Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Wine Slave's Tale

This was preached for my sermon on 17th January 2016. It is an imagined piece from the point of view of one of the slaves at the Wedding at Cana. There were a number of things I wanted to bring in, which I hope come out in the story. I've not provided links for any of the references this time, as I wanted part of the reaction to this piece to be thinking upon the meaning and how the references link in.

One thing in particular that I was struck by in researching this was how maligned Mary is in our traditional understanding of the story; she is so often portrayed throughout Christian history here as the overbearing Jewish mother. I found this piece from a Catholic writer which made me stop and think, and encouraged me to look for a non-sexist, non-racist view of the narrative. I hope the story helps you find another view too.

I love a New Year wedding, don't you? It seems to fit so well - the sense of hope and new beginnings. The celebration mingled with the feeling of expectation. The happy couple, about to start their life together, and their families coming together as one to join in the feasting - and the drinking!

That's where I come in. Serving the food - and the wine. There are a lot worse jobs for a slave, let me tell you! I've done my fair share of them; mucking out the stables, working away in a hot kitchen. I'm done with those; I've worked my way into the dining hall, where it's warm (but not too hot), the smells are nice, and the people are happy and - mostly - pleasant.

The wedding that day was a New Year one, or at least it felt it. It's also always one that will stick in my mind. It started off like any other; if anything, the groom was poorer than the usual crowd, but he'd spent what he could on making sure it was a fairly decent do. It was one of my first in the dining hall, too; serving the food and the wine.

The guests arrived as normal, drawing water from the large washing jars to wash their hands and the dust  off their feet before they sat down, and the sommelier called the other servants and me together outside and gave us our orders for the 'meal'. He made that clear enough - this one was no wedding feast, it was merely a meal. I won't tell you the word he used to describe the wine the groom had provided, but he was just as scathing about its quality as its quantity. "Be sparing," he told us, "You need to make it last. There's barely enough to go around." The wine was not going to be flowing freely here. It was not a good sign for the marriage.

It was part-way through the second course that he arrived, the rabbi. I don't think he was known as that back then, though. The carpenter's son, I think they called him. From the looks on the faces of the wedding party, I'm not entirely sure he had been expected to turn up. They knew him, that was clear enough. The groom was a cousin - maybe a younger brother? I don't remember, but I'm sure they were related. Anyway, he'd been invited, I think because he ought to have been, and he turned up, complete with an entourage, and walked past me to sit down.

I was standing at the washing jars at this point, washing the plates from the first course. The rabbi and his disciples walked straight passed - they didn't even stop to draw water to wash the dirt of the world off them before they sat down. It wasn't just me who noticed that. There were a few raised eyebrows and tuts from some of the other guests there, I can tell you.

As soon as he turned up, though, things started to change. He called for wine, and now he was there, there was no being frugal with it. It was so odd; from that point on, we topped up everyone's cups, even before the guests asked for it; it just felt such a natural thing to do. In his presence, that meal really did turn into a feast. Wine was flowing freely, and cups ran over.

Naturally, with the other servants and I pouring the wine like there was no tomorrow, it ran out. Now, this really was a bad sign, especially at a wedding. In our culture, we believe that the wedding feast is an image of the kingdom of God, and also that wine is one of the signs of the coming of the messiah, so you can probably guess how bad it is for wine to run out at a wedding. Without joking, grooms have been sued by their guests for less. It's a really bad omen, and it's incredibly rude hosting.

And for us? The servants in charge of pouring and distributing the stuff? Well, let's just say I was fully expecting that to be one of my first and definitely my last foray into the dining hall. The sommelier was not going to be happy. I was praying that he'd take pity, and only send me back into the kitchens. I deserved much worse than that.

One of the guests must have noticed us panicking. She pieced it together, and I saw a look of concern appear on her face. She made her way over to the rabbi. I  decided to make a pretence at clearing up so I could go over to the table. I wanted to hear what was being said.

The woman kissed the rabbi, and started to speak. Amongst that concern, I thought I detected a hint of excitement in her voice.

"They have no wine," she said. "Is this how it all starts? Is this his plan?"

"This thing you're asking," he replied slowly, "You do know what it means for you? What it means for me? Do you want this journey to start here? Are you ready for it?"

The woman went white. She looked at him with dread.

He held her shoulders. "Not yet," he reassured her. "That hour, my hour, is not here yet."

She relaxed slightly into his hold.

"It is how the journey has to end, though?" she asked.

"For the people to have wine, yes. That hour must come. Not my will, but my Father's be done."

He hugged her. They embraced for several seconds. When they broke away, she had tears in her eyes. She wiped them away and strengthened herself.

"I am ready," she said. "To me be as it pleases God."

She looked straight at me, and I went red, suddenly embarrassed to have not just witnessed, but been eavesdropping on this meaningful, intimate moment. She didn't seem to mind. She smiled peacefully. 

"Do whatever he tells you," she told me. 

Then it was the rabbi's turn to smile.

He pointed to the six large washing jars. "Take out the plates," he said, "and top them up, right to the brim with water."

I gathered my colleagues, and we did so, putting the plates to one side and adding new water to what was left of the washing-up.

Next, he instructed us to draw some out and take it straight to the sommelier. Again, I drew the short straw. I did not dare look at what I was doing as I drew out a cup of the washing-up water and, trembling, carried it over to my master to taste. As I gave it to him, I wondered what the rabbi was asking me to do; was this some visual parable of which the sommelier was the unfortunate antagonist? And what would happen to me when he tasted the bilge? I certainly would not escape with a simple demotion to the kitchens...

The sommelier took the cup to his lips, and drank. I held my breath.

He looked at me, astounded as he handed back the cup. I closed my eyes, and tried to prepare for the scolding, and the potential beating, that was surely to come.

By the time I opened them again, what seemed like decades later, he was no longer standing in front of me, but was instead, over by the groom, rhapsodising over the taste sensation he had just experienced.

 "I do not understand!" he was saying. "Your guests are all on the verge of drunkeness; they will drink anything you set before them, and you choose now to bring out the best wine I have ever tasted? Why did you leave this 'til last?"

The groom looked perplexed. Only the rabbi, his mother and we servants had any clue as to what had just happened, and, I suspect, only the rabbi, and possibly his mother, understood it.

As I walked back to the rabbi, I could not help myself; I had to steal a sip. I had to taste this wine, experience this miracle for myself.

I am no wine expert, but even I could tell this was wine of an astounding quality. Its colour was rich and deep; blood-red, and the moment I tasted it I knew at once that I would both never thirst again, and never have had enough if I drank only this wine for a thousand years. This was good news indeed for the wedding party and the groom - in those washing-up jars, there was the equivalent of nearly 200 more bottles of the stuff! There was truly an abundance of this new wine; these people would have wine to drink and to celebrate with for a very long time.

I took the cup to the rabbi. "This must be the best wine in the kingdom," I said, giving him the cup, "and here it is, in this house, just for the gathering of the ordinary people here."

"That wine, the best wine," he said, "is not yet. There will be a better wine than this, for all the people, but the hour is not yet come. The journey has started now though. When that hour does come, the people will always have wine. Wine that will never run out, and those who drink it will never thirst again."

And taking that cup of wine, he blessed it and gave it to me, saying "Take; drink. This is for you."

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