Monday, January 18, 2016

Another Wedding

The Gospel reading this past Sunday is one of the more popular stories about Jesus: the wedding at Cana. The wedding party runs out of wine, and Jesus turns jars of water into wine. It’s Jesus’s first miracle, and it’s a pretty flashy one. People usually get distracted, because hey—he just made wine out of water!—but there is a lot going on in this story. 
"The Wedding at Cana" by Paolo Veronese is what the Mona Lisa gets to gaze on every day. The seating arrangement appropriately calls to mind da Vinci's "The Last Supper."
First, this is very shortly after Jesus has been baptized. He has started to gather followers. Now the group, along with Mary, is at a wedding. At the time, people would stay at weddings for several days (because of the long distance of travel). The host family was responsible for the guests. To run out of food or drink would be embarrassing for the wedding party, a sign that they could not care for their guests. Mary notices that they wedding party has run out of wine; she points this out to Jesus. Why? Clearly, she is not just pointing it out to shame the couple; she wants to help. It is not clear what she expects Jesus to do. But she knows he can do something and turning to him for help. 

Jesus’ response is one of the strangest things he ever says. “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” [John 2:4] At first it seems like he’s talking back to his mother. But if you break it down, he’s talking about something completely different. “Woman” as a title isn’t dismissive; “Man” is used as a simple title throughout the New Testament. It’s like saying “Ma’am.” Mary will be called “Woman” again by Jesus at his crucifixion: “Woman, behold, your son!” [John 19:26] 

The Gospel of John is riddled with Greek imagery and metaphor. One of these tropes is his use of time. The wedding at Cana is on the “third day” since the end of Chapter 1. “Hour” always means hour of death. So when Jesus says “How does your concern affect me? My hour is not yet come,” he’s asking if she truly understands what she’s asking of him. To begin his public ministry is to begin the road to Calvary. Foreshadowings of death are really bringing this party down (not to mention the depleted wine). 

Mary then orders the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” [John 2:5] This is the last time in the Bible that Mary speaks. It is her parting words to history. And it’s really what Mary’s all about: pointing others to Jesus. This story is (almost) as much about Mary as Jesus. She’s taking action. She’s petitioning Jesus. She’s giving commands to the servants. The “Woman” is bookending Christ’s public ministry on earth. 

But of course, it’s really about that miracle. Jesus orders the servants to take ceremonial washing jars and fill them with water. And when they draw out the water, it has turned into wine. The servants, the lowliest of people in attendance, are the witnesses of the miracle; they know beyond all doubt that they put water in those jars and that Jesus turned it to wine. The ceremonial jars indicate ritual and religiosity, the forthcoming sacrament of the Eucharist. As the water becomes wine, the wine will become blood. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry is drawing us to its end. 

It always amazes me that teetotalers can read this passage and somehow dismiss the wine. There are actually sects that believe Jesus made grape juice because Jesus wouldn’t give people alcohol. Beyond completely missing cultural context or allusions to the Eucharist, these people completely ignore the head waiter’s response. Customarily, people would serve their good wine first, then as people got a bit sloshed, inferior wine. Because why waste the good stuff on a bunch of drunks? But the head waiter makes note that this is good stuff, and about 140 gallons of it. Jesus only gives the best, and he gives it in overwhelming quantity, and he gives it to those least deserving. 

Like the guests at the wedding, we often get distracted by the really good wine. Wow, a miracle! Keep the party going! But back in the kitchen, there is the hint of death, the understanding that this is, like a wedding, a beginning, but it’s the beginning of the end. Jesus is going to gather more followers and do more miracles, but ultimately, he’s going to turn that wine into his blood.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Eating in the Mother Tongue

Yes, I took several years of Latin. But I am far from proficient in the language. I always mess up non-verb endings (and sometimes verb endings too). I know that Britania est insula sed Italia est peninsula. I know Gaul is divided into three parts. I know that J and Z aren’t real letters and that punctuation is an afterthought. But even after years of contorting my mouth like Eliza Doolittle to list endings (-us, -i, -um, -is), I don’t really know the language.

It has helped with my English. I understand structure and grammar in a more fundamental way. And I often can find the root word of something or impress people with “big words” that are really just Anglicized Latin. English is really a fascinating language, and I’m amazed that anyone bothers to learn it at all. It’s a distorted cluster of Germanic-Anglo-Saxon words and Latin-French words and other languages gathered along the way. English comes from being conquered and then doing some conquering; it’s violent and excessive. 

As a general rule, “home” words, common, everyday words, come from German, while the more elaborate, legal, or detailed words come from Latin. Mother from mutter, house from haus, church from kirche; patriotism from patria, mutation from mutare, documentary from docere. Knowing either German or Latin helps one see the roots of English, as well as the history of the placement and importance of that word in the English world. But sometimes, words take me by surprise, showing to be more complex than I imagined. 

A good example is the word chapel. It means “a small or private place to worship.” I had always assumed it had a history like church/kirche, an older word meaning basically the same thing. However, the word chapel comes from the Latin cappella, meaning “hooded cloak.” The first chapel, located in France, held the cloak of St. Martin de Tours as a relic. The building became associated with the cloak, and now every chapel in French, Italian, and English bears the memory of St. Martin’s cloak. If the Latin cappella looks familiar to you, it’s because it’s the same root as the Italian-to-English phrase a cappella, which means “without instrumentation” but literally means “in the style of the chapel.” Not only was chant the preferred music of the Church for many centuries, but one isn’t going to fit a lot of instruments into a chapel.

Which gets me to the word that got me thinking about all of this: companion. It means a person with whom one spends a lot of time or shares an experience. The word company derives from companion. While company can have military or business connotations, companion is more interpersonal, so it’s surprising that it’s Latin-rooted. It should be one of those cozy, “home,” German words, right? No, it’s a Latin phrase: cum panea or “with bread.” A companion is someone with whom you break bread. The meal is the core of the relationship. Creating a connection to another person is a call to the Eucharist. “With bread” is the key to physical survival, key to bonding with others, key to salvation.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Not so Merry Christmas

This Christmas I noticed something about the Nativity that had escaped me for 26 previous Christmases: Joseph is not having a merry time. It started by falling in love with an Orthodox icon of the Nativity. Everything is going on. The kings are riding in on horses; the shepherds are sore afraid; the Holy Spirit is shooting down like a laser; a bath/baptism is being prepared; Mary is reclining on a rock like a lioness. And Joseph is being super mopey in the corner.

Joseph is so often praised as being a loving father or steady worker, so a sad Joseph feels uncomfortable, especially in an otherwise celebratory image. I read that in the icon with a man speaking to Joseph, the man is Satan, telling Joseph not to believe in the Virgin Birth. But it is not just this icon. My Nativity set has a despondent Joseph as well. He seems so out of place, and yet a sad Joseph really adds depth to the Nativity story. Earlier, Joseph had been ready to divorce Mary. And just because he listened to the angel doesn’t mean he was suddenly 100% on board. This sad Joseph still has doubts. What is the Incarnation? How can a virgin give birth? The whole thing bristles against our senses. He is obedient, but hesitantly obedient. He will take care of Mary and Jesus, but he is still riddled with doubts and worries.

That’s how most people’s faiths are. We are not 100% on board. We don’t always believe it all, nor do we want to do the things we are called to do. I’m not a king crossing a desert. I’m not a shepherd joyfully composing. I’m not Mary, at the epicenter of faithfulness. I’m a mopey Joseph in the corner, doing my best amidst distraction and doubt. My “yes” is less “fiat” and more “oh alright.” The Incarnation is mystical and wonderful and the best thing in the history of the universe. But it’s also incomprehensible and scary and confusing. It means something, which means it’s going to knock us out of our comfort and complacency. The rules are changing. The world is turning upside down. It’s cause for celebration and concern. So I got you, Joseph. Go ahead and gloom up Christmas.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


There is an old tradition of blessing the threshold of the house on Epiphany. The door is chalked with crosses, numbers, and the letters C,M, and B. The numbers represent the year. The letters serve a dual meaning: the initials of the three kings (Casper, Melchior, and Balthazar) and the phrase Christus mansionem benedicat (Christ bless this house). I find it odd that the wise men are associated with blessing the home, when they are such transitory figures. Yet their story makes sense in the context of welcoming visitors.
The magi are mysterious figures, wrapped in legend. The number of men is not stated, although many settle on 3-14. Their origins range from Syria to China. Were they Zoroastrian priests, Asian kings, Yemeni academics? Did they know anything of Jewish prophecy or culture? What were they expecting to find?
Marco Polo claimed that the men came from and returned to the city of Saba, where in the 1270s he visited their tombs and incorruptible bodies. The 14th century tale says there were three kings who hailed from India, Persia, and Chaldea. They travelled individually, meeting up in Jerusalem before going to Bethlehem together. They returned to India together and built a church. They died at the same time. Years later, St. Helena recovered their bodies and moved them to Constantinople. In the sixth century, Emperor Mauricus moved them to Milan. Then, in the 1164, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick gifted the relics to the Archbishop of Cologne for his aid squashing a rebellion in Milan. In 1864, the skeletons of three men were indeed found in the reliquary of the Cologne cathedral: a young man, a middle-aged man, and an old man. 
Even though the Bible never says, most people do associate the wise men with the rule of three: three ages of man, three regions of the East, three cultures, three gifts.  Tradition, legend, and art represent Casper as the eldest, an Indian scholar and the giver of gold. Melchior is middle-aged, an Arab, and the giver of frankincense. Balthazar is the youngest, from Saba in south Yemen (sometimes he is represented as coming from Africa), and the giver of myrrh. Origen notes that the gifts are “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.” Or as the carol notes, “King and God and sacrifice.” The association with kings and gold is obvious. Frankincense is incense used in religious offerings, and myrrh is an embalming oil. Like the givers, the gifts are left to historical speculation.
The gifts, and the men’s innate ability to recognize the Christ Child for who he is, make the legend of the magi more about prophecy, worship, and foreshadowing than about long travel and visitation. But culturally, they are still associated with journey, following yonder star night after night through several countries. And there is a darkness to their story too: shadowy pasts, divination and astrology, bringing a newborn baby embalming oils. Think “We Three Kings” and “Journey of the Magi.” After such a mystery-ridden, grueling journey through the desert of the Middle East and the sands of time, these men should be welcome to rest at our thresholds.

Journey of the Magi
T.S. Eliot
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kiking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.