Unnamed and unnoticed

This morning in the Cathedral, I got out the mental glasses or hearing aids that I often use while following the readings. I looked and listened for the unnamed and unnoticed characters. I take no credit for this; I learnt from the late Sr Mary Jean SSC at Tymawr Convent. My reflections here could be the second in what might turn into a series on ‘were I to have preached’.

They are based on the Gospel reading, the story of the Wedding at Cana. Here it is:

“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2.1-11; NRSV)

Often the unnamed and unnoticed characters are servants. Sr Mary Jean saw the servant in the story of the healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5.1-14). She was “a young girl [taken] captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife”. Naaman was the “commander of the army of the king of Aram [who] suffered from leprosy”. The girl told her mistress about the prophet Elisha, who could heal Naaman, and Naaman tells the king “just what the girl from the land of Israel had said”, and the king sends him to Elisha. It’s an extraordinary sequence: a captive girl from a foreign land gets the ear of the king, because her (also unnamed) mistress listened to her, and Naaman listened to his wife, and the king listened to his servant. Their humility and openness to the voices of others are impressive.

In the story of the Wedding at Cana, Jesus is the only named character. The focus is entirely on him. Even his mother and disciples are unnamed, though named elsewhere. That is entirely appropriate, as John is telling the story of the first of Jesus’ signs, which revealed his glory (v11). This is why this Gospel appears in the season of Epiphany, alongside the two other stories that reveal Jesus: the visit of the Magi, and his baptism in the Jordan.

The other unnamed characters are servants, the chief steward, and the bridegroom. Among these, only the chief steward is given a line in the drama.

The servants follow Jesus’ instructions to fill the jars with water, then draw the wine and take it to the chief steward. They were the ones that knew where the water that had become wine had come from. The chief steward did not know, nor did the bridegroom. One wonders what the bridegroom’s reaction was to the chief steward!

Jesus’ sign was given to the unimportant people, the servants. The important people did not see or know about it. It is possible that they found out later. But John does not report that, and goes to the trouble of emphasising their ignorance and the servants’ knowledge (v9). It is of a piece with for example Mary’s great song the Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55); the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5.1-12), and this speech of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel:

“At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’ ” (Luke 10.21-24; NRSV)

Jesus’ mother was also there to see the water become wine. Were his disciples also? John tells us that, after Jesus did the first of his signs and revealed his glory, “his disciples believed in him.” (v11)

Blessed are the lowly and the hungry that have been filled with good things. Blessed are the poor in spirit and the meek, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs and they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the eyes that see what the disciples and the servants saw, and the ears that hear what they heard.

And thanks be to God for the unnamed and unnoticed characters, and for the nuns with the wisdom to look and listen for them, and the generosity to share their wisdom.