Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Wine may run out but the Party's not Over

Second Ordinary Sunday Year C

Every drinker, whether a connoisseur, a social one or just plain alcoholic, would appreciate the wisdom found in this Bible verse taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes (9:7), “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favours what you do.” Wine or alcohol can be a bringer of joy, albeit temporary. But when the initial momentary elation wears off, the mood can descend into tears, anger, and even violence. Before you know it the lingering effects of alcohol leave the drinker feeling empty again, till his next fix. The celebration is literally over when “we have run out of wine”.

The Bible treats intoxicating drinks ambivalently, considering them both a blessing from God that brings joy and merriment and potentially dangerous beverages that can be sinfully abused. The wine in today’s gospel story bears the first sense. The symbol of wine used concomitantly with the theme of the wedding feast expresses the exhilarating joy of ‘the Hour,’ not just the hour of nuptial bliss for the couple, but the ‘Hour’ marking the decisive intervention of God and manifestation of his glory in Christ. This is the hour of Israel’s liberation. Her Saviour has come! But just when the celebrations were gaining momentum, it risked being turned into a disaster. The festivities encountered an untimely snag: “they ran out of wine.” How could they celebrate without the most important ingredient of a good party? The mother of Jesus announces the sobering news, “They have no wine.” For all those present, who were expecting a continuous and even inexhaustible flow of good wine, this would have sounded like a death sentence.

This incident is a very fitting illustration of the failure of all this world’s joys. As much as we hope for an inexhaustible supply of resources, as much as we pray that the party and the honeymoon will never end, we always end up with an empty casket after everything has been drained. We know what it means for the wine to run out.  Sooner or later in every situation, in every relationship, in every type of human pleasure, the wine runs out. Our family, so dear to us, one day is gone. Divorce or separation may come, when the romance disappears and the harsh realities set in. Our friends, with whom we've shared so many enjoyable times, slowly drift away. Our college days, so exciting, are soon ended. Our profession, perhaps challenging and rewarding, one day, too, comes to an end. Youthfulness slip through our fingers as we have to contend with the trials of aging. In the parish, the exodus of the young, and the gradual decline of the BECs seem to signal the death of a once vibrant community. In every human achievement, pleasure, and joy — the "wine" is bound to run out.  

What do all these experiences tell us? Have we truly run out of wine? Has the party ended? Or are these scenarios merely pointing to the fact that we are often dictated by our subjective experiences, especially our emotions? It is interesting to note that our assessment of any situation is often dictated by our subjective experience. “How do I feel?” What does my gut tell me?” This is quite natural. The problem is that we often assume that our subjective assessment is conclusive and infallible. Emotions are lovely, stirring, and enjoyable, but they can also be intoxicating, dangerous and misleading. They may not be an accurate indication of reality and fact. In fact, pleasant or agreeable urges can often endorse lies and induce sin. Our feelings say more about ourselves than objective realities that we sometimes distort, manipulate, and circumvent in order to achieve our favoured ends. We often justify our sinful actions by saying that we feel God is telling us to do it.  We confuse our emotional urges for the voice of conscience. In any event, emotions are always beyond our control and they never last. This kind of wine is inevitably doomed to run out.

Thousands of years ago, the people of Israel also thought that the destruction of their country meant the end of everything. They were called the “Forsaken” and “Abandoned” People. But Isaiah in the first reading gives an entirely different picture, an objective one as far as it is the vision of God. It is a message of hope. All is not lost because God will return to redeem them. They will be called by a new name, they will receive a new glory, they will be called “My Delight” and “The Wedded” for God has taken delight in them again. God has renewed his covenant with them – God has wedded them again. What brought about this change? They finally realised that glory and blessings come from God alone. No human power, riches or glory will last. Eventually all these things will run out except that which is given by God.
Our most common folly is that we often realise this important point only after our own resources have been depleted or even exhausted. In our drunken merriment, self-absorbed in our own human achievements, intoxicated by our urge for pleasure, enslaved by our own unmonitored subjectivity, we  often fail to recognise that Christ is the true source of joy, an inexhaustible and irrevocable joy, unless we choose to ignore him. He is not only the provider of the wine that will never run out. He is the Wine, the Vine sacrificially crushed for our redemption and liberation. He is best wine often mistakenly kept for the last.

Thus, we must guard against the deception of subjective assessment and the proclivity to be misled into thinking that this is the end, merely on the basis that we feel it is so. When we allow our subjective impressions to dictate our lives, it would only lead to chaos and confusion. Here, our Catholic understanding of the Sacraments proves illuminative. Sacramental theology speaks of an objective reality, which is the grace we receive in the Sacraments, that is not dependent on our subjective experience or our emotions. The Church uses a Latin maxim to describe this objective reality: ex opera operato. Ex opere operato literally means "by the very fact of the action's being performed." It refers to the fact that the sacraments objectively and truly confer grace when the sign is validly effected, that is when the proper actions, words and objects are used  - not as the result of the personal feelings of the recipient but by the power and promise of God. The significance of the sacramental efficacy ex opere operato is that the bestowal of grace is not dependent upon the sanctity of the minister, nor does the faith of the recipient put any obligation on grace. Christ remains free in granting us his gift. Put positively, ex opere operato means that this act is Christ's act.

Therefore, even when the parties to the marriage no longer feel anything for the other, this does not spell the end of the marriage. The subjective experience of the parties does not determine the end of the objective reality proposed by the sacrament. Objectively, Christ remains faithful; he continues to confer the necessary grace through the sacrament of matrimony, and this ultimately defines the permanency of the marital bond. In another instance, even if everyone in the congregation felt listless and bored during the entire mass, or the priest was ill-prepared to celebrate the mass, the mass is still objectively the Sacrifice of the Cross. As the fate of marriages cannot be determined by changing sentiment, the victory of the Cross is not undone by our fluctuating moods.

So what do we do when the wine runs out? What do we do when the thrill is gone? What do we do when the passion fizzles? What do we do when the faith fails? What do we do when health degenerates? Many look for substitutes, only to find themselves disappointed once again because the wine will also run out. ‘Running away’ is no solution too. Mary shows us the way.  The strength of Mary’s faith is when she tells the servants to follow the instructions of her son. We run to Jesus with faith that he can do even the impossible, even outmatching the miracle of transforming water into the wine. Mary teaches us to come to him in humble submission, ready to listen to what he has to tell us, even though it may go against our better judgment. So, when the wine runs out, don’t attempt to brew some more, and don't run out. It’s not over. The best wine has been saved for the last – it is Jesus. Jesus came to give us new life; not just a quick fix for all our problems. Jesus came to give us himself, His Body and Blood, new life, eternal life, overflowing ... grace upon grace…wonder upon wonder…way, way, way more than enough to keep the party of possibility and hope going…until that day when we can all dance and sing and rejoice together at God’s heavenly banquet where the wine will never run out. When we have tasted the wine of God’s providence, we will be stricken to shame that we could have ever desired a lesser substitute.

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