There’s a rich, very dense, chewy cake called pan forte that is an Italian specialty, especially in Tuscany. The version from Siena requires 17 different ingredients, one for each of the 17 contrade, or sections of the city. Honey, sugar, spices, fruits, nuts, flour. The pleasure is in the sheer complexity of this very dense confection, usually served with coffee for dessert, or even for breakfast. Pan forte.
Today we have the pan forte, the “strong bread”, of Gospel stories: the wedding feast at Cana. We have Jesus, the mother of Jesus, the disciples, the wedding guests, the servants, the steward of the feast, the happy couple, the parents and family of the newlyweds. It’s the beginning of a life together; and, indeed, new life could be conceived in the womb of a young mother this very night. And we have water, wine, water turned into wine, plenty of food, music and dancing, surely. It’s the “third day”. There’s the hint of some difficult mother/son dynamics. His hour has not yet come. “It most certainly has,” she might have said. “Do what he tells you.” The glory of Jesus is revealed; the disciples believe. It’s his first “sign”, as John puts it. Do have a look at the wonderful Coptic icon here with Jesus in the claret-red garment and his very pleased mother beside him.
I don’t know if this is 17 ingredients or not, but this is very dense and rich fare. Any one of the ingredients could be the focus of a sermon. But, rather than look at the ingredients separately, I’d like to look at the whole thing together, the whole fruitcake. And the whole thing together is what we call a party, a traditional Jewish wedding party that might well have gone on for seven days.
It’s a party, a celebration. Jesus’ first “sign” is not only at a party, but the miracle makes it possible to keep on partying. Which means…? Among other things, I think it means that parties are OK. Occasions of conviviality and celebration are good. Good for you and good for me and good for us. It makes me think that Christians should take having fun more seriously. The Catholic countries are better at this, I suspect, having been largely spared the scourge of Puritanism and the pitiless lash of the protestant work ethic.
I’ve been to wedding parties in the Middle East, in Al Aizaria in the West Bank, just beyond the separation wall and over the Mount of Olives from the Old City of Jerusalem. Al Aizaria is Bethany in the Bible. Several of the folks we know at St. George’s College in Jerusalem live in Al Aizaria and commute. Life is not easy in the West Bank and Al Aizaria is a particularly beaten up and beaten down place. Unemployment, poverty, military occupation, difficulty in travel, week social and political infrastructure, barely functioning economy, limited access to things we take for granted, like education and health care and social services. There’s plenty to be unhappy about in Al Aizaria today.
But they do party: the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. Weddings are joyous occasions lasting several days and include huge extended families and the community. The women and girls gather in the wedding hall and dance together and kiss the bride. Then, heads covered, they sit down and men and boys are allowed in; and they dance together and kiss the groom. And all, incidentally, without a drop of wine (although some of the less observant may have a bottle of Araq, the anise liqueur, stashed away somewhere). These are tremendous celebrations of family and friends and food and music and dancing. And celebrations of new life: during the wedding week the groom is offered certain parts of the sheep (marinated and grilled) to insure fertility.
This all goes on in the face of very difficult circumstances. In some ways not so different from the first century wedding that Jesus and his mother attended. First century life in that part of the world was not easy. And ordinary folk lived under the thumb of a military occupation aided and abetted by an aristocracy and priesthood in cahoots with the occupiers. The Romans were ruthless in their suppression of any resistance. There was plenty to be unhappy about. But light shines in the darkness. Friends and family gather to celebrate life, love and new life.
There is something in our nature that defies suffering, that defies all manner of sickness, that defies death itself in all its manifestations. We do not deny the reality of suffering. We do not deny the reality of death—we do not deny, but we do defy. And this is often expressed in the simple act—simple, but profound—the simple everyday death-defying act of getting together and having a good time—even when life is difficult. It could be a seven-day wedding celebration, but usually it’s something simpler. It could be a quiet conversation over tea and cake; or a picnic of brats and cold beer on a hot summer day. It could be a breakfast of cappuccino and a slice of pan forte. It could be an important occasion or no occasion at all.
But these are all sacramental events: light shines in the darkness. We are meant for life in all its fullness: our getting together for the sheer pleasure of it anticipates the Kingdom and the heavenly banquet. Conviviality and celebration, especially in the face of difficult circumstances, bring light into the world. We have the promise of resurrection; we are beloved children of God, heirs of the kingdom, made in the image and likeness of God, destined for freedom, bound for glory, forgiven every sin. Why wouldn’t we celebrate?
Jesus’ first “sign” is a miracle of transformation at a wedding feast. His last sign is the Resurrection. We do not deny the reality of death or the degradation of suffering. But we do claim the victory of life over death, of light over darkness. And so we defy anything which would degrade our humanity. Sometimes with a good party.
We claim the power of Resurrection, even in this life. We are meant for life. We are meant for light. We are meant for pan forte and other delicious things. These are our birthright as human beings made in the image and likeness of God.
As the prophet put it: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” [Isaiah 25:6] A feast for all peoples.
I think a feast for all peoples means a feast for all peoples. There are ethical and political and economic implications hovering in the air here. The destitution and precariousness of so many on this planet is an insult to their humanity and to their creator. It is an insult to ours as well, if we persist in averting our gaze from the suffering of others. God’s plan is a feast of rich food for all peoples, not just those who can afford it. We need to be in on the plan.
Which is why we’re here—to be in on the plan. Christ gives himself to us as the strong bread, the true pan forte. In the rich, dense, chewy texture of our sacred text. In the bread and wine of the Eucharistic feast. In all occasions of joy and gladness and celebration. In all occasions of healing and new life. It’s what we were made for, it’s why we come to this holy mountain. And, having come to God’s feast for all people, the next thing to do is to make sure all are fed.
I suppose if Christ is the true strong bread, the true pan forte, that would make us, the Body of Christ, a kind of fruit and nut cake. “Behold what you are; may we become what we receive.” *
*words spoken at the Monastery as the consecrated bread and wine are presented to the congregation