“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” So Karen Blixen begins Out of Africa, the account of her life in Kenya. At the beginning of the movie based on the book, Meryl Streep repeats that line wistfully, as if invoking a memory. “I had a farm in Africa . . . I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills . . . I had a farm in Africa . . . .” Maybe the repetition would make the memory real and bring the farm and those days to her again.
“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee” (John 2:1). So John begins his account of Jesus’ ministry with the first sign he performed. We repeat the story wistfully, as if invoking a memory. “On the third day there was a wedding . . . On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee . . . On the third day there was a wedding.” Maybe if we repeat the story often enough, the memory will become real and bring the wedding and those days back to us again.
There was a day when a crowd that gathered for a wedding in Cana tasted new wine, a new life, the best life possible. Not the memory of the perfect life that used to be a long time ago, and not the perfect way life will be a long time from now. But life in the moment, rich and full and heady, the kind of life Isaiah described as “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” – a feast for everyone (Isa. 25:6).
Will telling the story again make the feast real for us? Will repeating the story turn our water into wine and allow us to drink until we’re drunk with joy? “On the third day there was a wedding . . . On the third day there was a wedding in Grand Island, New York . . . On the third day there was a wedding.” Will telling the story bring to pass Isaiah’s prophecy that “You shall no more be termed Forsaken . . . but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you” (Isa. 62:4)?
Telling the story is vitally important. At the end of Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451, when all the books have been burned, we discover a hidden community of people who have memorized the books and are passing the oral libraries on to their children. They no longer have the books, but they tell the stories. They have become the books, they are the books, and they are known by the stories they have become.
Like the ancient Hebrews, and like the earliest Christian communities, we are called to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to these stories and keep them with us as reminders, to teach them to our children, to talk about them when we’re at home and when we’re away, at the end of the day and at its beginning (Deut. 11:18-19 NLT alt.). We’re called not simply to tell the story but to become the story, not simply to belong to the church but to be the body of Christ. “Now you are the body of Christ,” St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians and to you and me, “and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).
“On the third day there was a wedding,” and there everyone tasted the best wine, the best life, the abundant life Jesus said he came that we might have (John 10:10), not in the memory of a far-distant past, nor in our hope for a far-distant future, but here and now. As he said in the parable of the great banquet, the call has gone out that the banquet has begun, the seats will be filled, and if we don’t accept the invitation now and raise our cup at the table now, we’ll find that later will be too late, the celebration will have begun without us (cf. Luke 14:15-24).
Once when I had spent the day in Manhattan and was walking down Fifth Avenue toward the Port Authority for the bus home in New Jersey, I decided to avoid the rush-hour crowd by stopping for the 5:15 Mass at St. Patrick’s. As I made my way against the flood of what seemed millions of people all headed in the opposite direction, I suddenly became aware of one person who stopped sharply, turned as if to reorient himself, and said in a voice that rang clear above all the rush-hour noise of the city, “God! Where’s everybody going?”
Well, it stopped me cold. Where’s everybody going, indeed? We all hurry on, making lives for ourselves, seldom if ever thinking about living the lives we have. An eight-year old daughter of some good members of a parish I served once told me how she saw life. “You do well in grade school,” she said, “so you can do well in high school, and you do well in high school so you can do well in college, and you do well in college so you can get a good job, and then you die.” Is that what life is about? Is that where we’re going? Is that why we’re here?
Once in a while by God’s grace, we are arrested in the busyness of life by the sound of one voice ringing clear: “Where’s everybody going?” Just when you believe the wine is running out and your energy and resources are depleted, an “aha!” comes out of nowhere and announces: there’s good wine here, the best you can imagine. All you have to do is raise the cup and drink it.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is spread out on the earth, and people don’t see it” (Gospel of Thomas 113). The Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh put it this way: “All the wonders of life are already here. They’re calling you. If you can listen to them, you will be able to stop running. What you need, what we all need, is silence. Stop the noise in your mind in order for the wondrous sounds of life to be heard. Then you can begin to live your life authentically and deeply.”
Sometimes you don’t need silence. Sometimes the call is heard above the noise of the rush-hour crowd in the middle of the city. But it comes, and when it comes, will you listen and give yourself to it? Will you lift the cup of life to your lips and drink deeply?