The wedding in Cana is so well known, it’s intimidating to preach on it – I’m tempted to retreat toward a review of how the Church has historically understood this event, and that is to focus on its symbolic importance: it is an example of Mary’s power of intercession; it anticipates the wedding of Christ and his bride the Church; and so on.
This is all big picture stuff, what analysts call the view from 10,000 feet. It’s not terribly personal and that seems at odds with the setting. Jesus is at a wedding and, at least in my experience, these are intensely personal events: they involve two people with a profound personal connection, and invited are others who have personal connections to the couple. It’s been speculated that this is a family wedding that Jesus is attending, that’s why his mother is there – it’s a cousin’s wedding, perhaps. So, in that there might also be a very personal connection for Jesus.
Nonetheless, for all the personal that is intrinsic to them, weddings are filled with rich and timeless symbolism that imbues the event with universal significance; because of its personal, intimate nature as a celebration of families, close friends, and so on, it actually helps connect the personal to the universal, the worldly to the divine, our fleshly, time limited existence to the transcendent and eternal spirit of life.
So, as much as I could head off into theological discussion of how the turning of water into wine illustrates Jesus as being both in continuity with, yet transformative of the legacy of Israelite religion, I’m concerned to find that personal dimension because that makes it relevant to you and me far more immediately.
What strikes me is how Jesus intervenes to save a marriage, a particular marriage; just as he restores sight to a particular man, casts a demon out of another individual, raises one little girl up from her death bed. Jesus saves on the cosmic level, yes; but he saves you and me as individual persons, he saves us as married couples, as distinct families, as real communities of friends, for he is our friend, our brother, even as he is Lord of all.
This teaches us that in our lives, when we seek to connect ourselves to the divine, the transcendent, the eternal, the sacred – God will respond – Christ will respond if he is invited to sit at the table; that it’s wise to see that his “plus 1” is his mother; that we have her grace our family gatherings.
Some of you may be familiar with a popular, and somewhat sentimental religious picture: it’s an image of Jesus standing at a door, his hand lifted to knock. It’s the sort of picture you might find in a missal, a devotional book, a print that one can buy and frame from a religious bookstore, or I guess now order online. It’s derived from a verse in Revelations: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” – and that image is a curious reversal of the parables Jesus tells about people who bang at the door of the wedding feast demanding to get in but are told to go away because the Lord does not know them. If you know the verses, they continue, “… if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”
We don’t really know anything about the couple who’ve just married in this gospel story, but we know they’ve invited Jesus to the feast, they’ve opened that door even if they really don’t know who it is who’ve they’ve invited in, but there he is eating with them. And had Jesus and his mother not been there, the social disaster that was looming would not have been averted – and it would have been a disaster that could have marred that marriage through an embarrassment that could easily have pitted the two families against each other who had been brought together at the wedding as blame is thrown around over who was responsible for the debacle of having the wine run out.
A number of years ago, as a parish activity, I organized a Galilean meal. It was called, “An evening in the Galilee” and we planned to have the authentic food, the correct music, to arrange ourselves in classical fashion around the perimeter of the room, incorporate all the ceremonies expected of such a meal. It was not a Passover seder, but the kind of feast that Jesus and his disciples would have enjoyed when invited in by a local synagogue leader, Pharisee, tax collector, what have you to join them. I approached for advice on how to do it properly a friend and colleague who is of Lebanese extraction, and who had spent quite a number of years in the Middle East. I asked him, what are the necessary elements of an ancient banquet in a place like the Galilee? He told me, whatever you serve, there’s got to be lots. There should never be any sense that you’re running out. People should feel entirely uninhibited in having seconds and thirds.
It’s not a family meal at the end of a regular working day; it’s not a private dinner with one guest; it’s a feast to which you have invited guests whom you wish to honour with your hospitality in a public manner.
Now, a wedding feast takes that to the next level of expectation. Not just lots of food and drink, but a crazy amount of food and drink. This is a cultural norm, a common expectation that all would have, and one that you disappoint at your peril.
And we kind of know this already because most of us have been to weddings and other occasions that clearly require a feast. I certainly have. And that rule of lots was pretty constant: a West Indian affair, the jerk chicken is heaped on platters, and the coolers are chock full of Red Stripe beer; Greeks, it’s lambs on the spit, and the Ouzo is flowing; Croatians, there’s the plum brandy (Slivovitz) served in shot glasses as you come through the door; and it’s a scandal if anything less than three kinds of meat are served for dinner; and so on.
To “run out” with a good part of the night still ahead of you is a disaster and it figures as an omen; it does not augur well; it’s a bad sign. And this is what is looming at this wedding in Cana; and then Jesus does his famous miracle; and so, he saves the day.
And I wonder, did the bride and groom even know there was a problem? Was it just Mary catching a worried exchange between the chief steward and one of the waiters? Did the father of the bride know? The mother of the groom? Was this all a “behind the scenes” moment that John has brought to light for us in his gospel? It’s an episode that does not figure in the other gospels. A little story, an anecdote, but one that John thought was more than just that. There’s something very important in it.
I’ve alluded to the fact that I dragged my feet with respect to popping the question to my future wife. I apologize for the awkwardness of a catholic priest talking about his wedding but I want to speak from knowledge not speculation. The question finally got asked, the wedding date finally set, out of the resolution of a spiritual crisis in my life. I certainly did not understand getting married as the answer to my problems, so don’t take that as my meaning. Getting married to the woman I loved then and love now was part of getting my life in order, following Christ, and setting my feet on the right path.
And for too long I was not on the right path; I can’t say I was on any path. And the wandering through life went from being carefree to be something like a desperately thirsty man lost in the wilderness. And, of course, being a young man of these times, this culture, the last place I thought to look for help, to find the life-giving water, was in the faith in which I had been raised. So, I did a lot of new age spirituality crap first, before I came to my senses and remembered what I was taught as a child but neglected to nurture into a mature faith. In some sense I remembered that sentimental old religious picture of Jesus at the door, the door of my heart; and at last, I opened it to him.
I won’t go into the details, but the wedding was done on the proverbial shoestring – but somehow there was more than enough. Somehow a small churchful of people got fed, and the leftovers were served the Monday in the community soup kitchen; the music was glorious, apparently, I was too distracted to really hear it, but I’m told it was great. Biserka was resplendent in her gown, and I think I looked pretty good in my suit. But really, it shouldn’t have been as good as it was. We spent less on the wedding that some spend on just the wedding dress.
It was a church wedding, and it involved, incorporated people of faith (but also of uncertain belief) who responded to us as that young couple finally headed to the altar, headed to the altar with hardly any money, uncertain prospects, but with a groom who finally understood that living, getting on with life, is an act of faith; and one better know in what or in whom one should place that faith; it is someone who needed to be invited, not just to the wedding, but into my home, my marriage and my life; a guest, but also a friend, who has likely helped me when I never even knew it; rescued me when I was unaware of any peril; blessed me even as I was too distracted to notice.
The good wine is served to me, to us all who invite Christ to sit at our table; so, we need to recognize its excellence, and thank the one who provided it; who makes of tasteless water a fine vintage for our table, who provides for our feast.