I grew up with the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis. When I was young I have vivid memories of my father reading a few pages of the Narnia stories to me and my older brother in bed before the lights were turned out. CS Lewis has often been described as one of the greatest Christian writers of the 20th century. But he was not always a Christian. When he first went to study at Oxford University in 1916, he was a recent convert to atheism. But it proved to be a dead-end for him. Fifteen years later —by then an Oxford scholar in English literature— he abandoned his atheism and re-embraced Christianity. He describes his conversion back to Christianity with the words: Surprised by Joy. His Christian faith brought a joy to his life that had clearly been missing. I find it interesting that a number of years later, when he finally married, the person he married was called Joy.
Now here in Northern Ireland and across these Isles, we are currently in Wedding Season. And so today we consider a text from John’s Gospel that might be appropriate for Northern Ireland’s Wedding Season and also appropriate as we consider the theme of joy.
John’s Gospel is a very different Gospel to Matthew, Mark and Luke which for anyone who has read them even fairly superficially will recognize they are clearly related. They are sometimes called the synoptic Gospels a word which means “to see together” because they have a lot in common. The biggest thing that they have in common is in fact Mark’s Gospel. Both Matthew and Luke have used large parts of Mark’s Gospel almost word for word, in some parts changing and editing it, and in other parts adding completely new material. Both Matthew and Luke are expanded versions of Mark’s Gospel.
But John’s Gospel has a very different structure to it. Although it is clear that he is writing about the same Jesus the whole structure and feel of John’s Gospel is different. John’s Gospel is quite poetic and symbolic. It’s structure is designed around what the author calls 7 Signs, miracle stories that are meant to point beyond themselves to a deeper symbolic meaning. John’s Gospel also contains what are called the seven “I am” sayings of Jesus... I am the bread of life... I am the light of the world... I am the good shepherd... I am the Resurrection and the life...
In John’s Gospel, the first of the signs is the story of the Wedding at Cana. Now just as a signpost on the road points beyond itself. A sign with the name Belfast on it points beyond it to the city of Belfast. In the same way, the story of the Wedding at Cana is meant to point beyond itself to something deeper. In other words, I believe that it is meant to be interpreted symbolically as pointing beyond itself. It is a Sign of something of greater and deeper significance.
The first thing to take note of is that this is a wedding banquet.
Wedding banquets play a significant role in the New Testament. Jesus tells a number of parables about wedding banquets. In addition, Jesus is also called the bridegroom in Mark’s Gospel. At the end of the book of Revelation, the return of Christ is pictured as a wedding. The promise of these passages is that when God brings history to it’s final conclusion, it will be like a wedding banquet. In other words, the whole goal and purpose of history is that it should culminate in a joyful wedding feast. The promise of the spiritual journey is the invitation to be part of a wedding celebration.
And so, the ancient writers, reflecting on the life of Christ, believed that God’s ultimate purpose for us as human beings is a life of joy. In this regard C.S. Lewis once wrote that Joy is the serious business of heaven.
This is reflected in another symbol in the story: the symbol of wine. In the symbolic world of the Hebrews, wine was a symbol of joy. And in this story, significantly, the wine has run out. The joy is gone. While God’s purpose for humanity is joy, this story suggests a situation in which the wine of life, or the joy is no longer there. The joy has somehow run dry.
Another significant detail in the story are the 6 stone water jars used for ritual washing. The number is significant. The number 7 in Jewish thinking was a symbol for completeness and wholeness. The number 6, a symbol for that which is incomplete or has something missing, also a symbol for humanity who were created on the 6th day.
In addition, these 6 stone water jars are the type used for Jewish ceremonial washing. In the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus, Jewish religion had become more and more rule based. It’s whole emphasis had come to revolve around ritual cleanliness and purity. It had become obsessed with ritual rule keeping. These six stone water jars represent what Jewish religion had become. A legalistic, rule based, purity obsessed religion. One could say, a religion emphasizing man made rules and ceremonies with something missing... with no joy.
Jesus comes to to a Jewish religion that had lost its way in man-made ceremonial laws and man-made rituals, and he comes to transform it. To breathe new life into it. To restore it to God’s original intention as something that should bring life and joy, turning the water of ceremonial purity laws into the wine of God’s joy.
How sad it is that where Jesus came to bring renewal, new life, new purpose, new joy, Christianity, the religion that bares Jesus name has not always been good at nurturing joy. Like the Judaism of Jesus day, Christianity has sometimes got so caught up in a legalism and rules that it has stifled any true joy.
This is vividly portrayed in the 1987 film Babette’s feast. The film is set in a Lutheran community in Denmark in 1800’s, a community, that much like 1st century Judaism, had become austere, legalistic, joyless. The film, portrays how a ‘blow-in’ to the town, begins to help the townsfolk to get in touch with a sense of joy again as she prepares a feast, and invites the whole town to come. It sounds a little bit like one of Jesus’ parables. There are some in the town who are suspicious, but as the feast unfolds, so this austere, rigid community of people begin to loosen up, and slowly but surely they begin to find themselves actually enjoying themselves for the first time, seemingly, in a long long time.
It is very easy for religion to lapse into joylessness.
My mom describes how she grew up in a church environment that at times was quite constrictive, where sometimes the joy of life was squeezed out. Within the Salvation Army that she grew up in, dancing was a sin, a real no-no. They also weren’t supposed to go to the cinema. But she and her sisters would sneak in hopefully undetected by anyone else from the Salvation Army corps seeing them.
I get the sense that there is a legalism that is creeping back into some sectors of church life and that there might be some denominations that continue to see it as part of their responsibility to limit peoples joy rather than nurturing it.
If Christianity is meant to be a religion of love, where love is at it’s heart, then it should also be a religion of joy, because where love is truly present, there will also be joy.
I remember watching a documentary on the life of Mother Teresa. In it, one of the sisters in her order was interviewed. She says that on one occasion she had woken up feeling very down, like a cloud of depression had blown over her. Somehow for her the joy of life had left her. Mother Teresa told her on that day, she should not go out and serve the poor on the streets, because it was important in serving others, and especially in serving the poor, that she should be sharing her joy with them. If she wasn’t feeling joy, then it was better for her not to go and serve the poor. And so she was given some time off so that she could rest and so get back in touch with a sense of joy, before she would go out again to serve the poor.
It is a helpful little story to remind us how important joy is. Joy is important, not only for ourselves, but also that we might share it with others. If there is no joy in our lives, then it should be a little alarm bell that something is wrong, something important is missing.
When the joy of life has run out, it is an important moment to re-evaluate our lives, to make changes, to examine closely what it is that is sapping you of joy, and what is it that we need to do to help us to feel alive again, to help us connect again with a sense of joy.
May you bring to God those places in your life where it feels like the joy has begun to run out, those stone water jars of drudgery and joylessness may be touched with God’s grace and transformed into the wine of God’s joy.
Joy does not just happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every single day – Henri Nouwen
There are souls in this world who have the gift of finding joy everywhere, and leaving it behind them when they go - Frederick William Faber