Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Water and Wine: A Tincture of Time

The 4th Gospel (4G) has a logic all its own. The Logos, after  all, becomes flesh, and has its way with words (certainly with the Word), and its way of destabilizing time and causality in its representation of a reality fleshed out with irony. In the Johannine world, picking up the phone causes it to ring, and adverbial signage yields to a theo-logic in which 'before' and 'after' live in the same moment.

The message of the Baptist is a message that time is out of joint, that the present is presence in which the past and future merge: "A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me" [John 1:30, NIV]. That man, Jesus, the word become flesh, will later say, "before Abraham was I am" [8:58]. The logic of 4G is the logic of a late mediaeval painting depicting 'before' and 'after' events, such as Adam and Eve at once basking in the Garden of Eden and being cast out.

This tincture of time, or better, atemporal time,  even the causality-defying atemporal sequencing of events, sets up the wonderful Wedding at Cana [John 2]:

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus' mother was there,
and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 
When the wine was gone, Jesus' mother said to him, "They have no more wine." "Dear woman, why do you involve me?" Jesus replied. "My time has not yet come."
His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."
Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
Jesus said to the servants, "Fill the jars with water"; so they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them, "Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet." They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine.  He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew.
Then he called the bridegroom aside and said,
"Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now." 
This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.
The salient features of the pericope (a parable given realism by the use of current time and place) include:
1. The 3rd day: the 1st and second decribing the testimony of John the Baptist and the gathering of the disciples.
2. The location of Cana in Galilee, and the family affair elements: Jesus' mother is there, demonstrating that the logos taking flesh is born of a woman.
3. The transfinalization of the water jars and their excess of contents.
4. The reversal of time in the sequencing of wine-events; the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom?
5. The identification of this reversal as semiotic and the birth of faith.
This second chapter of 4G follows Jesus, whom John has dubbed the 'lamb of God,' from his inaugural in the Prologue, through his distinction from John, to his identification as the one who baptizes with the holy spirit, someone already in the midst of the Pharisees. Things are happening very fast. Two of John's own disciples transition to God's chosen One [1:34], followed quickly by Peter, Philip and Nathanael. In head-spinning time compression, Jesus and his disciples are invited to the Wedding at Cana (which takes place on the 3rd day) where Jesus' mother awaits their arrival from Bethany.
The next scene is at the Wedding and in medias res. The is no more wine; the celebration is apparently in danger of winding down, or missing the mark of its purpose. Jesus' mother intercedes on behalf of the bridegroom or wine-steward, and approaches Jesus with the dilemma. Jesus' wristwatch is synchronized neither to his mother's or the wedding's. The dearth of wine is of no concern to either him or his mother, at least according to his understanding of his 'hour,' which he locates in the future. Yet it seems that mother knows best, for Jesus commands the servants to fill the empty ritual containers with water.
He commands the servants to take a sample from the brimming jars to the master of the banquet, whose astonishment prompts him to compliment the bridegroom: you have saved for last that which comes first. Far from throwing pearls before swine, the best wine will not be wasted on this crowd. The nearly endless volume of wine will not intoxicate, even though it is the best, and it might well lead to a palace of wisdom. That which has come after has surpassed what has come first, because it has come 'before 'in the 'after' of what the wedding has inaugurated. The brimming uncontainability of wine demonstrates the transfinalization of the jars as the vessels of the uncontainable event of the Messiah. The 'sign' at Cana is the saturated phenomena.
What issues from the ablutions of the past is the future of the Messianic banquet, a marriage not of heaven and hell, but of past and future. This is not therefore a moment of supersessionism, but of new self-understanding emerging from the phenomenality of the transformation of water into wine. Here in the language of Cana is the theo-logical moment, the birth of faith in the iconic event of Christ released from the ritual waters that are now become real drink, real wine. Here in the present time of the wedding, the 'before' and 'after' meet in the Christ already in the midst of everything, in medias res.

The historical kernel of the pericope is forever lost in the evangelist's sense of time and timing. Whether the Johannine community is privvy to an authentic tradition of a wedding in or near Galilee during the ministry of Jesus shall remain an open question open to conjecture. Still, 4G is after after something bigger than history; it want to locate the truth, the way and the life (not necessarily in that order). While the wedding at Cana might be simulacra to us today, it is Jesus' first foray into semiosis, or at least the Johannine Jesus' first foray.

The wedding at Cana depicts a Christ already in the midst of things, already upon the scene, shaping and being shaped by the discourse in which he moves. His own time moves the narrative of 4G while the narrative moves Jesus to move his own time. His hour remains in the future until the wine situation dictates otherwise. The brimming ablution jars take on water on one side of the event and spills out wine on the other. This sign is a semiotically reduced saturated phenomenon. Only Jesus, his mother and disciples know the legend by which the action must be read: they have the hermeneutic that allows the event to be released in the icon. For the master of the banquet, the bridegroom has merely held the best for last. At best, they are merely perplexed, and perhaps somewhat grateful (what Jean-Luc Marion might call 'bedazzlement'). For those who are open to the event, what issues from the jars is new time, a time of 'faith' and 'glory.' The messianic wine heralds the beginning of wine-tinctured time, even as it announces the second half of the celebration, lubricated with the best wine, a libation bereft of even an ounce of hangover. A new time within time.

At Cana, events release other events. The Messiah appears in the outflowing of wine, which iconically redirects the intuition of the disciples to the person centering the Christ-event, the logos dwelling with us. The wine lets their gaze pass into miracle, and into the divine within and through the icon. It is a saturated phenomenon that breeds another saturated phenomenon: the event. It is true, that the master of the banquet shares in a saturated phenomenon as well---that of the idol---the very excess of the best wine. But in this moment, his gaze is overwhelmed with only the idolic excess. It remains to be seen if that idol of excess will yield to the icon for him and those of his moment.

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