The first recorded ‘sign’ that Jesus gave in public was not a lecture in a synagogue, a tweet or an acclaimed first book. It happened during a wedding in Cana in Galilee, that he attended with family and friends. His mother told him that the wine for the reception had run out. Without making a big fuss, he turned a lot of water into very good wine.
Whatever ‘actually’ happened on that occasion – and how it became symbolised in the oral transmission that later became the New Testament tradition – is hidden in history. But the setting is important, especially for the third day of Lent. Wine is forbidden for Buddhist monks and in other religious traditions as an artificial stimulant that clouds the mind’s pure state. In the biblical tradition, a psalm happily praises God for wine because it ‘cheers man’s heart’ just as oil makes his face shine. St Benedict thought that monks should not drink it but as he was in Italy he could not persuade them, so he was content to advocate moderation. At the climax of his life Jesus chose wine, as part of a religious ritual, to symbolise how his body was indeed the sacred language of who he was and all that he was teaching.
On our pilgrimage to Cana, the married couples renewed their marriage vows. Liz and Albert King held the record at 60 years. We had the church to ourselves and we had a great time even though the only wine was in the chalice. There was a lot of fun and laughter and story-telling which was part of a Christian reverence for marriage as a symbol of Christ’s relationship to his followers.
The smiling faces at the mass must have echoed the expression and mood at the wedding Jesus attended. A miserable wedding would be a nightmare. Was Jesus attending as a solemn-looking spiritual friend who didn’t really want to be there, couldn’t enter the fun and was only valuable because he saved the day with his first miracle? Or was he enjoying himself as part of a community of friends?
How often do we see or imagine Jesus laughing in a simple, human way, not to symbolise anything but because that’s what he really felt? We all know how suddenly a smile can transform and light up a face and change the mood of a whole group. Simone Weil says that that smile of Jesus is now extended, beyond the wedding day at Cana and is spreading throughout the cosmos. She says his smile is the beauty of the world.
Our perception of beauty and its varied forms can be fleeting. But what we see is a glimpse of the true nature of reality. I was watching a flight attendant recently. He was serving a full flight and looked stressed. Yet he smiled whenever he was supposed to, even though the smile faded quickly when the moment of contact with a passenger was over. There is something sad about a smile that disappears too quickly. Genuine smiles linger on the lips and in the eyes when the signal they give is no longer needed.
Long after Cana, the smile of Jesus that irradiates us in every meditation, is still human and not an empty sign.