Rorate Caeli

Italian-American Weddings and the First Miracle of Jesus

We read in the second chapter of the Gospel of John: “Jesus performed this first of his signs at Cana in Galilee. Thus did he reveal his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”   For me, when reading this account of the wedding feast at Cana: the question that comes to my mind is this: "Have you ever been to an Italian-American wedding?"  Not an Italian wedding—something different yet similar but different—but an Italian-American wedding.  Now I do not mean one of those toned-down, Americanized, rather staid affairs with pasta stations (imagine such a thing as a pasta station!), not these planned out affairs where the mother of the bride is out of place in her pastel lacy dress.  The scene of today’s gospel is a Jewish wedding, and if the truth be known, and it is known, there are striking similarities between the ethnicity of Italians and Jews. Mothers and chicken soup.  Matzoh balls and little meatballs.  Need I say more.  

My recollection of weddings while I was growing up in an Italian ghetto in Providence, RI,  brings forth the following images:  platters of macaroni, before it was called pasta, one whole platter ending up in my Uncle Tony’s plate, the chicken that was always the subject of the women’s conversation as to whether it was cooked right or cooked enough, the limp salad but with real olive oil and real vinegar. And what to drink?  Soda for the kids, served from the case, the bottle plonked down in front of you on the table. And for the rest, of course, wine, more often than not the homemade variety, whose bouquet took the breath away and whose finish was rough to say the least. 

 And then always came the dessert before the cake: the rock hard ice cream in three colors covered with wax paper with a wooden spoon attached which you had to pry away in order to attack the frozen block, and then, ah yes, then came the cookies and those things called in the dialect, wandi, a word that no one can spell because it may not exist, these pillowy concoctions of fried dough in the shape of bows deep fried and wearing a snowy coating of powdered sugar, and the home made cookies on big trays, most of which ended up in  wrapped up in napkins and stuffed in the ladies’ pocketbooks (we never heard of handbags) and retrieved the next day to dunk in morning coffee. 

 The band consisted of assorted instruments but the one instrument that could not be missing was the accordion, whose strange and almost plaintive sound evoked the memories of the Campagna from which we all came. And after the cookies, the line was formed, a line that wound its way to the bride and groom sitting at the head table.  Everyone in the line carried an envelope, la busta. And in that envelope was money. And you placed la busta in a basket near the bride and groom, and the man received a bad cigar and the woman received a lace wrapped package of almond candy.  I must have been at least twenty years old before I realized that some people, that is, non -Italian-Americans, gave gifts at a wedding and not la busta.  But lest you think giving money is crass, let me say that it came from the times when there was little money, and the envelopes helped to pay for the reception with a little left over to give to the bride and groom.  We talk about community today in such a self-conscious way. But this was real in a realistic community.

So this is the type of wedding I imagine Jesus and his mother and his disciples attended at Cana. Certainly not engineered by a professional wedding planner, but rather, shall we say, earthy.  Now this wedding is important because this is the occasion of Jesus’ first miracle. I have always been very impressed that the first miracle occurs at a wedding and it involved the changing of water into wine.  Just think of the reaction of the Pharisees to this event.  Or think of the reaction of the Greek intellectuals who heard about this, or  the rest of the world, and the other great world religions to this first miracle: at a wedding, Jesus turns water into wine. 

While the other miracles of Jesus involve healing, exorcism, raising the dead to life: this very first miracle, the first sign in the Gospel of John, is changing water into wine.  And John makes it quite clear that the purpose of these miracles is to give foundation and substance to the answer to the seminal question:  "Who is this man Jesus?  Jesus’ miracles are part of the Epiphany, are part of the manifestation of Christ to the world, are part of the showing forth of who this man was and is.  From the star at Bethlehem, to the worship of the Christ child by the Magi, to the baptism of Jesus when the heavens open and the voice from heaven is heard: “This is my Son, my beloved, listen to him”. And now to the first sign. And the first sign is in the context of a celebration of an event of great joy: a marriage. But also a celebration of an event that was marked—and is still marked—by great courage and faith on the part of the bride and groom: that this arrangement—illogical and perhaps unlikely from the vantage point of the world—and this so much more today—could be entered into at all.  And so there is wine at this celebration, wine, which in the words of the psalmist, gladdens the hearts of man. But they run out of wine. The moment is tense. Mary points out to her Son that they have no wine.  

Jesus is reluctant to act, for his hour of glorification has not yet come, that is, his Crucifixion, his being raised up from the earth for all to see what the love of God is like: this is still to come.  But the beginning of the ministry has come, and so his mother instructs the servants:  “Do whatever he tells you”. And from the water used for purification before the meal that filled the huge stone jars came the best wine of the whole feast a wine whose delightful intensity danced on the tongues of the bride and groom and everyone at the wedding feast.

And why is this miracle most fitting as the first miracle of Jesus?  Because it is a direct echo of the prologue to John’s Gospel read every time the Traditional Roman Mass is celebrated: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…all things were created through Him…and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us".  And so the first miracle of Jesus deals with creation, making things new, transforming things of this real world, taking water and making it wine, and doing this in a context that was and is intensely human: at an ordinary, simple Jewish wedding, a time of affirmation of faith and love, an ordinary time in an ordinary place. And it is the Lord of Creation himself who transforms this water into wine. And we are told:  “The disciples, on seeing this believed”.  What did they believe?  They believed precisely what the point of the miracle was:  they believed in the person of Jesus Christ.  The Lord of Creation showed who he was by this power over reality itself, physical reality, and did so in a context that is one of a celebration, yet no big deal and unnoticed, just like his birth, by the rest of the world.   This miracle is not only Christ’s manifestation of his lordship over creation, over physical reality, but is in the deepest sense a manifestation of the role that physical reality plays in the Christian faith, the faith, as I shall never tire of repeating, of water, of wine, of oil and bread, of stone and fire and smoke, of paint and gilt, of people and hearts and love.  

Ah, yes, the miracle at Cana, so long ago. How nice, and what does this have to do with us?  If we would but open our eyes, we would see that it has everything to do with us, for it is we who are at the wedding feast of the Lamb, it is we who are at the celebration of the person of Jesus, it is we who participate in the feast of the triumph of death over life in every celebration of Holy Mass.  And to participate in the Mass is to be a part of a miracle that transcends Cana: for we witness not the changing of water into wine, but rather we witness in so more mighty a way the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all creation, as wine is transformed into the saving Blood of Christ, as bread is transformed into the life-giving Body of Christ. For what was a sign at Cana, in the Mass is a reality: the power of the Spirit of Christ comes forth in our midst transforming created reality, transforming the very stuff of physicality of the universe, so that we might be transformed from the people who walk in darkness to the people who have been called into his marvelous light.

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,

      Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack

        From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

        If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";

        Love said, "You shall be he."

"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,

        I cannot look on thee."

Love took my hand and smiling did reply,

        "Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame

        Go where it doth deserve."

"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"

        "My dear, then I will serve."

"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."

        So I did sit and eat. 

George Herbert  (1593-1633)

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla