Weddings are very often a feast for the senses.
Our ears are filled with so many sounds. Guests raise a cacophony of conversation over dinner tables. There is always music – whether a mariachi band or electronic dance music or the latest pop hits. Into the night, there are shouts and animated conversation – and then very late the sounds of dishes piled, tables pushed aside.
Weddings are very often a feast for the senses.
Not only sounds, but our sense of smell is engaged. The fragrance of flowers. The tantalizing smells of dinner wafting from the kitchen – crab soup at a typical Vietnamese wedding – the smell of sautéed mushrooms and gravy at your typical Canadian wedding – the savour of herbed gnocchi at a typical Italian wedding. The aroma of a full-bodied red wine.
Weddings are very often a feast for the senses.
Not to mention our eyes. There are beautiful dresses. Have you seen the glorious prints on the women at a Cameroonian wedding? And then there are beautiful flowers adoring hats and lapels and tables and even desserts. There are women and men looking their best – beards trimmed – hair up – earrings dangling – shirts pressed – shoes shined.
A feast for the senses. Sight and Smell and Sound and Taste and Touch are all implicated.
In John’s gospel, as in Mark’s gospel, the first time we see Jesus is out in the wilderness – not your typical wedding location. In John’s gospel as in Mark’s gospel we first see Jesus out where John the Baptist is calling people to repentance and where he is baptizing people in the Jordan River. But after that initial sighting of Jesus in the wilderness, and after his call of several disciples, we find Jesus at a wedding. John says explicitly that the first glimpse of Jesus’ glory was seen at that wedding.
We see Jesus among the guests there, celebrating with bride and groom and their families – being part of the binding of these two lives into one – sharing in a meal and a party with them. We see Jesus, largely indistinguishable from the other guests – having a good time with them. But as the narrative unfolds there are a few moments we want to focus in on – four key moments in the narrative that we want to see with fresh eyes.
And the first of these four moments is not an easy and light moment – but a difficult moment. The first thing we see in the narrative is a moment of embarrassment. Now we all know what it feels like to be embarrassed – and have perhaps even embarrassed ourselves at a wedding. Maybe you gave a speech with an off-colour joke that sounded so funny when you were preparing the speech but just came out sounding so terrible – oh man, I can’t believe I told that joke. Or there’s that moment in the middle of the meal when your date lets out a good belch in front of these people you’ve met – and you just want to crawl under the table. Or think of that moment when you said to a friend, “can you believe the ugly dress the groom’s mother is wearing,” only to suddenly notice the groom’s mother standing beside you listening. “Oh my goodness. I can’t believe I just did that.”
Embarrassment is that response we have when we accidentally do something that goes against social expectations – embarrassment is that experience we have when we accidentally do something that is socially inappropriate. And the responses we have in embarrassing situations are almost universal – you will usually look down – you might touch your face – you get a flat kind of smile – you might turn red. Oh my goodness, I am so embarrassed.
Although it isn’t described on the surface of this story, there is a moment of very real embarrassment in this narrative. The embarrassment is experienced by the hosting family in the moment they realize they have just run out of wine. Such a failing would have been completely contrary to social expectation, and would have been a source deep embarrassment, particularly in that culture of honour and shame. You can almost see the family members gathered in a corner, their voices hushed, shaking their heads, touching their faces, staring at their feet. What will we do? This is so embarrassing and shameful. We will never live this down. The first moment we observe in this story is a moment of embarrassment.
Following on from this first moment of embarrassment there is a second, we see something very different at this wedding celebration. Jesus’ mother hears that the wine has run out – she knows the profound sense of embarrassment growing in the host family. And so she goes to find Jesus. She speaks to him in animated terms: “They have no wine. We’ve got to help them. Jesus do something – I know you can do something.”
But what we see in the reply of Jesus, is indifference. We have seen embarrassment written on the faces and in the bodies of the hosts – and now we see indifference written in the body of Jesus. You hardly have to hear what Jesus says to know he is indifferent to his mother’s request. You hardly have to hear him say “Woman, what does this have to do with me?” We can see it in his body language.
Jesus mother is animated and concerned – but Jesus is indifferent. His eyes travel from his mother face back to the conversation he was having. Maybe we see him turn his shoulders slightly away from the one who makes the appeal. Rather than engage with her he sends a clear message with his words and his body. This is not my time – I’m not going to preoccupy myself with this social embarrassment. Jesus shows indifference to her plea – we can see it in his body.
Some have read rudeness or disrespect into this encounter between Jesus and his mother – particularly since he refers to her as “Woman.” But in fact culturally speaking, and in terms of Jesus’ interaction with other women in the gospels, we don’t have to see this as rudeness or disrespect. At most it is indifference, and indifference is by no means morally offensive in all situations.
From my dad I have picked up a phrase that I think relates to what we’re talking about. “Holy indifference.” That phrase means that some of the demands placed on us just aren’t that important; some of the questions asked of us aren’t worth our energy; some of the thoughts and feelings and worries we have aren’t worth the time we give them. So at times we need a kind of holy indifference to all of these things in order to put our time and our energy into the things that matter. That’s what I see in Jesus – holy indifference. He wants to preoccupy himself with what really matters.
So then we see embarrassment written in the bodies of the wedding hosts – ashamed that they wine has run out. And we see the holy indifference written in the body of Jesus – his body language says this isn’t his problem.
Now as this short narrative rushes on, we discover that a significant change has taken place in Jesus. We don’t know how or why this change comes about. All we know is that in spite of his initial indifference, Jesus is suddenly dealing with the problem that he said wasn’t his problem. Maybe it is the persistence of his mother than changes his mind. We don’t know. Perhaps his is a mother who doesn’t take no for an answer.
Whatever leads to his change of mind, we suddenly find Jesus doing exactly what he said he wouldn’t do. And his change of mind is expressed in the next moment of the story, when we see his authority on display. We see authority written in his body.
He is telling the servants what to do. He is ordering them to fill six massive stone jars with water. Once those stone jars are filled he tells the servants to take some of the water to the chief steward – to the master of the feast.
In a posture of authority, Jesus’ head is up – his posture is upright – his look is direct – he gestures clearl in telling the servants what to do. Jesus knows what he wants from servants, tells them what he wants, and they respond.
Now on the face of it this display of authority isn’t much of a display at all – in fact, it’s rather ordinary and unremarkable. It hardly takes much personal authority for a man of any status in that culture to convince a small group of servants to do something. It’s not like they could easily refuse. These servants depend for their wellbeing on the goodwill of their patron and others of status.
But Jesus’ posture of authority does become interesting when we realize he isn’t simply telling the servants to fill some water jugs. He isn’t simply ordering them to bring a cup of water to the master of the wedding. When Jesus lifts his arm to point – and when he see him stand in a posture of reassurance – and when he lifts his eyes with confidence toward the stone jars – and when he nods, directing them to the chief steward – the posture of authority we see is a posture oriented toward and over the very stuff of creation. The water is turned to wine.
As we hear the disciples say in Mark’s gospel, when Jesus has calmed the storm: “Who is this that the even the wind and the waves obey him.”
The authority here is not the authority of a patron telling some servants to fulfill a menial task. When we look at Jesus, John wants us to see one who is remarkable; one who exercises an authority that has never been seen before, whether in ancient Galilee or in modern Montreal.
So in this narrative we have the embarrassment of the host family. We see their embarrassment. We have the holy indifference of Jesus. It’s not my time. And we have a sudden display of remarkable authority.
And then lastly we see something that is simply delightful, at least to my mind. The servants obey the command of Jesus. They fill the jugs with water. They bring a cup of it to the chief steward. And he is amazed. We read in the story: “When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it had come from, the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now’.”
No one knows where the wine has come from. The chief steward doesn’t know where the wine has come from. The bridegroom himself doesn’t know where the wine has come from. The other guests don’t know where the wine has come from. All they know is that there is wine, and that it is good wine. All they know is that the embarrassment is averted – you can see it in relaxed bodies and smiling faces of the hosts. But right in the middle of the text I just read, I skipped over a little parenthesis which includes these words “but the servants who had drawn the water knew where the wine came from.”
I wasn’t sure how to describe this moment – but I settled on this phrase. It is a moment of beautiful collusion. Jesus has turned the water into wine; has done this amazing thing; and it is only the servants who know the truth. You can see them standing together in the doorway watching this scene unfold, smiling to themselves. Maybe Jesus looks across at them with a sly little grin or a wink – maybe a little shake of the head, “Don’t say anything. It isn’t my time yet. This isn’t my moment.” They are in on it together.
In a way, perhaps what John intends with that little parenthesis – with this beautiful little moment of collusion – perhaps what John intends, is for us to see ourselves standing in that doorway – to see ourselves as that little group of servants who are in on the joke – who have seen the glory of Jesus – who suddenly know what his authority means – who have discovered that he is, above all, the life of the party.
In John’s gospel Jesus is the bread of life.
He is the resurrection and the life.
He is the good shepherd.
He is the light of the world, as his glory is revealed.
But before all of that, we see Jesus as the life of the party – we see him bring an end to embarrassment and shame – we see him give the gift of laughter – we see him as the one in whom joy and celebration becomes a decisive feature of human life together. And we are in on the secret. We have seen his glory. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Thank you for this wonderful reflection, Roland. I am particularly touched by the idea of Holy indifference. I can think of many things at the moment that need that to be my response. And I will have to remember your reference to Jesus being the Life of the Party! That is excellent too.