Her point and squeal is commanding and I know what is required. Lilian, my year-old-daughter, has finished her breakfast and wants me to take her in my lap and let her journey again through the pages of a book I’ve only just rediscovered; The Glorious Impossible, a collection of Giotto’s paintings of the life of Christ from the Scrovegni Chapel with commentary by the matchless Madeleine L’Engle. I pored over this book as a child, fascinated by the dignified figures, the tiny angels, the faces, so similar and yet so contrasted in their various shades of joy or wonder or agony. Lilian is daily in awe at the camels, donkeys, and sheep, but I’ve been reading through John again during Lent and I am equally and daily awed by the compact dramas of each painting, the way each captures a moment of choice or drama or change from the pivotal moments of Jesus life.
Of particular interest to me is one of the least interesting of the paintings, the one of the wedding at Cana. The painting, and further, the miracle, of the wedding at Cana, are both a bit underwhelming upon first glance. The turning of water to wine is an almost simplistic miracle and this is a simplistic painting at first; but look at the curious, half wondering expression on the steward’s face, the intent gaze of Mary as she watches him, wanting, yearning (I think) to catch that fleeting moment of startled enjoyment. Or Jesus with a half-troubled look on his face lifting his hand in blessing…? Both painting and Scripture bear a second look and what I’ve found has been rich and restorative to my soul as I’ve journeyed toward Easter.
This is my second read-through of John in a matter of months and I am beginning to notice the subtle, closely woven meaning in this loveliest of Gospels. The first read-through John’s Gospel, I became aware of a certain theme in John’s storytelling; the way that Jesus invaded sacred or traditional spaces and retold their meaning with his words. He walked straight into days and spaces like the temple, the Sabbath, a Samaritan well, and by his words, his narration you could say, cleansed them of the fear and false law that had obscured the living presence of God within them. Take, for instance, the cleansing of the temple, the significance of the statement, “don’t make my Father’s house a place of business,” as if grace could be bought and sold, as if God’s favor were an object for which we could barter. Clean out, not just the doves and coins and dirt, but the assumptions that attend their presence, the consumer idea of salvation.
In the cleansing of the temple, Jesus was renewing not just the physical spaces, but the ideas of the people who inhabited them.
Because of this realization, on my second read-through of John’s Gospel, I encountered the story of the wedding at Cana in a whole new way. And it rather stole my breath. I had always assumed this first miracle ought to be special in some way. This was the first flung challenge in the darkness, a sword of light unsheathed as Messiah began his unconventional conquest of men’s hearts. But the whole thing, if simply read straight through, can feel almost disappointing. What’s more, I’ve rarely heard this story taught with any sense of excitement. Maybe its simply my own perception, but I feel that we often view this first miracle as a practice run, the flexing of Jesus’ miraculous fingers on insignificant wine before the real work of healing began. A divine token to mark the first try.
But early the other morning as I read this story for the second time in a month, read it with a mind not hurried, but willing to savor, I saw anew. I saw, I think, as John meant me to see, the way in which this story is is the prelude to the epic of the gospel, an embodied poem that told the tragedy of the world and hinted at a coming eucatastrophe. There is meaning, I think, in each word and action of this almost peripheral miracle. For it is the story of the very world told within the tale of a rural wedding feast. A feast that Messiah was about to save.
For in the beginning, not just of Jesus’ ministry, but in the making of the very world he had come to save, there was a wedding. Body and soul, God and man, a joyous joining that was a feast of existence put on by God himself and called life. Joy was the order of existence. Laughter the beat of heart and gladness the thrum of the very earth. The wedding that was creation was meant to inaugurate a world of love, of harmony, of continuous new creation. But the feast was shattered by sin and the marriage brought to the very brink of collapse. The wine of life ran short, and it was us, God’s beloved who spilled it out, wasted his gift so that our own lives ran suddenly short. And the wedding feast of the world brought into being a whole human race of broken hearts.
But God was not a husband to be so easily defeated. No lover He, to be so quickly cast aside.
The ages of the earth marched on and it seemed that the feast was ended, the joy forever disrupted, the wine run short. But God never abandoned his Beloved. The feast was delayed, but by his own love it would be renewed, for even as we wept, he was planning the great gift that would save the wedding and cause the wine to freely flow again. The gift was himself, bundled up in flesh and blood, invading the earth so that he could take the hands and hold the heart of his beloved again. And when he came, the event he chose to announce his arrival?
A wedding feast. There was Jesus, the answer to the broken heart of the world. Just one more young man at a rural wedding party, he sat amidst a broken people and knew that he was the answer to every yearning of their hearts. The host and maker of the universe, if they but knew it, was the unassuming guest at a marriage that would become the event to announce the reconciliation of the world. All was set. The story was about to be renewed, the miracle announced.
I love it that Mary set the story in motion. She saw the lack of wine and she knew the shame at stake. But I think her insight carries a larger understanding. Perhaps in Mary’s remarkable heart was a sense of the symbolism of that moment. She was the human mother of God, more aware than any other human on earth of what had come, what dwelt so silently among the fallen and was about to be revealed. Perhaps when she confronted her Son with the disaster, she knew she was speaking of a larger lack, speaking to the deepest void in the human heart when she said, “the wine has run short.”
Jesus, in a voice I fully believe was playful and grave at once, says, “what is it to me?” A lively challenge. A parry and thrust, a question that could be our devastation if she really had to answer. For in the end, what ought it be to God? God gave humankind the world and we, the Beloved, cast it away. We flung his love back in his face and by our own choice squandered life itself.
We are a band of impossible ingrates forever choosing against the one lover in all the world whose great affection gave us our being. What is it to God? Why should he stoop to save us from disaster?
But the mother of God knows, and I can almost see her steady eyes in that face shaped by a lifetime of “pondering these things.” This woman who has known the Holy Spirit and borne the baby God into the world knows that this is everything to God. For Jesus stands before her. Messiah came. If this weren’t everything to God her Son would never have been born. She smiles and turns.
“Do exactly what he says,” she tells the servants. And her words are an affirmation of faith in the action and grace of her God. He has come and he will save. Despite the stupidity of his Beloved, the fallen hearts, the corrupted loves, he has come to renew the feast, to save the marriage. We will be healed if we do what He commands and believe in the love of the great, redeeming Bridegroom.
Jesus, smiling I feel sure, acts. He points to six great vats set aside for… what? Ritual cleansing. Vats set aside to hold the water that has been our attempt to make ourselves enough before God, to keep the wine of mercy from running short.
Throughout the long ages of sorrow, we have struggled toward God, reached for the mercy he still offered.
Humankind has always attempted to become enough, to keep life and love and joy alive. But the wine always fails. And now, those symbols of man’s struggle and man’s failure to ever be clean or enough, the perennial symbol of his “fallen shortness” are what Jesus chooses for his first miracle.
“Fill them with water,” he commands. Let them brim afresh at his command. “Then,” he says, “take a dipper full to the steward and let him taste.”
And the water is turned to wine. Because Jesus has come, the struggle is going to end, the thirst will be slaked, the wedding feast of the world will swing back into being and it will be a revelry such as the world has never seen. Because of the coming of Jesus, the wine of life will never run short again. The sign has been accomplished, the first miracle flung, the first note of celebration sounded. Jesus goes quietly back to his seat, meets the beaming glance of his mother, and knows that his doom, and his glory, have at once begun. With his own life he will stay the shame of the world, save his bride and renew the wedding feast.
“You have saved the best for last,” sputters the astonished steward, stumbling up to the wedding party, holding out a wine finer than any he has tasted in his life.
And the best One in the world sits quietly amidst his people. Mary grasps the arm of her son, feels the pulse of his warm, sweet, human blood, touches the skin that houses God himself and knows that the wedding of the world has been restored. Perhaps she aches as well, knowing somehow that the wine required for this restoration is the blood of her son. But its giving is the seal of an eternal love, a marriage that never again will be broken. The feast begins anew, never now to end. The final word of the great lover God, the best word, is Jesus. And the wine of life will never run short again.
Sarah Clarkson is a writer and student of theology. Through blogs, books, and current research, she explores the formative power of story, the intersection of theology and imagination, and the way that beauty brings hope. She writes books (Book Girl, The Lifegiving Home) and finished an MSt at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, where she focused on theodicy (and why beauty may be the best argument we can make for the goodness of God). She chronicles her adventures at sarahclarkson.com and is at work on her next book, Beauty Never Lies (with Baker Books, 2021). Celtic music, good coffee, travel adventures, long walks, and of course, good books are the beauties that make her heart sing. Sarah lives in a tree-blessed house near the English coast where she lives and laughs with her curate husband, Thomas, and their daughter, Lilian.