January 27, 2019

The State of Euphoria

Passage: John 2:1–11

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St. John tells how, at Cana's wedding feast,
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
There were a hundred gallons at the least.

It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That this world's fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you.

Now, if your loves will lend an ear to mine,
I toast you both, good son and dear new daughter.
May you not lack for water,
And may that water smack of Cana's wine.

–Richard Wilbur, “A Wedding Toast”

At the University of Michigan my son roomed for three years with this wonderful kid named Akhil. Akhil is from Long Island but his heritage is Indian; either his parents or his grandparents immigrated to the States.

Michael served as a groomsman in Akhil’s wedding in Brooklyn a while back, and Michael came back saying “What a party!”

The festivities sprawled over four days. There was a party on Thursday, and another on Friday.  On Saturday, the couple sat in the center of a circle while various groups of relatives danced around them for 90 minutes. The men wore the traditional Indian garment called a kurta. On Sunday, the groom arrived on horseback. The sacred ritual took three hours, starting at 1p.m; the last guests went home 14 hours later at 3 a.m.

Michael lives in San Francisco now, and has a bunch of other Indian friends. Some of them want to get married at a winery in the Sonoma Valley, and when these young lovers scout wedding venues, you know what one of the most important selling points is? The first thing the vineyard owners tell them is: “We have an elephant license.” You can bring an elephant to your wedding at a Sonoma Valley vineyard.

Kathy and I are planning two weddings this year in my family, and we’re a little intimidated. But I can assure you that when my daughter gets married here at Kenilworth Union in June, there will be no elephant. I don’t think we have an elephant license, but maybe we do; I’ll have to check with Bev Lang.

It’s true in every land, in every culture, in every language, in every religion, in every family we know anything about: the biggest party we will ever throw in our lives is a wedding. And this is just as it should be. Family is the fundament of the ordered life of civilization itself, and thus a wedding is a celebration of love, sex, children, the marriage of true minds, the union of two soul mates, unbridled joy, so at weddings we put the petal to the metal and let the party fly!

My favorite Shakespeare play by a country mile is Much Ado About Nothing, and that’s mostly because of Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film with Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, and Michael Keaton.

There are several weddings in Much Ado About Nothing, and if the polar vortex or the government shutdown or just the drudgeries of pedestrian life have gotten you down, just watch and wait till the killer blowout wedding at the end, and you will weep with joy. Kenneth Branagh just wants to say, “This is life as it should be, this is the universe itself gushing out its blessings like a fountain of chocolate or of wine.”

This is neither here nor there, but I thought it was interesting and maybe you will too. I started thinking about all the romance and love matches in Shakespeare’s plays; it’s the driving plot point in all the comedies and in a couple of the tragedies, so I asked myself how many weddings there are in Shakespeare’s plays, but it turns out that the number is very small.

There’s lots of love and sex, lots of young men smitten by young women and vice versa, many young women are promised as brides to their future husbands, but the actual weddings usually occur offstage.

You know why? It’s because in Elizabethan England, weddings were sacred rituals and the playhouse was too profane a place to host even a pretend wedding. It would be like getting married on the Las Vegas strip. Oh, wait! That happens all the time, but you see my point.

The biggest party I will ever throw will be on June 22, 2019, right here. Unless we work for the Academy Awards or for McCormick Place, the biggest party any of us will ever throw is our daughter’s wedding.

It was true in Jesus’ day too. First-century Palestinian weddings lasted seven days. Tables groaned under the nourishment atop. The wine flowed like fountains, more on that in a minute.

Palestine is a harsh and parsimonious landscape. The average villager from Nazareth or Cana never got enough to eat. Calories were dear, so a wedding party was the one time of year when the local peasant could eat his fill.

So the father of the bride can never run out of food or wine at the wedding. That was a social disaster of epic proportions. One commentator on this passage says, bluntly: “Family and friends passed harsh judgement on the father of the bride who could not carry a wedding off in style.”[1]

So when a wedding host runs out of wine midway through the festivities at a wedding Jesus attends with his twelve best friends, Mother Mary runs up to her extraordinary son in a panic and says, “They’ve run out of wine.”

Notice that she doesn’t ask him for a miracle. She doesn’t ask for anything. She just tells him the blunt, bare, brutal fact: no wine. Jesus is baffled. “Why are you telling me this? Why is this my problem? What do you want me to do about it?”

And then this funny, revealing little detail. She turns to the wait staff and says, “Do whatever he tells you.” She completely ignores him. A typical Jewish mother, getting her way.

And you know the rest of the story. Jesus turns common well-water into a rich red Cabernet that The Wine Spectator would rate at 97. John takes the trouble to tell us how much well-water-cum-Cabernet there was: 150 gallons. Now think about that for a moment. If the wedding at Cana had the same number of guests that I’m going to invite to my daughter’s wedding—about 200—that means that there are three more bottles of wine for every guest. And the party is almost over! This can only lead to trouble.

St. John is the only Evangelist who tells us this story, and in the Gospel of John, the wedding at Cana is Jesus’s debut. This is his world premiere on the stage of human history. This is the first thing he does in the Gospel of John.

This fact deeply troubled our Puritan ancestors. They were not teetotalers, obviously; they drank more beer than water. But they wondered whether it was circumspect for Jesus to squander his extraterrestrial power on rescuing a wedding host from a social faux pas. Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus makes blind men see and lame men walk and raises the dead and banishes the demons. Why, in John, is he making people drunk? First thing he does out of the starting gate.

Could it be that John wants to say: where Jesus is, there is joy, there is laughter, there is conviviality. Where Jesus is, there is fecundity, prolificity, plenitude, and surplus of gladness.

Some New Testament scholars think that John might be cribbing from Greek mythology here. Dionysus is the Greek god of wine, of course; Bacchus to the Romans.[2] About this time of year, just after the winter solstice, when the days are short and the nights are long, the Greeks threw a huge party called the Dionysia, in honor of the god of the grape harvest. There are several temples of Dionysus spread across the Greek isles, and legend has it that at the Dionysia party, the temple fountains gushed with wine.

Is John alluding to that? Is John telling us that Jesus is the Jewish Dionysus? Is Jesus the God of Wine? Can I say that in church? Well, yes I can! Jesus is the God of everything.

Jesus is not just with us in our sorrows, but also in our joys. Jesus doesn’t show up just at our funerals but at our weddings. Jesus patches together our broken hearts, to be sure, but he baptizes our gladness too.

But what exactly happened when Jesus turned 150 gallons of common well-water into a rich red...fill in the blank with your favorite varietal? Did he cast a spell over those 25-gallon water jars and instantly morph the chemistry of the molecules in a feat of divine alchemy? It’s possible.

John tells us that at Cana of Galilee Jesus does instantly and unnaturally what God Godself does slowly and naturally every summer on the hillsides of Burgundy and on the undulating slopes of Sonoma, turning millions of gallons of common rainwater into an ambrosial nectar that has gladdened the human heart for 10,000 years. God turns water into wine every summer all over the world, so it’s not surprising that Jesus, the reflection of the glory and image of that copious plenitude, would do the same. He came to a wedding, the feast of human love, to make wine, the elixir of human gladness.

So that’s possible. Or, did he cast a spell not over the water, but over the guests. Maybe Jesus invokes his magical incantation, and voila! The guests who are drinking well-water think they’re drinking wine. That miracle is just as spectacular as the other possibility.

Richard Wilbur has this wonderful poem: What love sees is true; the world’s fullness is not made but found. “Whatsoever love seeks to bless brims to a sweet excess that can without depletion flow.”[3]

Yes? The world’s fullness is not made but found. The sweet elixir was always there in those water jars, and when Jesus shows up, we find it, we find the lavish inebriant.

What love seeks to bless, brims to a sweet excess. Guys, do you know that your wife thinks you are more handsome than most other people think you are? It’s true. It works the other way too. Husbands think they’re wives are cuter than other people think. They’ve done survey after survey. Ask 100 people how attractive a person is, and the spouse usually ranks her partner higher than the average. If on average the strangers think you are a seven, your wife will rate you a nine. This might not happen if they ask her on one of your bad days, but you see my point.

Now this might be self-evident. It stands to reason that when someone agrees to link her life to another until death do them part, naturally when you first asked her out or when you proposed, she thought you were dangerously handsome; she might be the only one, but that’s what she thought. The results of this survey are self-selecting. Or it could be that when someone asks how attractive you are, she is rationalizing to herself a long-ago decision that doesn’t always seem that rational.

But I like to think that the reason she still thinks you are dangerously handsome is because she likes you. You are precious to her. She can’t live without you. You have cast a spell over her eyesight. She thinks she is drinking wine when actually it’s just water. “Whatsoever love seeks to bless brims to a sweet excess. The world’s fullness is not made but found.”

One woman said, “when I found out my husband couldn’t meet my needs, I changed my needs.”[4] They are happily married. She couldn’t transform him, so she transformed herself. She turned water into wine. The world’s fullness is not made but found.

Do you know who Roger Rosenblatt is? Roger Rosenblatt was for years a renowned columnist for Time Magazine and The Washington Post. Now I think he’s retired from journalism and writes memoirs and novels for a living.

He wrote the most wonderful article in The New Yorker. Roger’s daughter Amy Elizabeth Rosenblatt Solomon was a pediatrician married to a hand surgeon. She had three children, seven, five, and 23 months.

At the age of 38, she collapsed on her treadmill in the basement playroom. It was Sammie the five-year-old who found her. He ran upstairs to his father and calmly said, “Mommy isn’t talking.” She died instantly: anomalous right coronary artery.

When something like that happens, all your memories of the one you loved and lost suddenly get sharper and brighter and more precious. Amy’s father Roger remembers the day his beautiful daughter married Harris, the hand surgeon. The officiant at the wedding was a friend of the couple, a cartoonist actually, and Roger remembers that he said many beautiful things to the young lovers, and at the climactic moment in the wedding, he said, “With the power vested in me by the state of euphoria, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”[5]

That made me so happy. When I marry my daughter to my dear new son-in-law, what I’m supposed to say is “With the power vested in me by the state of Illinois…” But what I’m going to say is: “With the power vested in me by the state of euphoria...”  Because that’s where I’ll be.

Oh, by the way, this mythic state of euphoria? You know who’s in charge there? Jesus is the Governor of the State of Euphoria.

[1]Gerard Sloyan, Interpretation Commentary on John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), p. 36.

[2]Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible Series, v. 29 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1966), p. 101.

[3]Richard Wilbur, “A Wedding Toast,” New & Collected Poems (New York: Harcourt, 1988), 61.

[4]Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree (New York: Scribner, 2012), p. 371.

[5]Roger Rosenblatt, “Making Toast,” The New Yorker, December 15, 2008, p. 48.