44. The Best Left Till Last
"There was a marriage in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; and both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage." We can picture the homely village festivities: the gaudy trinkets and bright clothes; a procession (and perhaps a mock battle); singing and dancing all the afternoon. And finally, the wedding feast. The guests recline on straw cushions at low tables around three sides of a square. In the center of the middle table sits the bride, decked in her finery, with the groom by her side. Near them is the Master of Ceremonies, the ruler or governor of the feast, perhaps a rich relative from Tiberias or Capernaum: someone accustomed to ceremony and etiquette, with a good taste in wines - a bit of a connoisseur.
And, during the course of the meal, the wine runs out! What an embarrassing situation! There is whispered consultation, hurrying back and forth behind the scenes, coming and going: until at length the servants enter with a number of large stone water pots containing delicious wine, which they pour out all around. The Master of Ceremonies smells its aroma, tastes it, and blinks with astonishment. He leans over towards the bridegroom, and expostulates with him banteringly. "Why hasn't this been served before? Usually at these parties the best wine is drunk at the beginning, and the poorer stuff is held back till the guests are well fuddled. But, bless me! You have kept the good wine until now!"
Little did he realize the cause of the unusual procedure. The bridegroom had indeed given them his best wine at the beginning - the best he had, and all he had. They had drunk it already, there was none left. This was pure spring water, converted into wine by the miraculous power of one of the guests: Jesus, a carpenter from a neighboring village. He had reversed the order, so that the last was first and the first last. The governor knew nothing of this, but the servants knew, and the man's followers knew, and later everybody knew. It was the opening of our Lord's public ministry.
The comment made by the Master of Ceremonies was probably intended merely as a graceful compliment. But actually, in saying what he did, he laid his finger on the difference between what is natural and what is spiritual. In the universe of nature, everything does tend to degenerate - the best coming first, and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse. Our property deteriorates. Our houses, furniture, clothes, automobiles, everything is corrupted by rust and turns to dust. Our bodies are fighting a losing battle against death, and must one day succumb.... Also (and this is slightly different) our interest in material concerns tends to wither. Pleasure cloys. What thrilled and excited us in our youth now bores us. There is a general running down and exhaustion as we grow older, like the deterioration of wine at a feast. This dulling of the sensation of pleasure accounts for the almost universal opinion held by people past middle age, that the world is not as good as it used to be. In fact, it is going to the dogs! Oh, for the good old days, when everything was better and more enjoyable than today! How dreadful the young people are now, compared with when we were young. There are no great men any more. Art and music are inferior. There are no good plays or books. Oh, the wine was glorious in those far-off days of our youth; but now it is growing sour, and soon there won't be anything left worth drinking....
"Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse." It is cynical, but true. That is how things go. But with the Lord's intervention, it is just the other way about! Everything gets better and better, and the best is left till last.
Swedenborg says, very beautifully: "To grow old in heaven is to grow young." And this happens with our spirits actually while we are still in this world. As the body grows old and senile, the spirit becomes ever fresher and more nimble and supple. Eventually the body is of no more use, and has to be scrapped. But is the man himself extinct? No! The Lord resuscitates him, as he replenished the wine at Cana. The newly-awakened spirit leaps forth, no longer hampered by the burden of clay. He takes up a new and glorious life in one of the mansions of heaven, where he enjoys the springtide of the perfect flower of youth, and so to eternity.
It is the fairy story of the caterpillar and the butterfly. To an observer (say, a greenfly on the leaf) the caterpillar is seen to grow older and feebler, till it builds a tiny silken sepulcher around itself, and dies. And that's the end. But we know, what the greenfly couldn't know, that, with a touch of magic, the caterpillar will rise again as an iridescent butterfly; it will abandon the leaf, and flutter hither and thither at will among the flowers of the garden.
Good men and women feel within themselves this butterfly potentiality, an immortal spirit which will rise again when the body is stricken down. They feel it maturing, out of sight, in preparation for the day of its release into the higher sphere. There are two levels. On the lower, everything gets older and worn out and progressively bad. On the higher, everything gets younger and renewed and progressively good. Our experience, as we progress, is that we slip over from the lower level into the higher.
Take love and marriage. It was at a wedding that the miracle took place, as if the Lord wished to teach this lesson to the bride and groom - and to every bride and groom. Physical love, if there is nothing spiritual within it, soon works itself out, giving way to wranglings and divorce. Spiritual love is on the higher level, and develops in the reverse direction. It starts from nothing, and becomes stronger and sweeter as the years pass, and flows into the physical, ever renewing and refreshing it, so that the best wine is served at the end of the feast.
Robert Browning, who was familiar with Swedenborg's teachings, says in his poem Rabbi Ben Ezra: "Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be, the last of life for which the first was planned." It was a tragedy that his own beautiful marriage lasted for only fifteen years, and he was a widower thereafter for twenty-eight years. But who can doubt that he was "growing old along with Elizabeth Barrett," during that long widowerhood, and that the best came when he was reunited with her in heaven?
All life runs on those two parallel planes. Those who see the world degenerating, are looking out on the lower plane only. Rise onto the higher plane, and you will see evidence that the world is, in fact, getting better and better! The Lord has come again, as the unrecognized Guest at the feast, and is at this very moment turning water into wine. While everybody around us is complaining that there is nothing more to drink, Jesus Christ is preparing a new and inexhaustible supply of a far better vintage! This miracle is being worked behind the scenes. The great men of the world, the Masters of Ceremonies, the Big Shots - they know nothing about it. But the slaves who draw the water know. We know!
So please don't let us have any more moaning about the way the world is going, nor even the way the church is going. Tap the spiritual resources which are even now being provided, and the Best will come at the end.
Now we have a clue as to why the Lord in his providence allows natural degeneration to take place, why worldly pleasures so soon cease to satisfy, why the world begins to lose its attraction for many over fifty! It is to wean us away from our lower contacts, and encourage us to find satisfaction instead in what is spiritual. The gold on the surface is soon exhausted, so we have to dig down to the underground seams, where the reef becomes richer and richer the deeper you penetrate. I think it is under Providence that wives lose their bloom when the first baby comes along, so that their husbands' love must go deeper.
Young folk need not pity us older ones because we no longer feel any desire to dance or play ball games or take interest in pin-up girls. And we need not feel wistful as we look back over outworn states. Faust was a fool to try to recover his youth on the devil's terms. I would rather grow old on the Lord's terms - "grow old along with Him." For with Him is an inexhaustible well of eternal youth.
Old pleasures may be ceasing to satisfy you. Life may be losing its interest for you. But, have Jesus for a Guest, and He will make all things new. Better still, have Jesus for a Host! He invites you to feast with Him. Don't decline the invitation, or make excuses. Put on the wedding garment. Repent of your sins, wash yourself clean. Then, as His disciple, you will go in with Him and sup with Him - not at a tawdry village wedding, but at a royal banquet: the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.