It was a pretty amazing career that has Al Capone near the beginning and the #MeToo campaign at the end. She had a significant following on Twitter, and when she died on December 28, that platform was just one of the many, from traditional newspapers to social media, where she was celebrated. Television artist Nell Scovell called her the “patron saint of female comedy writers,” thought that was really just a role she performed as an actor. It all started with a vaudeville father and the 1929 release of the Vitaphone sound short “Baby Rose Marie the Child Wonder.”
Rose Marie Mazzetta, just Rose Marie in the credits thank you, had a career lasting almost seven decades, though she was best known for her role as Sally Rogers, one part of the comedy writing team for the fictional “Alan Brady Show,” the show within the meta show, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” It starred the eponymous Dutch kid from Missouri, and had a cast that included Rose Marie, an Italian from Manhattan, and of course, Mary Tyler Moore, who would move into the workforce, like so many women, with her next role. But “The Dick Van Dyke” show was really a tribute to the great tradition celebrated in Jeremy Dauber’s recent book “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History.” In fact, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” was an homage to the writer’s room at “Your Show of Shows,” an early television hit that ran from 1950 to 1954 starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coco. Caesar’s comedy writing incubator would produce names like Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, the creator of M*A*S*H, and, unfortunately, Woody Allen, accused of sexual misconduct long before the current wave of #MeToo.
So even a Southern goy like me has a lifetime of exposure to Jewish comedy. And thanks to Jewish stand-up comedians and sitcoms, no matter how much you wrap lily white Mary up in a powder blue cloak and proclaim her a perpetual virgin, I can only see Mary through the lens of Jerry Seinfeld, the late Gilda Radner, every Jewish stand-up ever. Mary is, for me, the ultimate Jewish mother. I have no doubt she’d do just fine in Jersey, where she’d tell anyone who would listen about her son the successful prophet even as she complained to him that he never calls or visits. These are, of course, just comedic tropes, but comedic tropes always start with a truth greatly exaggerated.
This whole exchange between mother and son at Cana, then, takes on a certain comic feel, as if it was a story being told from the stage at the comedy club,. Here is Jesus grumbling that he is not prepared to do a miracle, and Mary saying “Never mind him. He’s such a good boy! He’ll do what his mother wants him to do.” And Mom wins, because good boys take care of their mothers. In this gospel, Jesus is still taking care of his mother even from the cross.
The Gospel that originates in the Johannine community, which is to say the gospel composed by the community that claims to originate with the disciple John, is an outlier, the reason it is not lumped into the synoptic category that holds the other three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, synoptic meaning “the same.” By definition, then, John is not “the same.” Many of its stories are unique, and while the author and final redactors did an excellent job integrating the sources, things got jumbled in places. For example, what our versions give as chapters 4 to 7 should actually be re-arranged to read 4-6-5 then 7. There is also a displaced ending to the final discourse, and late additions to the text, like the entire final chapter, which is not original.
John’s gospel has been accused of gnosticism, the ancient spirituality of secret knowledge, and therefore of being a fairly late gospel, but the oldest manuscripts we have of any canonical gospel are second century fragments of John. Even so, the gospel was nowhere close to its final form. The story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery don’t show up until manuscripts of three centuries later, significant given how much importance we place on that single story. This is a gospel that is the result of a particular community that drew from many sources, the oral tradition, unique texts, to create a text of its own that served its needs, just like every other gospel.
In the case of John, one lost source text is referred to as Semeia Source, which simply means signs. It was a text organized around one theme, a series of signs of ever increasing divine power that starts with today’s miracle, a Dionysian changing of water into wine, a parlor trick really, and culminates in the raising of Lazarus, re-animation being a cut above the norm, final proof of the power over life and death.
Being an ancient text, the signs get a little out of order, but today’s sign is tasty and tasteful. We’ll save the stink to the penultimate miracle in bethany.
I particularly like the part about the cheap wine and the good wine, a reversal every one of us can understand. Drink the good beer first, then when tastebuds and good judgment are suspended, break out the rot-gut. But Jesus doesn’t just turn water into wine, cool enough, right?… he makes the good stuff, good enough that the guests comment on it.
The story often gets read through the lens of those other gospels and through the lens of the Last Supper tradition, but none of that is in John so this is a misreading. This wine has nothing to do with communion. For this tradition, miracles are proof of Jesus as divine, and the first is a miracle that would be familiar to the audience, presto change-o. Nothing more is intended. They ran out of wine. Jesus stepped in and created a space of extravagant hospitality.
Unintended I suspect but very much there is a second message, one that I think is worth our time, for it mirrors the main thrust of all four gospels, of the proclamation itself, which is all about divine reversal. The first shall be last and the last shall be first and the good wine is still coming because the best is yet to come.
Every religion defines itself on some past event, a revelation or a teacher. Nations are much the same, looking back toward some foundational moment. In the Hebrew cult, the definitive event was the Exodus. Spiritually, everything that came after was about their success or failure in preserving the relationship with God established in that event. To a lesser extent, the reign of David and Solomon was foundational, though that was far more about nationalism than about religion.
But sometimes there are leaders who point forward instead of backward. Instead of seeing the world as a wretched mess measured against some romanticized and absolutely false past, they see what might be. They face forward. Think of the short presidency of John F. Kennedy, however imperfect he might have been. His language was not about all that was wrong. It was about what might be. Young Americans serving their fellow humans around the world, a trip to the moon… not ask what you have done but what you can do, a question of potentiality.
In the same way, Jesus, while challenging a corrupted present, is future oriented. The Kingdom of God is at hand! Not, “Gosh, if only we could do things the way Moses did them.” He is not announcing a restoration of the past. He is announcing the creation of a future.
Jesus is a progressive, which means three particular things. A progressive believes that existence is essentially good, that humans have the potential for good, and that the future can be better than the past. We need not go as far as the Timbuk 3 hit “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades,” but we have to be, when push comes to shove, positive people. We have to be willing to trust and leap.
This is the exact opposite of our nature. Despite our transcendent spirits our bodies are finite and failing. These fearfully and wonderfully made spirit sacks all too often weigh us down, dragging us into ditches of depression, into the muck and mire of self, so that we can no longer see beyond ourselves. Pessimism and a clinging to the past is self-centeredness embodied, a temptation for us all, for we are selves in bodies. Yet the gospel, the progressive message of Jesus, calls us to selflessness, to face forward, it calls us to believe, to choose to see the world as if that divine mystery we name as God was calling the world to a better place. The kingdom is at hand, but you have to choose to see it. You have to opt-in.
To be progressive is to be selfless and courageous, to refuse to be controlled by our death fear.
Because when we are afraid, we make bad decisions. No doubt there was someone at that wedding at Cana who whined when the wine ran out and left. Just look what they missed. There will always be complainers and obstructionists. But Mama believed in him. Never mind him. He’s a good boy. And those who stuck it out and believed got the good stuff.
Those anchored to the mire of self, sinking and stinking and yammering the whole time, those who have chosen misery, have forgotten that today itself is a gift, even with our aches and pains and expiration dates.
Believing is seeing.
In last Sunday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof declared 2017 the best year in history, and he had the data to prove it. Sure, there is plenty of bad data out there, income inequality, the extrajudicial execution of African-Americans. And as a progressive, these things make me angry, because I know we can do better. But our negative scared reptilian brains need to climb up out of the swamp and see that fewer people are starving to death. Fewer are dying of preventable disease. We can be appalled at the hateful and racist words spoken in the White House, but we must also marvel that a white conservative from South Carolina challenged that ignorant hate-speech. We can be appalled that Preet Bharara was forced out as the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, but can we take a moment to appreciate that for eight years, one of the most powerful federal prosecutors was a man born in Punjab to a Sikh father and a Hindu mother?
This morning there are hundreds of people sitting in their homes on the Blue Hill peninsula that are miserable, convinced that life is sketch comedy of the worst kind, a cosmic joke with countless Jobs at the end of every punchline. As a progressive, I will not be satisfied as long as a single person is sitting alone and miserable. I don’t care what I have to do to get them out, whether I have to call or pull or lift or build or get down in the swamp myself. I’m probably going to have to let go of something in order to help them. I most certainly am going to have to let go of something to help them.
Our bodies may think the best is in the past, that the good wine is long gone and we are down to the dregs. Our spirits know that the best wine is yet to come.
Never mind him. He’s a good boy. Do what he tells you. This party isn’t really over yet.