homes a dear friend or relative whom we haven’t seen for a while. There’s probably a flurry of cleaning, grocery shopping and cooking—all done with delight. When we look forward to renewing a close relationship, the preparation isn’t a burdensome chore. It may be tiring, but it’s happy.   

Jesus gives the disciples similar advice in today’s gospel: don’t be snoozing when an important visitor arrives. Be alert, awake, watchful as people are at an airport, searching the crowd for a beloved face.

How much more carefully we await the arrival of God. God is already with us, always and everywhere. Our Advent preparations highlight that presence, helping us become more aware. If we are lulled into anesthesia by busy schedules or overfamiliarity, Advent is the wake-up call. Look at what richness surrounds us! See how blessed we are! Do we look for God like the gospel gatekeeper, with a sharp eye? Or do we surrender our spirituality for the ersatz cheer of sales and malls?

One way of marking time that has been honored by Christians for centuries is the Advent wreath. Googling the phrase produces over 100,000 results—ways to buy one, make one, pray with one. This circle of pine with four candles nestled within can become the center for Advent prayer, reflection and song. It reminds us to pause, breathe deeply of its fragrance, remember what distinguishes this time of year.

Reviewing the Gratitude Journal–2021

As Thanksgiving approaches, some might grumble that there’s little to be thankful for in a year filled with environmental devastation, world-wide refugees, an attack on the Capitol, anti-vaxxers and assorted evils. True, but that’s where the gratitude journal comes in. In his book THANKS!, Robert Emmons recommends the practice of writing down what we’re grateful for, articulating blessings rather than have them free-floating, thus enhancing our gratefulness.

At this time of year, I look back over the year’s entries, record some highlights. They are of course idiosyncratic and personal. But all to the good if they spur readers to create their own. Heading the list this year: VACCINES, that miracle which restored our lives, travel, family time, friendships, exercise, simple pleasures like going out for lunch, or taking children to school.

Nowhere near the same magnitude, and no special order for other entries:

Vivaldi on the radio and raspberries in the cereal bowl waking me in the morning

Kind gestures from friends: invitations, gifts, hospitality, humor, affirmation, stimulation

Wonderful books read: Hamnet, The Vanishing Half, Finding the Mother Tree, The Lost Words

Fine streaming entertainment: “Atlantic Crossing,” “Lupin,” “Call the Midwife,” “Atypical,” “Dopesick,” “Worth,” “Convergence”

Marvelous on-line courses: from Mickey McGrath about art, Matthew Fox and Mirabai Starr about Julian of Norwich, Stanford scientists about climate change, Chris Pramuk about music and hope, Commonweal series on justice

Wildly creative Halloween costumes, after precious few last year

Energetic lifeguards, Zumba teachers and yoga instructors

Delight in nature a constant theme: from the first flowering trees, white against evergreen, to the blaze of maple leaves in fall, with a whole range of color, texture and shape in between

Not that I’m a foodie, but I often record the special pleasure of a mocha in the morning, a cookie treat, enchiladas or lasagna shared with family or friends, the Honeycrisp apple when I was SO hungry!

This barely skims the surface; gratitude can be deep ocean, vast sea. But sometimes it helps to dip in our little sandpail, wield our small shovel. Heartening to know we can never exhaust all the reasons for thanks.

Feast of Frances Cabrini—Nov. 13

Because she is so burningly relevant to immigration issues today, let’s look at the Italian dynamo who opened 67 charitable institutions and houses in the U.S.  Cabrini’s energy epitomized the zealous, thirsty, upward mobility of every immigrant group. A small orphanage and school begun in 1889 in New York City grew to a national network of educational, medical, and social service institutions. A tough business woman, shrewd about contracts, she outwitted contractors and swindlers trying to cheat nuns. When lawyers were astounded by how astutely she handled a deal, she whispered, “Poor things. They can’t believe we’re able to do a little business.”

Driven by multiple demands, Cabrini could never do enough for Italian immigrants. Her heart went out to the children abandoned when their parents’ hopes of instant wealth in the new country didn’t materialize. There were always too many requests for too few resources. Asked how she managed her huge network, she commented charmingly, “Oh, I put it all in the Sacred Heart and then I don’t get the headache.” She asked God for “a heart as big as the universe;” apparently God replied, “yes.”

Few women traveled as extensively or acted as powerfully in the male-dominated world of her day. With little or no government funding, sisters were financially responsible for all their hospitals, schools, and orphanages. In 1916, Cabrini even tried a little placer mining in Colorado, hoping to finance the Denver orphanage. When skeptics told her “it’d be better to go back home,” it sounds achingly familiar. How often has that taunt been hurled at the immigrants of our day?