20. Liberating Dreams
The story of the multiplication of the bread has a very unexpected ending. It is the most spectacular sign John narrates (6,1-14). An immense crowd of over five thousand people were fed with five loaves and two fish! Twelve baskets were filled with fragments that had been left over! And yet it did not lead to faith. The end result was that "many of his disciples withdrew and refused to fol]ow him any longer" (6,66). What had gone wrong? Why did the sign not achieve its purpose?
It is not as if people had not noticed the miracle. They had. Full of astonishment they must have seen how the bread which Jesus broke kept filling one basket after the other until all people had been provided with food. They saw the sign but they did not draw the right conclusion. Exclaiming, "This must be the prophet who is to come into the world!", they made ready to crown Jesus their king (6,14-12 Next day they followed Jesus back to Capernaum (6,22-24) and tried to make him commit himself to a programme of political liberation as a new Moses (6,30-31). When Jesus talked about spiritual salvation to be mediated by himself as sacramental food, they turned away. "This is an impossible statement. Who can listen to it?" (6,60).
It is clear that they were prepared to accept Jesus as a new spiritual leader only if he would fit into their own categories. They wanted him to be a leader who would organise them as a militant nation: a new Moses who would march at their head against the Roman oppressors. With his power to multiply bread, he would be able to sustain their armies as Moses had sustained the Israelites with manna Jesus rejected their interpretation. "You come to me not because you understand signs, but because you have eaten your fill of the bread" (6,26). "It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven. It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven" (6,32). "Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died.... I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live for ever" (6,49.51). And Jesus explained why they could not understand his signs or his teaching. They had not grasped the interior and spiritual nature of his mission. "It is the spirit that gives life, external things are of no use. The message that I spoke to you is spirit and life" (6,63).
It seems a hard thing to say but there are Christians today who unknowingly come very close to the "religion" professed by these messianic disciples of Jesus. They too attach great value to external organisation. They measure Church membership by Mass attendance and by fidelity to canon law. They see a Christian's life first and foremost as one of taking part in traditional rites and peforming established practices. They attach considerable weight to apparitions of Our Lady, devotions and pilgrimages. They cling to a rigid formulation of dogmas and a fundamentalist understanding of Scripture. Worst of all, they imagine that God himself has designed the elaborate construction of beliefs and practices which they identify with being a Christian.
As I will show in this chapter, the true nature of Jesus mission and message was that they were "spirit and life"; and the true nature of Christian faith is that it can "see signs".(1) To reflect upon this important aspect of our Christian life is the purpose of this chapter. To be a Christian means to be radically spiritual. Christianity is not a "religion", even though it uses the ritual, ethics social structures and forms of leadership found in mankind's religions. Christianity is something totally different because its essence lies in a new and personal relationship to God. Religion is man's way of dealing with God; but what is humanly impossible can now be done through Christ.
A wedding with a difference
Unlike the story of the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus changing water into wine at Cana has no parallels in the synoptic accounts. We find it only in John (2,1-11). A careful study of the text reveals that the present Greek narrative presupposes an Aramaic original on which it was based.(2) It confirms that we are dealing with an actual event in Jesus' life, - something we could already have known from John's general respect for historical tradition.(3)
But the Evangelist made the story thoroughly his own. He retold it in such a way that it carries the stamp of his vocabulary, his characteristic style and favourite themes. For instance, Mary's suggestion ("They have no wine"), Jesus' negative response ("My hour has not yet come"), followed by positive action ("Do whatever he tells you to do"), reveals a literary device frequently employed by John.(4)
Like all John's narratives, the story is pregnant with theological meanings. First and foremost it reveals Jesus as the initiator of a totally new era.(5) The newness is brought out in a number of ways. The religious rites of the Jews, represented by the six stone jars meant for purification, had to make place for the messianic gifts Jesus brought.(6) John patterned the first "week" in his Gospel (1,19 - 2,1) on the seven days of creation. The episode at Cana responds to the sixth dav of the new creation - the birth of a new humanity(7) As in the Old Testament wisdom was offered to people in the form of a banquet, so the new wisdom of Jesus is presented under the guise of a feast.(8)The pouring out of the new wine signifies the abundance of Jesus' new covenant. In this covenant God gives the Spirit without measure to believers. Filled to the brim with the Spirit, they manifest his glory and bring his overflowing gifts to others.(9)
All these thoughts were in John's intention, whether it was the new covenant or the new creation, wisdom or the Spirit that loomed uppermost in his mind. What he wanted to bring out is the newness of life brought by Jesus, the quality of being a Christian, the difference with what had gone before. The reference to Jesus' hour (2,4) - the hour of his suffering and glorification - and the mention of his glory (2,11) show that the event at Cana was a breaking through of the newness that would come after Jesus' resurrection. With Jesus things would not be as they were before. Now they would have a different meaning. As God had created man in his own likeness at the beginning of time, so now in Jesus man would be re-created and be given a new way of being. As the old covenant had established a relationship between God and his people, so the new would bring about an entirely new way of relating to God. The whole emphasis falls on being re-born and re-created.
What did the new quality of being consist in? Let us not fall into the trap some Christians have fallen into. They think that the newness brought by Jesus is nothing more than a correction and updating. The Old Testament laws, they think, are replaced by the more perfect ethical code of the New Testament. The ceremonies and rites of the old Temple have made place for the liturgy and the sacraments of the Church. The imperfect doctrines of the Old Covenant have been updated by the truth revealed by Jesus. The whole process of renewal would then consist in no more than an editorial revision of basically the same religious system. But this is not what John had in mind. He was talking of a new quality of being.
Search for the true Christian
To explain what I believe is at stake I would like to make a digression. It is a well know fact that John's Gospel was the most favoured book of Scripture for Gnostic circles during the second century. So much so, in fact, that this Gnostic preference was sometimes adduced in inner-Church discussion as an argument against the Gospel's inspiration. There may even have been a more intimate connection. It may be that certain principles latent in John's Gospel and correct in themselves, became the occasion of a gradual slide into Gnosticism when they were given an exaggerated interpretation. The Johannine letters seem to reflect the existence of such Gnosticising tendencies at the beginning of the second century.(10) In any case, Gnostic circles were close to John's thinking.
It is interesting then to take note of how Gnostics understood John. Through the writings of Origen excerpts have been preserved of the oldest commentary ever written on John's Gospel. It was the work of a Valentinian Gnostic called Heracleon (160-180 AD). This author saw in John's Gospel the description of three types of Christian whom he characterised as 'material', 'psychic' and 'pneumatic'. The basis for this terminology are the three parts which man was thought to be composed of: matter (the body), the psyche (the senses and lower intelligence) and the pneuma (the spirit or higher intelligence).(11)
For Heracleon, 'material' are people with very little intellectual or spiritual depth. They are impressed only by what is immediately accessible to sense perception such as phenomena of nature: an earthquake, the appearance of a comet. This is what they will worship. They admire Christ but only as a historical figure who worked miracles and foretold the future. When they read Scripture they cannot go beyond the literal stories, failing to understand their true meaning. Immersed in the sense world as they are, they hardly deserve to be called Christians at all.
Much better is the situation of 'psychic Christians' whose perception and faith are based on rational reflection. They worship God as creator, they believe in Jesus as their redeemer, they take part in the sacraments with great devotion. But, by a lack of deeper understanding, they practise their Christianity as a "system", as a religion. The images of God: his being creator and lawgiver, are absolutised, are reified by them. In this way they worship the logical constructions they make of God, not the absolutely transcendent reality he is. Morality too follows this pattern. Good and evil are considered realities in themselves, as is the process of earning reward through good works, and so on. The life of Jesus Christ is interpreted in the same way. The historical events through which he revealed the Father are reified and absolutised by them. The sacrament especially baptism and the Eucharist, are taken as physical means conferring grace. All these things, Heracleon contends, are valid on their own level. But, compared to the true meaning of the Gospel, they are inadequate. Unfortunately, the majority of Christians do not rise above this level, he stated.
The true nature of Christian faith is only understood by 'pneumatic Christians'. Their perception is based on spiritual insight, on "gnosis" (that is: knowledge). They understand that whatever we say about God is only partially correct. All expressions denoting God can be no more than "images" and "symbols" that point to and hide the ultimate reality he is. The proper way of speaking about divine things is therefore in "myths" in symbolical language. In the process of redemption the recognition of one's own hidden, unknown true identity stands central. This awareness is given freely to the elect. The seeking of forgiveness and the pursuit of virtue recede into the background. What is important is immediate, uncritical, spontaneous faith in response to the divine insight. The sacraments are confirmations of one's own spiritual experience. Living on lower levels of awareness, as 'psychic Christians' do, causes alienation from one's true self and from God. The images of God and of Jesus' redemptive life are considered valid realities on one level. But they should be relativized to come to their fullest meaning. They need to be interpreted "in spirit and in truth". What matters more than anything else is a new spiritual relationship to God which is expressed by, but not limited by, religious images and religious rites.
This Gnostic view calls, I am sure, for much scrutiny and criticism. Are 'pneumatic Christians' not presumptuous by claiming to be an elite? Will their distrust of external rites and ceremonies not soon devalue the sacraments? Will their degrading of laws and practices not lead to confusion and laxity? Indeed, these tendencies became defects in later Gnosticism that were frequently pointed out by Christian apologists. Moreover, by separating themselves from the Church, Christian Gnostics later developed their own systems of practices and beliefs - doing the very thing they had condemned in mainstream Christianity!
All the same I believe that Heracleon's distinction between various kinds of Christians cannot itself be dismissed as altogether without foundation. Heracleon derived this distinction from John's Gospel. Being close to the Johannine tradition himself he could, perhaps, sense more keenly what is unmistakably a central concept of John's Gospel, namely that a true Christian values everything spiritual! All the events in Jesus' life, however much they may have been rooted in historical fact, became the carriers of spiritual symbolism. The typical Johannine interest was for his readers to see 'glory' revealed in signs.
At the time when John's Gospel received its final form, Christianity had already begun to assume the external structures, religious practices and laws that would characterise its later conventional form. But John's Gospel deliberately ignores or minimises such external organisations. It does not contain any specific laws: neither the moral principles enshrined in Jesus' original teaching, as in the Sermon on the Mount; nor the specific rules of conduct reflected in other New Testament writings. The only obligation is the one of love. John does allude to some of the sacraments, but he is curiously disinterested in rites, rubrics or regulations concerning them. Both in matters pertaining to baptism (3,3-8) and the Eucharist (6,43-65) it is the spiritual meaning he stresses, not the external performance. John also refuses to give prominence to Church structures. He carefully avoids terms such as "apostles", priests, deacons, bishops, and so on - terms which we know to have been standard appellations for different ministries in the early Church. For him everyone is just a disciple. Never does John speak of the need to obey pastors. Christians should be one, he tells us, but this unity is above all a spiritual reality. "Father, may they be one as you and I are one" (17,22). "If you love one another, then everyone will recognise that you are my disciples" (13,35).
Heracleon therefore was right in recognising that for John it is the spiritual realities that make a Christian, not the external ones. In that sense Christians have to be 'pneumatic': guided by the Spirit. They will not objectivise their images of God, but will worship him in spirit and in truth (4,23-24). They will not treat sacramental rites as magic, nor Church laws as absolute expressions of God's will. They will realise that it is God's Spirit that gives life and that Jesus' message only makes sense as spirit and life (6,63). With good reason they might even call themselves "Gnostics" since they believe that eternal life comes to them only through a personal knowledge (gnosis) of God and of Jesus Christ who was sent by God (17,3).(12)
Being an Easter people
After this digression I want to come back to Cana, looking at the sign with Heracleon's perception. It begins as an ordinary Jewish wedding. The six water jars for purification symbolise the whole system of Jewish religion: its rites, its customs, its beliefs, its dependence on covenantal blessings and curses. Then Jesus does the impossible. He changes water into wine and thereby establishes a whole new way of being. The old system - and with it every system of religion - is abolished and Jesus himself takes it place. What a celebration, what a joy must now follow! For we are liberated from everything that holds us back and free to be ourselves and to enjoy the newness of belonging to God in an exciting personal manner. We are an Easter people! (13)
For the theme of Christian joy is implied in the miracle itself. The element that was lacking at the feast was wine. And wine symbolised the good things of life, the enjoyment that God grants as an extra gift. "Eat your food with joy and drink your wine with a happy heart: for God shows his approval in them" (Koh 9,7). "What is life worth to someone who has no wine? Wine was created to make people happy" (Sir 31,27). When Jesus changed water into wine he indicated that he was bringing happiness of a new kind. He was offering the abundant joy of salvation.317 He was inaugurating his ministry as a joyous marriage with new humanity. He invited the lowly and oppressed of all nations to his messianic banquet of rich food and fine wine (Is 25,6-9). 319
In the Johannine discourses Jesus repeatedly announces this Joy.
"Dear Father, I want my disciples to experience the fullness of my joy" (17,13)
"Your sorrow will turn into joy" (16,20).
"Your hearts will rejoice and no one will be able to take away your joy" (16,22).
"Ask in my name and you will receive what you ask for. In this way your joy will he complete" (16,24).
"I want you to experience my joy and I want your joy to be complete" (15,11).
This joy which Jesus gives us to experience is closely linked to the abundance of life he brings (10,10); and to the peace with which he will fill our hearts (14,27). All these are aspects of the same liberating experience of being a new person in Christ.
Understanding our Christian vocation in this way will not make us lose sight of the useful services which the rites, laws, ministries and other institutions of the Church can render. We will be grateful for them, make use of them and support them to the best of our ability. There will be times in our life when we need them badly. But we will never again be able to substitute a clinging to such externals for our own inner belonging to Christ. We will value the sacraments and sacramentals as incarnate means of grace; but we will be concerned with their spiritual fruit, not the external performance. Our participation in the Eucharist is every time again the miracle of Cana applied to us. What we want to take home is not the water of purification, the fulfilment of an external law; but the wine of knowing Jesus' joy.
As Christians we should be dreamers, visionaries, optimists. Being spiritual people, we should not allow our religious 'mood' to be dominated by want, suffering or even death. We should be idealists, always prepared to work at a better future. We should be lovers of people, admiring them, respecting them and affirming them in all spheres of life. We should allow ourselves to be carried by a holy enthusiasm that will make impossible things possible, that will make wine of all the water we touch. This is what belonging to Jesus means. Freed from all shackles by him, we can be true to what we really are in our inner selves. For we are God's own children. He loves us and nothing in the world can come in between. This is the happy, joyful, encouraging message of John. It is up to us to live up to it, to put it into practice. Then, as Christ promised, our joy will be complete.
(1) Cf. 6,26. F. MANNS, "En merge des recite de la resurrection dans l'evangile de Jean: le verbe voir", Revue des Sciences Religieuses 57 (1983) 10-28.
(2) A. MURTONEN, "'Wedding at Cana Socio-Linguistic Background", Milla wa-Milla 14 (1974) 32-46
(3) The basic historicity is also confirmed by the locality, which can be identified with Khirbet-Qanah (R. M. MACKOWSKI, "'Scholars' Qanah'. A Re-examination of the Evidence in favor of Kirbet-Qanah", Biblische Zeitschrift 23 (1979) 278-284); and the custom of marrying on the third day (F. MANNS, "Le troisieme jour il y eut des noces a Cana," Marianum 40 (1981) 160-163).
(4). C. H. GIBLIN, "Suggestions, Negative Response and Positive Action in St. John's portrayal of Jesus (John 2,1-11; 4,46-54; 7,2-14; 11,1-44)", New Testament Studies 26 (1980) 197-211.
(5). R. SCHNACKENBURG, Das erste Wunder Jesu, Herder, Freiburg 1951.
(6). K. T. COOPER, "The Best Wine: John 2:1-11", Westminster Theological Journal 41 (1979) 364-380; R. F. COLLINS, "Cane (Jn. 2:1-12) - The first of his signs or the key to his signs?", Irish Theological Quarter 47 (1980) 79-95,
(7). L. P. TRUDINGER, "The Seven Days in the New Creation in St. John's Gospel", Evangelical Quarterly 44 (1972) 154-158; V. PARKIN "' On the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee' (John 2.1)" Irish Biblical Studies 3 (1981) 134-144.
(8). Prov 9,5; Is 55,1-3; Sir 15,3. R. J. DILLON, "Wisdom Tradition and Sacramental Retrospect in the Cana Account (Jn 2,1-11)", Catholic Biblical Quarterly 24 (1962) 268-296.
(9). J. A. GRASSI, "The Wedding at Cana (Jn II 1-11): A Pentecostal Meditation?", Novom Testamentum 14 (1972) 131-136.
(10). R. E. BROWN, The Epistles of John, Chapman, London 1983, pp.104-106.
(11). In this section I am following the excellent reconstruction of E. H. PAGELS, The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis: Heracleon's Commentary on John, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1973,esp.pp. 114 - 122
(12). J. LACARRIÈRE, who has produced a penetrating and sympathetic study of Gnostic asperations, defines the Gnostic position as a return to the fundamental virginal interrogation of man faced with the problems of his life, with his need to escape from the yoke of systems and to arrive, in every instance at a point of absolute zero in knowledge; The Gnostics Owen, London, 1997, here p. 122. Lacarrière gives contemporary examples of Gnostic insights.
(13). Quoting St.Augustine, Pope John Paul II told the people of Harlem: If we are silent about the joy which comes from knowing about Jesus, the very stones of our cities will cry out! for we are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song (2October 1979).
(14). S.D. TOUSSAINT, The Significance of the first Sign in John's Gospel, Bibliotheca Sacra 134 (1977) 45-51.
(15). S. AGOURIDIS, Joan 2, 1-11, Deltin Biblikon Meleton 4 (1976) 86-98.
(16). J.M. LEONARD, Notule sur l'Evangile Jean. Le récit des noces de Cana et Esaie 25, Étude Théologiques et Religieuses 57 (1982) 119-120.
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