The night before
Mara changed into her nightclothes and brushed her long brown hair. It had been a long day. Over the past few weeks she had been working together with the other household staff to prepare the wedding feast for the master and mistress’s second eldest son, Ananias. The preparation for the festivities had meant that she had been required to work extra hours but, for the most part, she did not mind. The family for whom she worked had treated her and her mother well and she was happy for the bridegroom. However, the head steward, Josias, had been very strict about how the preparations were to be performed. Josias’s volatility had started to cause her anxiety but so far as she could, she tried to not think about this.
The head steward Josias had always been an astute methodical and competent manager. He had never been lax in his position, having always promptly addressed issues either relating to his staff’s performance or behaviour when brought to his attention. When Mara had been younger and just starting out as one of the servants, he had been quite patient with his staff. She had seen him taking time to patiently show those he was directly managing the correct way to do things. He also used to often laugh and be jovial with fellow staff members including Mara’s mother, Hannah, who was of a similar age.
However, in recent years his capacity to manage seemed to have lessened a little and he seemed to have responded to this in frustration. In the planning of this particular event, the wedding of Sepphora and Ananias, he had not only almost taken personal offence when various mishaps had occurred, he had berated the staff who were supposedly to blame and threatened that he would ensure their dismissal should anything similar occur again prior to the nuptials. Mara had been the subject of such threats on more than one occasion.
Mara was not sure, but wondered if Josias’s change in demeanour had to do with an injury he had sustained to his back several months earlier while lifting a large container. At times she would notice that he looked like he was struggling to walk and his face would appear strained with pain.
Mara’s mother’s own health was also regressing a little and Mara periodically had begun to worry about how she would look after her once she was unable to physically continue to work. She hoped the family who had been so kind to look after her as a child would also continue to look after her mother in her elderly state. If not, Mara would have to earn enough to support both herself and her mother and also pay for another place for her mother to live.
As Mara laid herself down on her sleeping mat she recalled the events of that evening. All so far had gone well with the wedding festivities. The bride had arrived at the family estate beautifully dressed accompanied by her bridesmaids. The arrival was a moving spectacle to behold. Josias had been happy with how the first evening had gone. Light refreshments had been served and the families and few guests who had come to that evening had gone to bed with their stomachs full and their hearts joyful.
After the family and guests had retired, tables, decorations, seating and cups, plates and cutlery had all been laid for the main feast that would occur the next day. The food had been prepared as much as possible to reduce the work that would have to be done the following morning. The wine would also be then delivered from Samaria to the local markets. Josias had tasked Mara with attending these at first light to purchase more wine skins. The vineyards from Samaria only delivered their wares once a week and the family had been stocking wine skins for the celebration over the last few months but still required a few dozen more to ensure there was enough to comfortably supply all the guests.
In her mind Mara went over how she would carry out the following morning’s task. She then closed her eyes and exhaustion carried her off to sleep.
The morning of the wedding ceremony
The dawn was rising the next morning as Mara walked towards the marketplace. Mara tried to focus on the present moment, putting one foot in front of the while she pulled the carry-wagon behind her. This was in an attempt to calm her butterflying anxieties about her mother’s health and Josias’s volatile state. The imminent large scale event and the fear that something may go wrong that could upset Josias and threaten her and her mother’s future meant on this morning these worries were harder to ignore.
Mara arrived at the marketplace. There were not many customers yet at this hour and the marketplace was filled with tinkering sounds of containers being arranged and tents being pitched – the sounds of those setting up to sell their wares. Mara proceeded towards the stall manned by a man called Barnabas. He was a stocky solid short sort of man with a jolly disposition whose body boasted more facial and outer hair than most. He sold goods from a few different farms – fruit and produce mainly, but he also sold wines from the vineyards of the surrounding areas, all of which were owned by the same local family.
‘Good morning Barnabas. I need to collect some more wineskins for the wedding festivities tonight. We’ve been stockpiling and we’ve almost got enough but Josias has been counting heads and estimates we need about a dozen more. I will probably be making two trips to cart them back’.
Barnabas rubbed his nose and slightly lowered his head. Although he was not a tall man he was still taller than Mara who was short and whispy in figure.
‘I’m sorry dear but up at the vineyard in the last few days there has been a family emergency which has meant I’ve had no wine delivered for a few days and I have none now to sell to you. You see the father of the extended family has been on his deathbed and I heard word he just passed last night. So, I’m afraid all his sons have been with him by his side and have not been able to deliver any goods to me.’
Mara blinked and swallowed. Her heart began to beat harder and faster and visions flashed in her head of Josias’s red face ranting at her.
Mara’s mind scrambled for possible solutions. She thought about other estates who could possibly contribute to the wine supplies who may have some stored. However, there were only a few hours until the official celebrations began and there were many other chores she was required to complete in that time. There would be little to no time to physically go and pick up wine from multiple locations, let alone explain the dilemma to others while ensuring discretion was maintained. There was also a chance that the wine would not run out. It was after all, just as a precaution that she was sent that morning to get some extra wineskins.
Mara decided all that she could do is return to the estate and complete her chores as quickly as possible so she could have some time before the festivities to see if she could fix this problem.
When Mara arrived back at the estate it was hive of activity. Servants were rushing from room to room with flushed faces and anxious looks. Mara knew her planned chores for the morning involved helping her mother in the kitchen and so she moved towards that part of the estate. But before she could get there she was intercepted by one of the other servants of a similar age.
‘Mara, we need you to help look after the children. Please come quickly. We don’t have enough hands to supervise them while they and their parents are being dressed!’
Mara reluctantly followed and soon found herself outside running after three children, two of whom were toddlers and one just a little bit older, who seemed intent on ruining their clothes that had been especially made for the day’s events. Her capacity to think about possible solutions to the wine issue was diminished by her constantly having to redirect and distract these children. She was relieved when one of the servants involved in dressing all the adults and children of the extended household came out to tell her that work had been completed and she could return to the duties she had been assigned.
She made haste for the courtyard where food would be served and managed to place the water more prominently and move the wineskins further back from the table holding drinks. She then made haste towards the kitchen, but was again intercepted by one of the other staff, told that guests had started to arrive and tasked with ensuring all were provided with enough food and drink until the formal ceremony began.
After the ceremony
The formal ceremony also did not bring any rest. Her presence, as well as that of many other of the servants of the household, was required in the kitchen. The final touches needed to be made to the dishes in preparation for the main feast that would begin immediately after the official proceedings ended.
Mara began serving the dishes alongside the other servants to the guests. The guests seemed to have a voracious appetite, either that or there were many more guests than had been expected in attendance, and it did not take too long before the main dishes had been mostly consumed. There was of course food that would be served throughout the afternoon but finally Mara had a moment of reprieve.
She took this moment to check the area where the drinks were standing to see how much wine remained. Her heart started to race even faster than it had been all day and her face flushed full with fearful adrenaline when she realised the supplies were almost gone.
Mara ran and entered the kitchen. The kitchen was no longer full of servants but her mother was there diligently decorating a plate full of char-grilled lamb with mint leaves, coriander and slices of pear.
‘Mother!’ Mara exclaimed.
Hannah looked up. She blinked, startled.
‘We have a problem with the wine. I tried this morning to get more for our stockpile but Barnabas informed me that due to a family emergency there was none they could offer for me to sale today. I was hopeful that we would have enough but I have just checked the supplies and the wine we have has almost completely been consumed.
‘I don’t know what to do. Josias will be livid. I have been trying to direct the guests to drink more water by the way I have arranged the refreshments, but my plan has not worked and as we have several more guests than expected. I fear we will very soon run out completely. I don’t have any more ideas on what to do so I came to you to ask you – perhaps you have some cooking wine in the kitchen that we could mix with something else and serve?’
Hannah took a deep breath and surveyed the room. Mara followed her mother’s lead and began to scan as well. Both were interrupted when their searches registered that they were not alone and that standing in the kitchen, close to the entrance, was a middle-aged women with a relaxed presence and alluring ocean blue eyes.
‘Forgive me for intruding. I am Mary, one of the guests and aunt of the bride. My sister is feeling a bit under the weather and I was wondering if you had some anise I could mix with some hot water to bring to her?’ The woman said with a genuine and sweet countenance.
Mara and her mother, although distressed, immediately switched into serving mode.
‘Yes certainly Mary’, Hannah said warmly before swiftly moving across the room to where a number of small clay jars sat on a bench. She opened one that had been sealed with a lid of cork and placed it in a small cup. She removed a vat from the fire oven and used a ladel to pour some hot water from it into the cup and presented this to Mary.
‘Thank you so much! My sister will be so grateful.
‘Forgive me but I couldn’t help but overhear about the wine. If you will excuse me for a moment, I will first take this to my sister and then come back and take you to my son, Jesus, who I believe will be able to help you.”
Mara and Hannah exchanged looks of uncertainty, surprise and embarrassment, but were so entranced by Mary’s inviting voice that they looked back at her nodded.
Once Mary returned and Mara and Hannah followed her outside, Mara noticed that there must have been about three hundred people outside gathered in various groups. Some were sitting down at tables that had been set up for the occasion and others were standing up chatting. The atmosphere was joyous but not completely relaxed. There was not yet any music or dancing.
Mara also saw Josias outside who was moving towards the table where the drinks were arranged. She felt her stomach lurch. Josias was about to notice the problem and he would come directly to blame her.
Mara and Hannah followed Mary through the crowd of guests and over to a group of men sitting and reclining on the stone wall that framed the courtyard. The men were having a lively conversation and laughing periodically. As she, Mary and her mother approached the group Mara could see that one of the men was telling a story.
He was a standard size for a man. Dark curly hair framed his face that was fully animated in the story he was delivering. As he finished the group burst into hysterical laughter. The storyteller noticed the trio arrive and said with a wide grin, anticipating that Mary was going to ask something of him, ‘Mother, what do you want from me?’ Mary met this comment with a serious look and intuitively her son knew Mary wanted to speak with him alone. He followed Mary away from the group to have a private discussion.
Mara and Hannah were left standing near the group of men. An awkward silence hung in the air while the men and Mara and her mother watched Jesus talking with Mary. Mary seemed concerned and firm and Jesus listened. He did not seem to be fully convinced by what his mother was saying at first, but his eyes softened, and shoulders relaxed as he listened to her. Jesus took a deep breath and then nodded, acknowledging and accepting that whatever his mother had recommended to him was in fact what he would do.
Jesus performs his first miracle
Mary returned to the group while Jesus remained in thought for a few moments. Mary looked at Mara, her mother, and Jesus’s friends and said triumphantly, ‘Do whatever he tells you’.
Jesus returned to his friends and Mara and Hannah. He pointed over to the entrance of the courtyard where stone jars that had held water for the rite of purification had been placed for the guests upon their arrival and said, ‘Let’s fill these up with water.’
Mara’s heart sank thinking that the plan was to serve the guests water. But she did not know what else could be done at this point. Her and her mother obeyed Jesus’s instructions by showing Jesus and the apostles where the well was. By taking turns to and from the well the jars they were soon able to top them up so they were completely full.
Mara took a moment to look around for Josias to see where he was and see if she could judge whether he had noticed that wine supplies were almost gone and whether he had located her. She could see he had, and he was walking straight towards her.
Mara froze. It took her a few moments to notice that Jesus had handed her a cup of wine. He waited until she noticed and took the cup from him.
Then Jesus said, “Take this to the master of festivities”.
Mara did not have to take the cup anywhere as Josias was already walking right towards her with a strained gait. His face was red, his nostrils were flaring as he stood hunched over and yelled, “Mara, where is the wine!!!”
Mara did not know what else to do but held the cup out to him in the vein hope that if he took a sip of water he would stop shouting at her.
Josias took the cup from Mara and took a sip. A puzzled expression fell over his face. The redness faded from it. He stood up straight. He did not say anything further but hastened away with a body that showed no signs of strained mobility.
Mara fell to the ground and her body started convulsing with uncontrollable weeping. Jesus crouched down in front of her and waited patiently for her to look up. It took a few moments for Mara to realise that Jesus was there. As her eyes met his her shaking softened. She felt her body let out long sigh. Jesus remained crouching and holding her gaze until her body had completely calmed.
Jesus held out a cup to Mara to drink. Mara had a sip and tasted that what they had poured into the jars was no longer water. It was now wine!
Mara felt her whole body warm as she drank more of the wine. Her anxieties that had dominated her mind all day were gone and she felt pure joy and like she was floating in a cloud of happiness. She could not understand how the water had become wine but wondered at who Jesus was.
Mara heard music begin to play and it was not too long before the guests began to dance. To Mara’s surprise some of the guests started to ask her and the other servants to join them in their rejoicing. Mara accepted their invitation and she let her body express it’s joy. She decided in this moment to not analyse what had occurred but try to enjoy the moment’s sweetness. There would be time in the coming days to talk to the others who had been there and had witnessed what had happened.
From a distance Mara saw Josias dancing with his hand around bridegroom. He said jovially, ‘Most people serve the best wine first and the lesser wine second, but you Ananias have saved the best wine until last!’
[To read about the Wedding at Cana from the bride’s perspective click here]