Marie Antoinette must be ghostwriting editorials and judicial opinions now, because all we hear from the bench or on the internet these days is let them eat cake. Yes, today’s pundits and jurists can think of no more dangerous threat to democracy than a few confectioners who don’t want to provide same-sex couples with the flavorless monument to conspicuous consumption that is every American couple’s dream.
The cake is a lie
The “cake” meme is largely a smokescreen to portray religious people as being hung up on something that’s not a big deal, since usually the person who makes a wedding cake does not need to attend the wedding. But the threat of compulsion also extends to other constituents of the wedding-industrial complex such as photographers, caterers, florists, jewelers, property owners, website creators, innkeepers, musicians, journalists for the Style section, and whoever else is involved in inaugurating a modern family. Does a person who offers a service has no right to refuse that service to anyone, even if it means participating in an event that mocks a religious rite he holds sacred?
Of course, one can get married without all of these trappings. Religious ministers and justices of the peace are quite happy to authenticate a lawful marriage, with or without cake.
What would Jesus bake?
But I bring you no manifesto for alternative weddings and simpler lifestyles. I think same-sex couples can use all the help they can get in concealing the essential vacuity of their nuptuals. What bothers me is all the speculation about who Jesus would or would not bake a cake for.
As far as we know, Jesus never baked anything, although he made a lot of bread on a couple of occasions. But Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding, and that was no accident. Let’s look at John 2 (my paraphrase), where Jesus first outs himself as a miracle worker by helping people get tight.
On the third day of Jesus’s ministry as a teacher, both he and his mother were invited to a wedding in the town of Cana, and his disciples attended with him. When the wine ran out, Jesus’s mother came to him and told him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, what does that have to do with me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.” His mother told the servants who were standing there, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Now there were six large stone jars standing nearby which were used for the Jewish purification rites, each holding 20 to 30 gallons. Jesus said, “Fill them with water,” and the servants filled them each to the brim. “Now draw some out and take it to the master of ceremonies,” Jesus instructed them.
When the master of ceremonies tasted the water that had become wine (he did not know where it came from, although the servants knew) he called the bridegroom aside and chided him for a breach of etiquette. “Everyone serves the good wine first, then after the guests are tipsy they bring out the rougher stuff. But you have saved the good wine until now!”
This story is doing a number of very symbolic things. First, in John’s gospel the story follows right after the story of Jesus’s baptism and calling his first disciples. It is his first miracle. Baptism is a Jewish purification ritual, and the prophet John was baptizing people who wanted to be cleansed from their sins and follow God. As Jesus comes up out of the water, God’s spirit descends on him. Thus, Jesus’s first miracle is a sort of self-referential pun. The waters of baptism are drawn out of the washbasins and become “spirits” through a mysterious action of grace.
Second, the master of ceremonies’ reaction upon tasting the wine shows that the bridegroom is the one responsible for the wine. This explains Jesus’s response to his mother informing him that there is no wine. On the face of it he seems to be saying “Not my party—not my problem.” But Jesus’s statement carries a double meaning. He doesn’t deny that he is a bridegroom, but he observes that the wedding has yet to take place. Mary’s response to Jesus is not to argue with him but to order the servants to do what he says. Mary and Jesus are communicating in a mutually understood language of symbolic riddles.
By turning the water into wine, Jesus shows who he is. He chooses a wedding for the scene of his first miracle, and puts the rituals of the Law of Moses to an unexpected and inebriating use.
Jesus is the bridegroom
The New Testament speaks of Jesus as a bridegroom, and his people, the Church, as a bride. It speaks of a wedding feast in the new Jerusalem at the end of days. In choosing a wedding as the scene of his first miracle, Jesus looks ahead to what he will accomplish through his life, death, and resurrection. When, at the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus tells them that he will not drink wine again until he sits down with them in his Father’s kingdom, he is thinking once more of that heavenly wedding on the eve of his most difficult trial.
Turning water into wine shows that Jesus has no problem with people having fun, and perhaps also shows that he was willing to help an embarrassed bridegroom save face. But the way the story is told shows that the real purpose of the miracle is to be a sign of who Jesus is and what he has come to do.
Would a same-sex wedding have been an equally significant setting for Jesus’s first miracle? Jesus expressed some clear opinions about marriage, such as when the religious teachers asked him about divorce: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:4-6). Whatever you may think of it from a practical or political standpoint, the theological definition of marriage involves one man and one woman (Jesus neatly excludes polygamy too, if you’re paying attention).
Cake-eater Kristen Powers may be right in one sense: there’s not necessarily anything wrong with a Christian baker making a tall white cake for a same-sex couple. Maybe by doing so the baker is showing the love of Jesus. Maybe not. Right or wrong, it’s just a cake. But she misses the point about the wedding, and about Jesus. What Jesus did at the wedding in Cana was miraculous, gratuitous, and transformative. His love is a gift. He challenges us to be washed in the waters of baptism and filled with the new wine of the Spirit.
Just as the wedding feast is a significant symbol in Jesus’s ministry, the marriage rite holds a sacred place in the hearts of his followers, some of whom make a living by baking cakes or taking pictures. Compelling them to violate their religion by participating in a ceremonial mockery of this symbolic celebration is a form of religious persecution.
So would Jesus turn water into wine at a same-sex wedding? Perhaps a better question to ask is this:
Would his mother have asked him to?