Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Wedding at Cana

Today’s Gospel never disappoints, for to this bumbling layman it is crammed with suggestive detail. The Wedding at Cana appears only in John, and immediately follows the Calling of the Disciples, and immediately precedes the Cleansing of the Temple, both of which appear in some form or another in all four. This alone ought to focus the mind upon a degree of narrative intensity arising from the position of this miracle story in John (2:112)—quite apart from its several other sources of interest:
On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; 2 Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast.” So they took it. 9 When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him. 12 After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples; and there they stayed for a few days.
Cana of Galilee was the place where the nobleman of Capernaum secured the healing of his son (Jn 4:46), and apparently also the birth-place of the disciple Nathanael (Jn 21:2). Only these and the wedding are mentioned in scripture, and none of the three outside John. The site in Galilee is almost impossible to identify, apart from the fact that Jesus “went down” from there to Capernaum (12), and the nobleman besought him to “go down” also. Josephus mentions Cana, a village of Galilee (Vita, 16), and simply adds that it was “in the plain of Asochis,” which does not carry us much farther. However, Kana el-Jelil is the exact modern Arabic equivalent of Cana of Galilee, and that name has long been applied to a considerable ruin on the slope north of el-Battauf, the ancient Asochis. This was, in turn, on ground above Capernaum, which could be reached by road north of the Toran range, towards the valley of the Jordan, without any need to swing south. Many rock-hewn tombs and several water cisterns were found there in the nineteenth century, but no spring. This is probably as close as we are ever likely to get to the real Cana of Galilee, and all primitive attempts correctly to identify the place were either wrong or wildly wrong, beginning with Eusebius.  

The largest context for the story would appear to be the development of basic symbolism about Jesus, and an allusion to the coming of his “hour,” and what that might or might not mean. This trickles all the way down to the temporal marker at the beginning, viz. “the third day.” Yet the story also functions as an elementary, almost defining demonstration of his power, in fact the first such sign; its unequivocally divine source, and its independence of human agency.

The passage, as Raymond Brown observes, is mostly free of uniquely Johannine language; indeed the snow of detail (all of which squares with Greek witnesses and the Vulgate) runs more closely parallel with synoptic narrative style. It parses as follows: This is a marriage feast at a particular place, on a particular day (1). The mother of Jesus, Jesus himself, and his disciples are all there (2). The need for the miracle is made clear; the wine has run out. The mother of Jesus notices this, and remarks upon it (3). The highly ambiguous exchange then takes place between mother and son, Mary’s first and last appearance in John before she reappears at the foot of the cross (4). Resistance on Jesus’ part is strongly implied; and corresponding persistence on Mary’s (5). The miracle is then set up; the number and capacity of the empty vessels carefully itemized (and therefore their size and shape; the ancients were well accustomed to reaching these conclusions by mental arithmetic on the basis of very limited information), as well as their ritual use (6), which is a rather important point because it sets up a link with O.T. wine and abundance imagery in relation to the messianic wedding feast, e.g. Isaiah 54:4–8 and 62:4–5. Jesus gives instructions about water, and these are followed without question (7); Jesus gives further instructions about drawing some of it out and taking it to the steward; these are likewise followed (8). The exact character of the water-into-wine transformation miracle is revealed almost in passing; but crucially it is not made public. The steward of the feast does not know where the good wine came from; the servants, however, do know, and the authors of John are explicit in their determination to let us know that they know the servants knew (9). Some confusion in the mind of the steward arises from the sudden arrival of fresh wine at this point in the wedding feast, which reinforces the private, even clandestine nature of the miracle (10), but the exact location and divine significance of the sign are immediately emphasized for the second time, together with the fact that the disciples also know what has happened and how, and that they believe (11). The story ends with further specifics about where Jesus went afterwards, with whom, and for approximately how long (12). Twice Mary is quite emphatically not named, though her identity is nevertheless made perfectly clear. Jesus’ manner of address to her (4) is at the very least surprising—“Quid mihi et tibi, mulier?” “O woman, what have you to do with me?” (note the sparkling clarity of the Latin, and the clunkiness of the RSV English, although I suppose it’s marginally less bad than King James (absorbed without change from Tyndale): “[O] Woman, what have I to do with thee?”—though this would seem to prompt by way of good old Hellenistic (and Johannine) antithesis profound reflections upon the available answers to that quite extraordinary question. Meanwhile, the old preamble in the Book of Common Prayer underlines the sacramental significance of Jesus’ action specifically in relation to matrimony “which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee.”

Finally, it is amusing to note the coyness with which all English translators since 1526 have navigated the rather sticky point of verse 10, when the steward remarks to the poor bridegroom—I suppose high-handed wedding-planners are by no means an exclusively modern phenomenon—“Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.” When men have drunk freely is, in other words, a plucky attempt to draw a veil over what the Vulgate renders with total explicitness as cum inebriati fuerint, in other words “when men are drunk.” No two ways about it, ancient or at least Hellenistic social drinking was about getting thoroughly, totally, and acceptably drunk, and the only reason you kept the bad wine until last was that by that time nobody would or could tell the difference. In this sense, you could even argue that there is actually no need for the miracle, other than to generate a supply of poor wine. That Jesus produced a quality vintage went beyond the immediate requirements of the situation and into the realm of extravagance. It seems possible that further, now completely forgotten, inferences on the part of the steward are: “Go ahead and serve even more good wine to your drunk guests, but don’t blame me for the consequences,” or, possibly, “If I were you, at this point I’d keep the good stuff; don’t for Heaven’s sake waste it on the guests. They’re already drunk,” in which cases there is, here, some congruence with the flamboyant Mary-versus-Martha value system we encounter at 12:1–8. In the Johannine context I do wonder if verse 10 may stem, probably unwittingly, from more than a little contact with the applied practices of first-century Greek or even Roman sommeliers, but that is another matter entirely. 

A further and unanswerable question is, who were the bride and groom, and what was their link to the holy family? In the light of subsequent events did they and/or the servants eventually form part of the earliest Christian communities, perhaps knowing or ultimately comprehending what part that wedding feast played as a prologue to Jesus’ public ministry? Did they exist at all? Does this really matter? Not such trivial considerations, these, but such is the pleasure of exercising your imagination over impossibly ancient texts derived from even more obscure sources that frequently reveal more to us than ever their transmitters can possibly have hoped.

1 comment:

  1. One of the more incongruous laws of life is that a divine, having miraculously proven his mastery over the material by providing a free lunch is thereafter supported by his disciples. But it's exactly what we are looking for and if it can inspire a masterpiece I am all for it. This one beats the heck out of the Veronese.