The rabbi raised his arms to Heaven and said an opening prayer in Hebrew, then switched to Aramaic as he turned to Abner and Rebecca, “Is this your daughter, whom you surrender on this day and in this place to leave your house forever and be joined to the house of Johab ben Nathan and his father, here assembled?”
Abner consented and his wife took a position behind her daughter to remove the wreath of flowers on her head. Then Johab, much relieved to have his bride within his sight – even within his reach – accepted Rebecca’s invitation to bring the folded part of Naomi’s veil to the front so that it covered her face, then he stepped aside as his soon-to-be mother-in-law replaced the ringlet of flowers before stepping away to join her husband, her part in the festivities – indeed, her duties as a mother – complete.
[For convenience, first ten chapters have been combined into one link: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/a-boys-tale-introduction-and-chapter-1 ]
Though there were yet many formalities to observe before she would be his wife, Naomi was now pledged to Johab of the house of Nathan, and her covered face was intended to show that she was spoken for. It would stay in place until after the vows were said later in the day.
Following a few more words, the first rites were complete and the couple, joined by the rabbi, adjourned to a private room to reflect upon the occasion and the lifetime promises about to be made. This freed the rest of us to sample the generous spread of food and drink that had appeared during the ceremony, unnoticed, on the far side of the courtyard .
The pause in the wedding rites also allowed us, finally, to greet my uncles and speak with Uncle Simon for the first time since we had arrived in Galilee. We embraced and talked briefly, but they were soon pulled away by James Zebedee – who had also come over to speak to Mama and Aunt Martha – though Mama made them promise to spend time with us the next day, before allowing them to return to their group.
Indeed, except for me, everyone seemed to have some group to join: kinfolk having reunions, or customers currying favor, or dear friends rarely seen delighting in each other’s company and old times remembered. Somehow, even though I was only a few years younger than many of the guests, I seemed to be from a place apart. Even Ruth, though only slightly older than I, was transformed and unapproachable. In the two years since I had last seen her, she had completed that wondrous female metamorphosis from girl to woman, and no longer seemed my peer on any level.
And so it was that, left on my own, I found a shady place to stand against the back wall near the trees, then expanded my vision and perked up my ears to take in as much of the scene as possible. I pretended for a time that the colorful, constantly moving spectacle was a Greek drama on a stage, but I was soon distracted from my imaginings by one story line, in particular, that commanded my attention.
It was only natural that my eyes would return, time and again, to Joshua. His family and apostles were all huddled together in a way that seemed useful, if not entirely effective, for keeping the curious guests at bay. Watching all this from my corner, I was practically aching to walk over and join them, and probably would have, if Mary and James, Joshua’s mother and brother, had not pulled him away from the group – to a place only a few feet from where I was standing – to speak in private.
If anything, Joshua seemed almost embarrassed by all the attention coming his way, and even, perhaps, having second thoughts about having come to the wedding at all. But none of this seemed to have registered with his mother, who clearly had other ideas, other expectations of her son, and even if he was uninterested in responding to the yearning so evident on the faces of their friends and neighbors, she was absolutely sure that he was meant to, that this was his moment, an opportunity not to be wasted, and she did her best to goad him into acting.
If I hadn’t seen it for myself, it would never have occurred to me that even Joshua might have difficulty pleasing his mother, so I was surprised and a little taken aback by how impatient she seemed to be.
“I know you have your own plans and like to keep things to yourself,” she tried a subtle approach, “but I also know in my heart that you would never allow all these people to be disappointed, so can’t you at least let us in on your plans? What are you thinking, my son? At just what point on this glorious day do you plan to reveal yourself?”
Then James started in, but spoke more directly, “You know all these people are only here, brother, because you are here, and they are waiting for you to justify their journey. I can’t believe you are not moved by such heartfelt longings! Look at this great gathering that has sprung up overnight just to see you! I know it is simply not in your heart to disappoint – indeed, to disillusion – so many good Galileans who are, here and now, ready to support you. And we? We are your family, brother, and only want to help! Just tell us when to be ready.”
Well. Even as they were addressing him, I could see Joshua’s jawline becoming slightly sharper, his eye-set just a little narrower. Though he did his best not to show his growing displeasure, his countenance went from curiosity, to attention, to concern, to irritation and finally to clear disappointment as he turned to his mother and said the first words that I ever heard him say: “This is not the time or place, my mother. If you love me, then be patient, even as I must patiently await the will of my Heavenly Father. These things must unfold as He chooses, and not as I, nor even those I love dearly, may wish.”
He put his hands gently upon her shoulders, gave her a kiss on the cheek and turned to rejoin the others, while Mary turned to James and said, “I cannot understand him. Is there no end to his strangeness?” Then, willing herself to show a smile, she took her son’s arm and said, “Let us get some wine.”
With that, the drama before me at an end, I decided it was the perfect moment to take a break from the festivities and spend more time in Malchus’s garden while the sun was still high in the sky. I had purposely stayed near the back gate to be ready if the opportunity presented itself, and easily slipped through the exit.
I was certain my departure had gone unnoticed, so I was surprised when, only a few seconds later, I heard someone follow me through the gate and turned to see who it could be.
“What a good idea you have, young John,” said the man in white. It was Joshua, himself! “Just as I was wondering how I might escape this madness for a moment, you came to my rescue by showing the way.”
I was half-dumbfounded and half-thrilled. “Joshua, you know my name!?” I said, more exclamation than question.
“Of course I do,” he replied. “But first, my fine lad, you are welcome to call me Jesus – everyone does – and as for you, well, you are the one and only John Mark, son of Mary and Elijah Mark. In the days before your well-remembered grandparents left us, you would come and watch me work in the boatshop. You have grown taller in these last two years.”
“I’m already taller than Mama,” I said, not really knowing what to say.
“And, a good son to her, I’m certain,” he said. “So tell me, why are you leaving so festive a celebration just as it is getting started?”
“There is no one here for me to talk to, for one thing,” I answered, “I guess I was bored. But the better question, it seems to me, is why are you leaving when there are so many people in there who are here to see you?” After overhearing him with his mother, I had a pretty good idea why he was avoiding the crowd, but I hoped I could cheer him up by pointing out the obvious success of his appeal.
“Well, John, that is precisely it,” he said. “these people have not come to Cana so much to see me, as to see the wonders I might perform. They are anticipating Zeus, himself, with bolts of lightning to toss about, but I am not a magician, a seller of tricks. I am not here to astonish, and I have no intention of doing so. I am here to attend a wedding with my mother, my family and my friends. That is all. And, young John, even if I were to exploit this opportunity for my own ends – something that I am disinclined to do, in any case – I fear these expectant guests would only be disappointed. My mission here is to teach; to tell the stories and share the important news of the love of our Heavenly Father, but somehow I don’t think our neighbors back there would be satisfied with a simple sermon. Do you?”
“No,” I said, “I think you’re right.”
“Even so,” he continued, “it does pain me to know that I must disappoint so many – even some I love deeply – who have such high expectations and have, rightly or wrongly, come here in hope and faith, looking for something more than, well, hope and faith.
“But do not despair, my good lad, for I do not. I just need to find a quiet corner where I might sit for a few moments to commune with my Heavenly Father and salve my soul.”
“I know the perfect place!” I nearly shouted, it hit me with such force. “Follow me,” I said, then, remembering that he had said exactly the same two words to Uncle Andrew only a few days before, I smiled at the irony. I should have turned to see if he was smiling, too. I wish I had.
We quickly crossed the divide and, with a flourish, I opened the gate to Malchus’s stunning arboreal display. Undeniably surprised by the beauty so suddenly arrayed before him, his eyes grew large, his countenance peaceful and a marvelous contentment took hold of him as his gaze shifted ever upward from the irises at our feet, past the terraces of flowers, to the trees on the roof, and finally, to Heaven, itself. He simply said, “Oh, my.”
“You may stay here as long as you like,” I said. “There are no servants about, and everyone else is at the wedding, so you will not be disturbed.”
He looked at me and said, “My Father’s ability to provide for my needs never fails to leave me in awe. I accept your gift of rare beauty, and rejoice to spend even a few moments in so lovingly grown a garden. Thank you, John Mark.”
“You must thank Malchus when you meet him,” I said. “This is his doing, not mine, and he is very proud of it.”
“As well he should be,” he said, then quietly added, “As am I.”
“Now, I should get back before Mama misses me.” I said it even though I suspected she wouldn’t even notice I was gone. It was better, I thought, that he “commune with his Father” in peace. “You should walk about to see it all,” I said as I left. “It really is amazing.”
Returning to the celebration earlier than I had expected, I still had no one to talk to, but it felt good that I had been of some small service to the man of the hour. As I thought through our encounter, I realized that it had only added to the mystery. When in his presence, one couldn’t help but be caught up in the great wave of his spirit, and yet he was as the simplest, easiest, most open of men. It was only my first real encounter with him, but a great flowering vine of faith was already sprouting in my heart and sending its rootlets into the fertile ground of my youthful soul.
I ate some food and drank a small cup of wine – better than Malchus’s the night before, but still not close to Great-Grandpa Seth’s. I wandered through the house and courtyard trying to decipher which guests were really invited, and which were the expectant ones there to witness the salvation of Israel in the person of Joshua ben Joseph; the person of my new friend Jesus. I began to understand why he had wanted to take some time away from it all as I watched and listened to a range of strongly-held opinions, and I felt the tension – and my concern – grow stronger by the minute as the air of expectancy all around me, perhaps fueled by the hot sun and good wine, continued to thicken.
He had made it clear enough in only our few moments together that he was not about to do anything miraculous or glorious or even out of the ordinary, and I began to be concerned that if the large assemblage of hopefuls were truly disappointed, they might turn on him even before the day was out.
The rest of the afternoon was filled with wedding business as Johab and Naomi came out of seclusion to proclaim their vows at the altar. Naomi had the first part to play as she slowly walked around Johab seven times. This was meant to reflect the seven circuits required to fell the walls of Jerico, thereby affirming the destruction of any separation between bride and groom.
Then they surprised everyone by singing rather than speaking their vows to each other, he in a rich deep voice that rang out beyond the walls – it was the one time all day that he did not seem cowed by the huge numbers of people – and she in a beautiful, lilting way that lingered in the air when she was done.
I observed all this from my favorite spot by the back gate, and even after the vows were completed, I remained there for a time just watching the guests move from group to group, greeting old friends and making new ones, and all the while shooting occasional glances to the place where Jesus, having returned from his time apart, stood with his family and apostles.
Some of the guests near enough for me to overhear were convinced that he would make a move during the vows, but when they were proven wrong, their friends were quick to say they weren’t surprised.
“After all,” the woman said, “it would have been unseemly for him to interrupt the wedding like that. Surely he will announce himself after dinner.”
And once again, sometime later, my secluded position allowed me to witness even more clearly Jesus’s determination to disappoint all such expectations. I was still hanging back under the palms, watching as most of the guests headed inside to take their seats for the wedding feast, when he gathered his apostles together only a few feet from where I stood. They, too, had been intensely aware of the murmurs all around them, and, much as his mother and brother had done earlier in the day, began exhorting him to proclaim himself, to make some sort of move – to do something, anything – that would satisfy the guests. But he would have none of it.
“I have not come to this place to work some wonder for the gratification of the curious or the conviction of doubters,” he said. “We are simply here to celebrate the joining of two great houses of Galilee – nothing more – while we await the will of our Father above. That is all.”
James Zebedee started in again, but Jesus simply looked at him and held up his hand to say, “James, my brother, enough.”
With that, the apostles, finally, seemed to take him at his word, but they didn’t look at all happy about it. This was especially true of Uncle Simon-Peter, who I heard grumbling under his breath as I followed the group inside to take my own seat, but I couldn’t quite make out what he was saying.
It was a delicious meal and the wine, I learned, had been imported from an ancient wine-producing region north of Rome. It may have taken second place to Old Seth’s in my limited experience, but from the talk heard around the tables, it was considered a marvelous treat, and was certainly consumed to happy effect.
Indeed, perhaps too happily. We were seated near Nathan, and it was toward the end of the meal when his chief steward came to tell him that the wine was running low. We most likely wouldn’t have noticed if his reaction had been less vocal, but he practically shouted, “That cannot be!” So we had all turned to look.
In spite of this momentary lapse of etiquette, we managed to complete the meal in fine fashion and many of the diners soon moved outdoors to mingle underneath the bright colors of the setting sun. With most of the day’s planned activity concluded, I was just about to slip through the back gate again when I overheard Johab’s mother, Hadassah, remark to some of the women – including Jesus’s mother – that, in spite of her husband’s best efforts, the wine was nearly exhausted and she despaired as to how they might continue to serve so many guests.
Well, even as she spoke, I could see the mood of Mary lift and her face become resolute. It was as if some perfect plan had suddenly clicked into place behind her eyes, and she immediately said, “My dear, have no fear. I will tell my son. He will help.”
Jesus, having finished his meal, had returned to the palm grove in the corner where he had been retreating from the crowd all day – only a few feet from my favorite spot – and this time she approached him as if on a mission.
“My son, they have no wine,” she said.
“Mother, what has that to do with me?” he asked, his frustration clear.
“Why, my Son, don’t you see?” she asked. “This is the perfect opportunity! By doing a kindness for our generous hosts, you can also help yourself at the same time!”
“Must I say it again, Mother?” his tone was downright stern, “I have not come here to perform tricks. Why can’t you get it through your head?”
“But, son,” she continued, “I promised them you would help us. Can’t you just do this one little thing for me?”
“Mother,” he said, becoming even more exasperated, “who are you to make such promises in my name? See that you do not do it again. It is not up to me! How many times have you heard me say that we must, in all things, wait upon the will of our Father in heaven?”
As she listened, and the finality in his voice finally penetrated, it was all, ultimately, just more than she could bear. If the stories we had all heard by then were true, she had been awaiting this moment for a lifetime, and – wonder of wonders – the promise of Gabriel, given to her so long ago, was at last to be fulfilled. The stage was set, the audience, having gathered through some miraculous urge, was in place, and yet her son of promise was immovable. I watched from the deepening shadows as the tears began rolling down her cheeks. She was all out of arguments, so she simply stood there looking into his eyes, silently sobbing.
Well, surely any loving son will agree that no emotional wrench is more painful than to disappoint one’s mother, and her tears were more than Jesus had bargained for. He leaned forward, took her head in his hands, and said, “Now, now, my mother, please don’t take my words so personally. I would very happily do what you ask of me if it were the will of my Father…” and then, abruptly, he stopped. It was as if he had suddenly swallowed a fly. But it was no fly. Something had happened in his head; to his spirit. Something had taken him by surprise, and, in seconds, his face betrayed a rainbow of emotions from frustration with his mother, to puzzlement at the sudden sensation, to astonishment at the realization that, without the least intention to do anything out of the ordinary, he had somehow commanded a change in the scheme of things. And, all this transpired in the blink of an eye before his focus returned to his mother, but she had seen what I had seen, and had already shifted her attention to the nearby stewards.
“Whatever he says,” she said to them, “do that!
But he said nothing. Indeed, he looked as confused as they did.
It took a few minutes for the story to unfold since it was nearly dark and any liquid in a stone vessel looks pretty much the same in twilight, but one of the guests standing near the water jars detected a heady aroma, and began to investigate. My eyes had remained on Jesus, and it was not until a commotion began to rumble along the side wall that his attention, and mine, were drawn to the giant containers. By then, the stewards had begun withdrawing the deep garnet liquid by the pitcherful to refill the hundreds of empty cups and, as word spread among the guests about what had happened, a goodly number of them rushed over to see for themselves. The quiet after-dinner murmur quickly grew to robust revelry as more and more of the guests participated firsthand in Jesus’s delightfully subtle but entirely convincing announcement of his arrival.
At once, the whole atmosphere of the place became lighthearted and joyful as tensions were released in peals of laughter all across the gathering, and those who had feared they were doomed to disappointment – suddenly freed of their doubts – found their fondest hopes reigniting from faintest embers to roaring flame.
Jesus’s mother, who only minutes before had been so distraught that I ached for her, was now dancing around the courtyard like a gleeful child and even took to directing the stewards to ensure that every last guest was able to sample the wine, and that all of them knew from whence it had come.
One of the guests accused Johab of getting it the wrong way around, serving the best wine after everyone was too drunk to appreciate it. And, regardless of how much they may have already had to drink that day, no one departed without at least one more serving, at least one cup of the miracle wine.
And yet, as I was fascinated to see, there was one person who was clearly not delighted with these developments: Jesus, himself. He wasn’t angry, or irritated, just gloomy. He looked, if anything, disappointed in himself, and as quickly as he was able, he gathered his apostles about him, thanked Nathan and Hadassah for their many kindnesses, and took his leave. Nathan was beside himself with delight at the way the evening had turned out, and begged him to stay, but Jesus would only say that he had already caused the house of Nathan far too much trouble, and he hoped they could forgive all the extra effort occasioned by their intrusion on Johab’s wedding day.
“Intrusion?!” Nathan replied incredulously, “This was the greatest day of my life, and your presence here has been its greatest blessing. Thank you, Joshua ben Joseph, for the wedding we celebrate has surely been blessed by the Creator, Himself, and consecrated by the wine you have so miraculously provided.”
And with that, Jesus and his apostles took their leave, though the rest of the wedding guests, invited or not, continued to celebrate their good fortune long into the night.
I spent considerable time turning these events over in my mind in the days and weeks that followed, and ultimately concluded that what had happened in that moment when the water in those jars had become wine was some sort of unintended meeting between the minds of Jesus and his “Heavenly Father.” It has been said that “what the Son desires and the Father wills, is,” and clearly that must have been the case in Cana, for, in that instant when Jesus had stopped in mid-sentence – had said, in essence, ‘if I could, I would’ only to discover that he had – the sanctified water in those six giant jars had been totally, inexplicably transformed.
And, yes, Nathan had it right. It was no magician’s trick, it was a miracle. What happened to the water on that ledge could not have happened without the hand of God. There can be no doubt about that. I was there. I tasted it. I drank it. I grew giddy from it, and would have bathed in it if I could have. It was no illusion. It is no myth.
But the more extraordinary thing about these events, to me, was not the fact that the water became wine, though that was truly memorable, but the fact that it was so completely unintended on the part of Jesus. Because of my fortuitous vantage point and penchant for eavesdropping, I, alone among the guests, understood just how unwitting it had been and, more importantly, how determined he had been not to put on a show of miracles – when it was now perfectly obvious that he could have if he had wanted to. This said a great deal to me about the humility of Jesus, even as all about him were shouting hosannas.
Whether it was his will, or not, it was apparently his Father’s will to lift just a tiny corner of the veil Jesus had so carefully placed to conceal his power, and in so doing had hinted at Jesus’s potential to move heaven and earth. It was his Father who had chosen to expose that one little part of the answer to who this fellow Jesus really was. Jesus had not meant for it to happen at all, and that, for me, was the greatest astonishment. He was both the impossible man and the improbable God, so confident in his powers over the things of earth that he need not condescend to use them! Here was a God who was perfectly content to be nothing more than a man.
I cannot even begin to relate the astonishment of my family and all of those in our group to this turn of events. It was completely other-worldly, and our talk went on long into the night, until well after we had returned to the home of our hosts. None of us could sleep, in any case.
“Did that really happen?…”
“How did he do that?…”
“Did you notice how different he looks?…”
“What do you think he’ll do next?…”
“Well, my friends,” Malchus finally said, “this is all unmapped territory as far as I can tell, and I’m going to bed to sleep on it. By tomorrow, it will all seem like a dream.”
“It already seems like a dream,” Uncle Jonathan said, “so we might as well have some sleep to go with it.”
For the second night, I luxuriated on the rich bed of furs, but this time it was the taste of the wine that lingered in my mind. It had been only my fifth vintage, and I may have been influenced both by the Etruscan wine I had already drunk and the emotion of the moment, but I decided as I lay there that it had actually bested Old Seth’s. I had noticed the same effect in the back of my nose that I had felt at Aunt Tabaitha’s, but the miracle wine was a mixture of all the sweet fruits: cherries, plums, grapes and pomegranates with just enough tartness to tingle the tongue and spice to keep you wondering. It gave a strong first impression, moved through a sequence of layers, and ended gently with a lingering, lemony-sweet finish. In a word, it was wonderful.
In fact, even after a lifetime of drinking wines from every corner of the known world, it remains, to this day, the headiest, most transporting vintage I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. But then, that only stands to reason. After all, if God is Perfect, then how could His wine be anything less?
End of Part I: The Wedding
© 2015 George Thomas Wilson, all rights reserved.