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.

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