The Wedding Dream

Posted: January 18, 2019 in Uncategorized

The Wedding Dream

John 2:1-11

The Cana story is surely one of the most charming in all the Bible.
And John is the only one to tell this story. The wedding itself would have been a great social occasion. A celebration probably for the whole community. It would have been a significant event in the life of a community. This makes the fact that the wine ran out a matter of significance also. What bad planning it must have been, or there was a serious under-estimation of how much was needed. What we don’t know is how many days the party had been celebrating when the wine actually ran out but we do know that weddings were traditionally occasions for festivities lasting a week or more. Relatives sometimes traveled great distances, and friends and neighbours poured in. The groom’s father usually paid the bill!

Some of the questions we might ask at the beginning is; How did the story survive in the tradition till the time of John’s gospel? Why did not one of the other evangelists pick it up? And how indeed does it fit into John’s gospel? And perhaps the most important question; What is the real focus of this story? Is it the Wedding or what came later? The central issue was it seems the running out of the wine.

There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but it is a great story so it’s worth exploring what meaning we might give to it, so let’s have a go.

First of all we might start with the Gospel of John itself and suggest that like so much of the Gospel of John, the story of the wedding at Cana has a curious luminousness about it, the quality almost of a dream where every gesture, every detail, suggests the presence of meaning beneath meaning, where people move with a kind of ritual stateliness, faces melting into other faces, voices speaking words of elusive but inexhaustible significance.

And let’s remember here that we are not talking about miracles. The issue is not about Jesus turning water into wine but rather John’s concern to suggest that it is the sign that matters. For some there is a claim that we should take this story as written testimony to Jesus’ powers over the laws of nature. That he has somehow miraculously violated the laws of fermentation and instantaneously turned plain old tap water into wine of the best available vintage. But John never calls any of the signs Jesus performs miracles.
To John, these are ‘signs’, and signs are objects or gestures with one meaning that suggests another. John has a concern with events that show who Jesus is and what his ministry is about. These events some have called miracles are actually signs, doors into, indicators of something more and not supernatural examples.

So, what is the sign here? We note that it is on the third day that the wedding takes place; the third day that Jesus comes to change the water into wine, and in the way of dreams the number 3 calls up that other third day when just at daybreak, in another way and toward another end, Jesus came and changed despair into rejoicing. Water into wine would say that the party can go on and that has to be good. There are also the six stone jars, and we might wonder why six? Is there some sort of echo half-heard of the six days of creation perhaps, the six days that preceded the seventh and holiest day, God’s day? God breathed into and it was good.

And then the cryptic words that Jesus speaks to his mother with their inexplicable sharpness. Were they, a fore-shadowing of an hour beyond this hour in Cana of astonished gladness and feasting, of a final hour that was yet not final? But beyond the mystery of what it means, detail by detail, level beneath level, maybe the most important part of a dream is the part that stays with you when you wake up from it.

It can be a sense of revulsion at some hidden ugliness laid bare. It can be a kind of aching homesickness for some beauty that existed only in the dream. There are dreams which it is impossible to remember anything about at all except that they were good dreams and that we are somehow the better for having dreamed them. But taking this story in John as a dream, I think that what we carry from it most powerfully is simply a feeling for the joy of it—a wedding that almost flopped except that then this strange, stern guest came and worked a miracle and it turned out to be the best wedding of all. Certainly, it is because of the joy of it that it is remembered in the marriage service.

But joy or no joy, people also cry at weddings. It is part of the tradition. Women are said to cry especially, all dressed up in their white gloves and their best hats with the tears running down, but I have known grown men to cry too and sometimes even the minister forgets to worry about whether his robe is straight and whether the best man has remembered the ring and has to hold tight to his prayer book to keep down the lump in his own throat. Just the sheer joy at the commitment of two people to a relationship that is seen as the most significant one in one’s life is heart moving and often brings tears to the fore. Sometimes the tears are good tears, tears as a response to the mystery not only of human love but of human finitude, the seemingly idiotic faith placed in a human decision, the transience of things.

But more often than not, I suspect, the tears that are shed at weddings are not to be taken too seriously because they are mainly sentimental tears, and although I suppose that they do little harm, I would be surprised to hear that they ever did much good. To be sentimental is to react not so much to something that is happening as to your own reaction to something that is happening, so that when a person cries sentimentally, what he or she is really crying at very often is the pathos of his own tears. When we shed tears at a wedding, our tears are likely to have a great deal less to do with the bride and groom than with all the old dreams or regrets that the bride and groom have occasioned in us.

In our sentimentality, we think, “How wonderful that they are going to live happily ever after,” or “How terrible that they are never going to be so happy again,” and then we relate it all to our own happiness or our own lost happiness and weep eloquently at ourselves. It is all innocent enough, surely, except that it keeps us just one step further than we already are, and God knows that is far enough, from the reality of what is going on outside our own skins; and the reality of what is going on outside our own skins is the reality of other people with all their dreams and regrets, their happiness, the pathos not of ourselves for once but of them.

The reality of the bride and groom, which is also their joy, is of course that they love each other; but whereas sentimentality tends to stop right there and have a good cry, candor has to move on with eyes at least dry enough to see through. They love each other indeed, and in a grim world their love is a delight to behold, but love as a response of the heart to loveliness, love as an emotion, is only part of love and of what a Christian wedding celebrates, and beyond it are levels that sentimentality cannot see. Because the promises that are given are not just promises to love the other when the other is lovely and lovable, but to love the other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and that means to love the other even at half-past three in the morning when the baby is crying and to love each other with a terrible cold in the head and when the bills have to be paid. From my own experience it is the love that enables the relationship to continue when a partner is lost to Alzheimer’s or to death. The love that is affirmed at a wedding is not just a condition of the heart but an act of the will, and the promise that love makes is to will the other’s good even at the expense sometimes of its own good—and that is quite a promise. It is what makes one return again and again to an abusive relationship and to being there till any need of the other is removed.

Whether the bride and groom are to live happily ever after or never to be so happy again depends entirely on how faithfully, they are able to keep that promise, not to obey and bury self in service of the other but rather as a willingness to seek the relationships wellbeing. Just as the happiness of us all depends on how faithfully we also are able to keep such promises, and not just to a husband or a wife, but to each ‘other’ we encounter in life. Because, selfless love when it is limited to that can become finally just another kind of self-centeredness with two selves in the center instead of one and all the more impregnable for that reason. The loving relationship between two people cannot be sustained in isolation. It has to engage in the world.

Dostoevsky describes Alexei Karamazov falling asleep and dreaming about the wedding at Cana, and for him too it is a dream of indescribable joy, but when he wakes from it, he does a curious thing. He throws himself down on the earth and embraces it. He kisses the earth and among tears that are in no way sentimental because they are turned not inward but outward, he forgives the earth and begs its forgiveness and vows to love it forever. And that is the heart of it, after all, and matrimony is called holy because this brave and fateful promise of a man and a woman to love and honour and serve each other through thick and thin looks beyond itself to more fateful promises still and speaks mightily of what human life at its most human and its most alive and most holy must always be.

A dream is a compression of time where the dreamer can live through a whole constellation of events in no more time than it takes a curtain to rustle in the room where he sleeps. In dreams, time does not flow on so much as it flows up, like water from a deep spring. And in this way every wedding is a dream, and every word that is spoken there means more than it says, and every gesture—the clasping of hands, the giving of rings—is rich with mystery. Part of the mystery is that beyond the limits of our imagination Jesus as the Messiah or The Christ is there as he was in Cana once, and the joy of a wedding, and maybe even sometimes the tears, are the miracle. In this story when the wedding feast was over, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and started out for the hour that had not yet come but was to come soon enough, the hour when he too was to embrace the whole earth and water it with more than his tears. Again, we have in this dream the depth and breadth of this marriage relationship, this relationship with each other.

And so, it was also, we hope, with the bride and groom at Cana and with every bride and groom and let’s not forget, all human relationships — that the love we bear one another and the joy we take in one another may help us grow in love for this whole troubled world where in the end our loving transforms things and where children seek to absorb this love as the means of life.

The created world is in itself a wondrous splendour and it is our freedom to destroy it or not. Participation in this created splendour is the beginning and the end of all our lives, but ours are our lives themselves, to hoard in misery and to indulge with anxiety and fear or to give away in joy. The revelation of goodness is the gift of power and the glory, but ours is the ear that is deaf to its manifestation, the tongue that is mute in its transformation and the eye that is blind to its beauty. The sign is that the love of the Christ is ours to share and we can either leave it on the cross are share it with each other.

Turning water into wine is about loving the unlovable, the bitter and the lonely. It is about caring for the very slow, and the very old. It is about unleashing the forgotten and the joyless and opening ourselves to the new born and the dying. Amen.

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