The story of the Wedding at Cana is, to begin with, a story about failure. Someone screwed up at the wedding. There they were in Cana, on a beautiful spring day, the wind gently rustling the leaves of the fig trees. The bride had been washed in the water of purification the day before, and was beautiful and primped up for marriage in that first century Galilean kind of way. The family was all there, everybody happy and smiling, looking forward to digging into the wedding feast. And all the old family friends were there including Mary, from the groom’s old village, and her son Jesus, who had apparently brought twelve fishermen along as his plus one. Everyone was happy, there were dimples on the bride’s cheeks, and they passed around the first of the wine and started to eat and dance. But then, very quickly, the steward whom they’d hired for the occasion (a snobby man from Tiberius), discovered that someone had skimped on the wine. It was running out.
Who messed up? The bride’s father? The groom’s father? The groom himself? Let’s say it was the groom. He sits at the head table with his bride and notices that his guests are muttering, and glancing his way, and staring dolefully into their empty wine cups. And he knows what his aunt Rebecca is like. Everyone else will pretend to remember some lovely detail about the day – the pleasure of the dancing, the plumpness of the dates. Not Rebecca. Whenever they talk about the wedding in the future, she’ll sigh and make some sad mention about how thirsty the guests were. And there’s nothing he can do about it. All the money has been spent, and anyway, the local wineshop is closed for the day. And they can’t just drink water. This is first century Palestine. No one who wants to stay healthy ever drinks the water. Someone has screwed up majorly. This is a story about failure.
I read another story about failure this week, this one written by a californian zen buddhist named Andrew Cooper. A few years ago, he was asked to organized a speaking tour of the United States for Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Vietnamese writer and peace activist. He had met Thich Nhat Hanh at a conference in New York, and they had pulled a kind of spiritual all-nighter together, sitting in the apartment where Thich Nhat Hanh was staying and answering quiet, soul-searching questions about happiness and purpose in life. A week after this all-nighter, Thich Nhat Hanh asked Andrew Cooper to organize his tour, even though Andrew had little experience and wasn’t a well-known figure in American Zen Buddhism. Andrew did his best, dealing with all the annoying logistical hiccups that come from any large endeavor of this sort. The tour was to end in California, at the San Francisco Zen Center. Andrew belonged to the rival Zen Center of Los Angeles, so this was always going to be the tensest part of the tour for him. But he allowed the tension to rise exponentially by agreeing to host a documentary film crew, and agreeing to the film crew’s plans to stage an interview between Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Ellsberg, who, you’ll remember, leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, and who had been a peace activist ever since.
The day before the interview, Thich Nhat Hanh asked Andrew what he should talk to Daniel Ellsberg about. Andrew remembered hearing Ellsberg speak about some of the political issues that had arisen in America as a result of the Vietnam War’s end. And he remembered how, as the war was ending, tens of thousands of South Vietnamese tried to free the country by boat, causing a humanitarian crisis as they were attacked by pirates or starved or drowned on their makeshift boats. At the time, some American peace activists had questioned whether we should help the boat people. Weren’t they, after all, just the elite southerners, the very people who had kept the war going, and weren’t they just getting what they deserved? Andrew knew that Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Ellsberg had been in agreement about the need to help the boat people, even though Thich Nhat Hanh’s activism on their behalf had caused many other American peace activists to criticize him. “Why don’t you talk about that?” he suggested to Thich Nhat Hanh, thinking that this would be a good place for Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Ellsberg to immediately find common ground.
The cameras were set, the room was lighted, the film crew was in place. Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Ellsberg took their seats. The director called action, and Thich Nhat Hanh turned to Daniel Ellsberg and asked “Why does the American peace movement have no compassion?” Ellsberg was offended. He asked Thich Nhat Hanh what right he had to decide who was compassionate and who wasn’t. Things devolved from there. For the next hour, two men who had dedicated their lives to creating a more peaceful and harmonious world went at each other like prize fighters in a title bout. When the filming ended, people walked away from the set in shock, barely speaking, not looking at each other, ashamed by what they had witnesses.. And Andrew, who had set all this in motion, knew that it had been a debacle, and that he had failed.
Yet in his essay, he says the nicest thing about failure:
Everybody, even the best of us, will sometimes behave ingloriously, and to think otherwise is to be hemmed in by vanity. As sad sinners…one of the few things we can count on is that we are on occasion going to screw up miserably. For those of us who are exceptionally reliable in this regard, it is nothing less than a saving grace, is it not, that…falling down on the job is the biggest part of the job, and sometimes, somehow, failure, if allowed to do its work, can actually be surprisingly emancipatory. It can even help make us whole.
That is my experience of failure. And I want to suggest why it makes us whole, in a Christian context. I’ve been reading Sam Wells’ book, Improvisation, which is about how the skills developed by improvisational actors can be applied theologically. Imagine, Wells says, that we are living in the midst of a five act play – that the entire Christian story is this five act play. The first act is God’s creation of the world, the second act is the story of the people of Israel, the third act is the life and times of Jesus, the fourth act is our lives now, and the fifth act is the eschaton, the end of time when Christ will return in glory. Let me emphasize the most important point here – the first act is the creation of the world, the fifth act is the eschaton. In other words, God is responsible for both the beginning and the ending. God creates. God will return in glory. And if God is responsible for those two things, then we aren’t. We don’t need to create works of staggering genius. The world is the work of staggering genius, and God is its author. We don’t need to make sure that everything comes out right in the end. God will bring all things to fruition. We’re not responsible. Which means that, if we fail at something, the right things will still be created, the right ending will still come about. We can fail all the time, and not endanger the beginning or the end of the story. Now that is surprisingly emancipatory.
Consider the Wedding at Cana. The bride and the groom, and, no doubt, their respective families, understand that the emphasis of the day is on the wedding itself, the new life that the bride and groom are beginning together. It is an act of new creation. But how many small random acts had to come together for this wedding to happen? The groom and his family had to move from Nazareth when he was eleven. The groom had to glance up when his future bride was passing through the olive orchard the previous September and see her. It was just good luck that his buddy Ruben happened to know her name. Her father had to be in a jolly mood from eating some good goat cheese when he went to ask for her hand in marriage. She had to be the right age. The groom had to be the right age. He had to be established in his work enough to get married. Even if they were atheists, they’d have to pause and consider the seemingly random shake-out of events, and admit that they had somehow contrived to meet, feel attraction, and fall in love without much forethought or creative energy expended on their part.
But the bride’s jolly, goat cheese eating father might have felt differently about the groom if he’d known that the groom was going to fail to order in enough wine for the wedding. And this is why the miracle story of Jesus turning water into wine is really just a reassurance of things to come. There the groom is, sweating because he’s forgotten to get enough wine, feeling that the best day of his life has been sullied, somehow, by his failure, and Jesus, Mary’s kid from Nazareth, produces wine out of nowhere. The party is saved. Just as the cosmos will be saved. All things will work together for good, and God will bring this five act play to its conclusion with a banquet on a hillside, and all people from every land will have a seat at this heavenly banquet.
God is responsible for the creation and for making things come out right at the end. So what do we do, in this fourth act of the five act play? Well, we respond to the world. We respond to the world not with anxiety, but with gratitude. With joy, because we know that the only thing we’re really responsible for is our response. We give rest to the weary, we tend the sick, we shield the joyous, not because we think that God is somehow absent from those actions and it’s all up to us, but because we have been emancipated by the knowledge that God is at work all around us, and, with our anxiety and fear erased from us, we can respond to the weary, the sick, and the joyous with open hearts and honest love. We are the wedding guests. Wedding guests aren’t responsible for the success or failure of the wedding. Our job is to chat with distant relatives, make sure everyone makes it from the church to the banquet hall, make funny and complimentary toasts, and, most importantly, to dance. All of us are going to fail in our lives quite a bit. But falling down on the job is part of the job. It’s emancipatory, it makes us whole. So let me make my own wedding toast to failure, and to my God, who will make all things right, and to all the lovely people of the world who will, someday, come to sit with us in the heavenly banquet. To us, to the world, and to God.