How can you tell a great work of art from a merely pleasant one? A great work of art never runs out. It can hang on your wall for years and years, and you'll still be struck, from time to time, with some new aspect you never considered before. 

So it is with the Gospel. Last Sunday, we heard the account of the Wedding at Cana, which is when Jesus began His public ministry, and which I've heard so often, I could tell it in my sleep. I've thought before about what it means that He chose to make wine (the first thing He wants us to do, when Jesus comes into our lives, is to rejoice!); that it was an enormous quantity of wine (when He comes through, He comes through big time); that it was wine of the highest quality (He doesn't just get the job done, like low quality wine with a sufficient alcohol content, but He's the good stuff, whether we're sober enough to appreciate it or not).

How about the idea, though, that He used the enormous jars which were "there for Jewish ceremonial washings"?  He could have made wine miraculously appear in any number of ways: for instance, in cups that never empty, as long as you pour them (as Elijah did with the oil in the widow's jars, or as Jesus did when He multiplied the loaves and fishes). But He chose to use the jars that were used to help the guests carry out the Mosaic laws of ritual purity. Why?

He later tells the crowds later, in the Sermon on the Mount, "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill." (Matt 5:17). He didn't go smashing the ceremonial jars, or telling anyone to get rid of them, or ignoring them; but He did show that they could be used for another, much more exciting purpose.

This is a theme you will find throughout the Gospels: first you follow the rules, and then you get the point -- and the point is a doozy. A wedding party, and a big one. A wedding night. First you fulfill your obligations, and then you become aware of God's generosity. First you "do whatever He tells you," and then you are amazed. First Jesus is baptized, and then the Holy Spirit descends, and Jesus is revealed as the Son of God, in whom the Father is well pleased. 

I've written before about how obedience gives us Jesus  --  about what happens when we do stuff just because He told us to, out of obedience to the law:

I'm talking about things like going to confession when I don't absolutely need to, or saying some prayer which doesn't immediately appeal to me, or looking more deeply into some teaching of the Church that makes me feel uncomfortable, and which I'm reluctant to think about. Or stopping to consider the non-infallible words of a saint or pope, even though ignoring won't automatically excommunicate me.  What happens, in other words, when I approach God with an open heart, rather than a challenge or a sulk?

When I hold my breath for a moment, and duck under the water, what happens when I come up for air?

More often than not, I see Jesus. I hear, "This is my beloved Son."  Maybe the sky doesn't open up, and maybe no doves descend, but these are the moments of clarity; these are the moments of recognition, when I remember, "Oh, the son of God! The beloved one. Yes, please! More of You. Of course, less of everything else, and please, more of You."

Obedience doesn't limit us. Obedience makes the sky open. Obedience is what gives us Jesus.

If Jesus went to a wedding and they didn't have the ceremonial jars there -- if they hadn't been prepared to fulfill their ritual obligations before the feast -- what would have happened? Could He still have made all that wine appear? Sure. He can do whatever He wants, whenever He wants, however He wants. But I think it's worth noting that He very often chooses to do even miraculous, supernatural, law-breaking things through fulfilling the law, not abolishing it.

That is, He brings us the joy and glory of the Holy Spirit when we stick with the rules, whether we're feeling it or not.  

So here it is, a January Wednesday morning in the middle of ordinary time. My feet are cold, my brain is tired, I'm behind on everything, and all I can think of is all the things I messed up one more time, and how unlikely it is that the future will be different. Doesn't feel like there's a wedding party anywhere in the near future, let me tell you. So what's my plan?

I'm going to follow the rules. Say grace before I eat my shredded wheat. Think twice before I click on a news story that appeals to my worst side. Make a morning offering before I check Facebook again. Check in with the Holy Spirit before I talk to that difficult person I have to talk to. Use a goofy euphemism instead of cursing. 

These are the rules. It's not a party yet! I'm just washing my hands according to the rituals, and all I'm getting is water so far. But a promise is a promise, Lord. I know you will bring the wine.