People in my Christian tradition, and I imagine others as well, live with this text in strange ways. On one hand, the standard wedding liturgy, as printed in The Christian Minister’s Manual, makes passing reference to this story on its way to the more theological-sounding language of union and such. So there are few stories that have more of an official ring to them–every wedding performed by Campbellite ministers of a certain age mention it. On the other, the fact that it involves drunkenness, and no explicit condemnation of the same, means that it’s ideal fodder for young Turks at Christian colleges. Because many if not most our ministers in the twentieth century tended towards tee-totaling, this text is more than a bit of an embarrassment. Thus the text, rather than the briefly-paraphrased episode as it appears in wedding ceremonies, often serves as a “gateway proof text” of sorts and leading to bolder explorations of other traditions that have grown up around our parents and grandparents in the faith.
What escapes both the wedding-ceremony and the Bible-college-rebellion readings, though, is the powerful literary elements, shading into allegory but also remaining rooted in particular history, that emerge when one reads in certain ways.
The figure that eludes my interpretation every time is the master of the feast. Does he approach the groom in grateful wonder or in a spirit of vague disapproval that one might expect from a Project Runway guest judge? Does his “everyone serves the good wine first” come across breathlessly, unable to comprehend the generosity of a man who would stock that much really good wine for this celebration? Or is his sentiment that “Everyone knows better than that!” On this reading, I tend towards the latter.
Literarily either one works, but making the steward a supercilious gatekeeper of good taste makes the servants much more fun in this story. After all, they’re in on the joke, but the one who has been appointed the arbiter of taste has not. That dramatic irony rings quite true in my own experience: those who pronounce from on high what the “good things” in life really are are at their most amusing, without their say-so, of course, when those who live among the lowly are having the time of their lives irrespective.
That makes the jars a more enjoyable part of the story as well: whereas the narrative of John tells us that they’re properly for purification, a religious rite that should, among the properly aware, remain quite separate from a party, Jesus makes religion into a party, thus making parties part of his religion. A wedding tends to invite the whole family, irrespective of the degrees of respectability that various uncles bring, and that’s what Jesus brings into the world governed by purification. And while Jesus revolutionizes religion and celebration, the steward smirks. “Everyone serves the good wine first” indeed. Perhaps the really good celebration can only happen when purification reaches out to the impure. Perhaps the strongest purification comes from a strong drink with the least of these.
And if we grant all of this (and if you do, your hermeneutic generosity is without question), then the opening line of the story becomes the great allegorical rimshot that happens before the joke: “Jesus and his disciples had been invited.” As with the grand parties that we remember best, the host didn’t know what was coming when he invited that guy. The grand reversal, when the servants are in the know and the arch-hipster arbiter of taste is a step behind, happens when Jesus gets invited, on the third day even, a sign that happens before the first sign, so that you can have a sign while you get the sign. It’s all a grand party, you see. And it’s also the purification of all those who would come along and enjoy the joke with the servants.
May our piety always remember the great jokes of the great merry-maker.