I’m reading straight through the Gospel of John early in the morning these days. It’s my second time this summer. I finished it once, paged right back to the start and savored the opening again: in the beginning was the Word. There are some books of Scripture I want to learn as I would the mind and soul of a beloved friend; with concentrated and affectionate attention. I want their narrative to shape my own story, their words to form my sight of the world. Isaiah is one of those. The Psalms. And definitely John.
John’s Gospel is a luminous book. The other Gospel writers seem to tell the story more from the outside in, relating the miracles, the teaching, those high and holy days of Jesus’ life from the viewpoint of what was seen. John tells it from this inside. He tells what it means. At least that’s the sense I get as I read. I feel often that he had an interior room within himself, a place where the Beloved spoke with him. From there he looked out on the spectacle and brilliance of Jesus’ days and perceived, not just the events, but the meaning of each, the great Reality unveiling itself in each action, word, and miracle. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…
John is a storyteller of superb skill, and the first time through this book I became aware of a certain theme in his narrative; 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 narration freed them of the fear and false law that 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, 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 since it 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, is somewhat underwhelming. Jesus seems reluctant. Mary seems pushy. And after all, it’s just wine. What’s more, I’ve rarely heard this story taught with any sense of excitement. Maybe its just my own perception, but I think we tend to view this first miracle as a practice run, the flexing of Jesus’ miraculous fingers on insignificant wine before the real work 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. The story of the very world is told, I think, within this 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 world he had come to save, there was a wedding. Body and soul, God and man, a joyous joining that was a love story told 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 harmony, of order, and continuous new creation. But the wine of life ran abruptly short when sin crashed into the midst of God’s feast. And it was God’s beloved who brought the sin, who spilled the wine and spurned his love so that life itself ran suddenly short. And the marriage was brought to the very brink of collapse.
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 save the heart of his beloved.
And when he came, the event he chose to announce his arrival, to inaugurate his work of redemption?
A wedding feast. There was Jesus, the answer to the broken heart of the world about to announce his presence at the celebration of a marriage. He seemed to be just one more young man at a rural wedding party, but 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.
I love that Mary set the tale in motion. She saw the lack of wine and knew the shame at stake. But I think her insight carries a larger understanding. Perhaps Mary, with her remarkable, contemplative heart, intuited 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. She knows that it is everything to God. I can almost see her steady eyes as they peered from a 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 looks steadily at Jesus, the Word made flesh, Messiah come. If this weren’t everything to God her Son would never have been born. She smiles at her holy child 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 lover 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. And the lost ones will be saved if only they will do what He commands and believe in the love of the great, redeeming Bridegroom.
Jesus, with just half a smile 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 humankind’s attempt to make themselves 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. Humanity 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. Brim them afresh at the bridegroom’s 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 about to end, the thirst will be slaked, and the wedding feast of the world will swing back into being. The revelry will be such as the world has never seen. Jesus has come, and the wine of life will never run short again. This symbolic act began the ministry of Christ.
“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.
See what John is teaching me?
Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she's not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.