The End of Sex

Gerard Loughlin

Everyone knows that Jesus went to a wedding at Cana in Galilee (John 2.1-11). But who got married? Strangely, we are not told. The story is not about the happy couple, but about some of their guests - Jesus and his mother and his disciples - and how one of them -Jesus - turned water into wine, the best wine at the feast, and how this was the first of Jesus' signs: a revelation of his glory. But who got married? Who was the bridegroom to whom the steward spoke in his amazement that the best wine had been kept until last, when everyone was drunk (2.10)?

The story of the wedding is not a simple tale, or not only a simple tale, but also a parable, a story that reveals theological truths. It is not a parable that Jesus tells, but one in which he is told, in which he is revealed. Everything in the story has a double meaning, at least a double meaning. It is itself and more than itself. The wedding takes place on the third day (2.1); the third day after Jesus has talked with Nathanael (1.43-51) and told him that he will see visions of glory (1.51), which - in a liturgical setting - is also the third day after Jesus' death, when he rises in glory The latter "third day" resonates in the former for all Christian readers who encounter this story in the setting of the Eucharist, at the thanksgiving meal in which Jesus' last three days are ritually recalled and inhabited. Moreover, the story itself recalls the Eucharist in which it is told, for Christ turns water into wine just as now - in the liturgical present - he turns wine into blood, when the cup of the new and everlasting covenant (his death) is shared in the eucharistic meal. Thus in the wedding at Cana, Jesus gives a sign of what will come to pass - is coming to pass - and has come to pass, in the church's recollection of the story, which thus turns out to be as much about its narrators as about Jesus: they are the guests at the feast where now wine, not water, is turned into something much more potent than the "best wine" that so amazed the steward. They are the guests at the wedding and the bridegroom is Christ himself.

In the Scriptures, God is the husband of Israel, and, in the gospels, Christ is husband to his church, he is the bridegroom of new Israel. The motif is common to all the gospels. Jesus identifies himself as the bridegroom whose presence dispels mourning and invites feasting rather than fasting (Matthew 9.15; Mark 2.18-20; Luke 5.33-5). And so similarly John the Baptist, who declares that he "who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice" (John 3.29). John is the friend who rejoices, whose "joy has been fulfilled" (3.29). John is bride to Jesus, and the same is true of all who believe in Jesus. At the end of the story of the wedding at Cana, after Jesus has worked the first of his signs, we are told that "his disciples believed in him" (2.11). They became the brides of Christ, and this is why the story does not tell us who was getting married at Cana, at whose wedding the wine was wondrously replenished. Or rather it does: Christ was marrying his disciples, and all who come to believe on the "third day," who come to share in the new wine of the resurrection. The entire story rests on the ancient idea that God is to Israel as husband to wife, bridegroom to bride, and that now, in Jesus, that relationship is perfected: the bridegroom arrives in person, and all are called to become his bride. But it is, as we cannot help but notice, a queer kind of marriage: the bonding of men in matrimony.

Most churches - at the start of the third Christian millennium - are being asked to acknowledge the marriage of same-sex couples, to acknowledge the union in Christ of men with men, and women with women, as they already witness to the union of men with women and women with men. But most churches are resistant, refusing to see, let alone sanction, the same-sex bonds that are everywhere present in their midst. And yet, as so often, the very thing denied is affirmed and celebrated at the level of the Christian symbolic -in the church's imaginary life, in her stories and songs, parables and prayers. This is one of the queerest things about the Christian Church; that it celebrates in its symbols what it denies to its members.1 Jesus goes to a wedding at Cana and marries his disciples; John the Baptist marries his friend, the bridegroom Jesus. But this is all imaginary, symbolic. It is not to be taken seriously, or not seriously in this way. So who did get married at Cana?

"Doubtless no one will any longer want to try and guess who the bridegroom was" (Bultmann 1971: 115 n. 3). Some have suggested that it was Simon the Cananaean (Mark 3.18), but others that it was the author of the gospel, traditionally identified as John the son of Zebedee, who left his wife or wife-to-be to follow Jesus, becoming the disciple whom Jesus loved. Indeed, John - in the second-century apocryphal Acts of John - tried three times to get married, and each time Jesus intervened, until John eventually succumbed and gave up the "foul madness" of female flesh and bound himself over to Jesus: "who didst make my joining unto thee perfect and unbroken: who didst give me undoubting faith in thee, who didst order and make clear my inclination toward thee: . . . who didst put into my soul that I should have no possession save thee only: for what is more precious than thee" (James 1924: 269)? Later versions of the story - as in a sermon preached by the Venerable Bede - have John as the bridegroom of Cana, who leaves his bride for Jesus (see Greenhill 1971: 408-9). And in some versions of the story, the woman whom John jilts forJesus is Mary Magdalene, though Jacobus de Voragine, of all people, dismissed this as a "false and frivolous" tale (Jacobus de Voragine 1993: I, 382). It is not quite clear why Jacobus found the story so preposterous, but he seems to have wanted John betrothed to a respectable virgin, since he assures us on the authority of his contemporary St Albert the Great OP that she, whoever she was, "persevered in virginity," accompanied the Blessed Virgin Mary and "came at last to a holy end."

In one amazing rendition of the story - in a tradition which stretches from at least the eleventh to the fifteenth century, when it became quite popular in Latin and High Middle German texts - John leaves his betrothed on their wedding day, and marries Jesus. It is Jesus and John who get married at Cana. The scene is delightfully pictured in a miniature of the Basel Libellus for John the Evangelist, produced in the Upper Rhine sometime before 1493 (see frontispiece and Hamburger 2002: 159; pl. 25). It shows John with long golden curls and rosy cheeks. Beardless and wearing a wedding chaplet, John is seated at a table beside an equally rosy cheeked but bearded Jesus, and both appear to be taking a great delight in one another, as are their companions - including the Virgin Mary to John's right. John's hands are clasped in prayer as he gazes into Jesus' eyes. They are seated for the wedding banquet, behind a table on which are placed loaves of bread, and in front of which are the six jars of water-turned-to-wine, from which a serving lad is proffering a cup to the happy couple. Above them, at the top of the picture, angels with ruddy cheeks are playing musical instruments, a flying wedding band.

A presentiment of John's marriage to Jesus is also found in an illustrated text of St Anselm of Canterbury's Prayers and Meditations. It comes from the monastery of Admont in Styria, and was probably produced in about 1160 for the Abbess Diemuth and her nunnery in Upper Austria (Pacht 1956: 71). Produced some three hundred years before the Basel libellus, the Admont codex illustrates Anselm's prayers to St John with a framed picture of two couples. On the left we see John leaving his betrothed, with both figures standing; while on the right we find John reclining on Jesus' breast, with both of them seated: "Tu leve conjugis pectus respuisti supra pectus domini Ihesu recumbens" is inscribed on the frame (see Pacht 1956: pl. 21a). Unlike the later illustration, the Admont Jesus is beardless; as pretty - perhaps prettier - as John's doleful fiancé, abandoned on the left of the picture. Thus its style is an interesting combination of Byzantine and Italian (Pacht 1956: 77), and its picturing of John and Jesus as a couple - separate from the story of the Last Supper (John 13.23) - was a novel development in the twelfth century As Otto Pacht notes, the 'Admont miniature is the earliest example of this iconographic type," and it almost certainly gave rise to what would become the much better known sculpted devotional images (Andachtsbilder) of John and Jesus in fourteenth-century Germany (Pacht 1956: 78). As such the image derives from Anselm's prayer to St John - as its illustration - rather than from the Last Supper, and shows the ascendancy of spiritual (pectus domini) over carnal (pectus conjugis) love: a nuptial mystery.2 And yet of course, as both twelfth- and fifteenth-century images reveal, the ascetic is imagined in utterly carnal, tender terms. In the Admont miniature, Jesus affectionately caresses John's chin. And who, looking at the Basel scene, can doubt that Jesus is about to kiss John?

The medieval John was exemplary of virginal life, and as such was often paralleled with the Virgin Mary If she figured virginity for female religious, he provided a model for the male monk, and together they fittingly betokened single-hearted devotion to Christ for those men and women who lived in double monasteries, as at Admont. Mary took precedence, but John was her male double, to the extent that sometimes his conception was viewed as "immaculate," his death an "assumption," and, as we have seen, he could play the sponsa Christi as well as the Virgin could - who, as church and second Eve, had become bride to her son in medieval imagination.3 As bride, John played a feminine role, the wife to Jesus' husband; almost, as it were, the eromenos (beloved) to his erastes (lover), the malakos to his arsenokoitës.4 But in context John was more likely to be thought of as angelic, as enjoying that androgynous life which "subsumes" the "polarities of gender" (Hamburger 2001: 303). In Les Lounages de Monseigneur Saint Jehan L'Evangelist (c. 1375-80) John appears alongside the nine orders of angels; and he often appears - as in the Basel libellus - like a young wo/man.5

John's virginal body represents a conjunctio oppositorum: not just male and female, but also body and soul, desire and bliss, change and stasis, corruption and transcendence. In John the opposites enshrined in the doctrine of the Incarnation - divinity and corporeality - are conjoined. Like the Virgin, John is utterly free of concupiscence, and like her, he, alone among the saints, is assumed bodily into heaven. (Hamburger 2001: 313)

Jesus, of course, was the original conjunctio oppositorum, and as such was also feminized in medieval piety Though a man, he was yet able to give suck like a nursing woman, feeding

Christian souls with the (eucharistic) blood from his side (Bynum 1982: 110-69; Bynum 1991: 157-65). Indeed, Jesus could give suck to John. In her Revelations, Katharina Tucher (d. 1448) longs to drink, like John, from Christ's breast (Hamburger 2001: 310): "John, dear friend, Let me suck there [from Christ's side] the wisdom on which you rested and from which you sucked out all sweetness. O, the noble little bed of holy rest! O, dear God, if I could rest there, that would be everything in the world to me!" (Tucher quoted in Hamburger 2002: 170). This is what John is about to do in the Admont illumination; to suck sweet wisdom on Christ's bed of holy rest. And, in turn, John's body is also able to feed the devout. For when - in the Golden Legend - he lies in the grave that he has had dug before the altar of his church, and entreats God to take him to the heavenly feast, the congregation are dazzled by a brilliant light, and, when it fades, John is gone and the grave filled with manna ( Jacobus de Voragine 1993: I, 55). His body, like Christ's, has become food.

While the marriage of John and Jesus was considered symbolic of their spiritual union

- with John a "virgin" bride - its carnal rendering, not least in such images as that of the Basel libellus, was sufficiently suggestive of physical as well as spiritual intimacy, for the story to be condemned by such as Joannes Molanus (Hamburger 2002: 160). It was not to survive the European Reformations. With the decline of vowed celibacy and the rise of familialism in most Western Christian churches - first in the Protestant and then the Catholic - a story such as that of John and Jesus, with its wonderful sense of fluid genders, became unpalatable. It spoke of a world in which bodily identities were insecure against the movements of desire, and above all the desire of and for God, which flowed through and beyond mundane affections. This desire affected both men and women. In the fifteenth century, John left his wife for Jesus, just as Margery Kempe (c. 1373-c. 1440) sought to leave her husband - or at least her conjugal obligations - for the caresses of her savior (see Kempe 1994; Loughlin 2004a: 17-19). Richard Rolle - in the previous century - spurned women's allures for the fire of Christ's love (see Rolle 1972: Loughlin 2004a: 11-12).6 The men and women of Admont's double monastery sought a lover whose embraces exceeded the comforts of merely human amours; they sought the pleasures of the gloriosum pectus.

Such sacred eroticism is not beyond criticism. It contrasts carnal and spiritual desire, elevating the latter above the former, so that the former is always in danger of denigration, as something to be shunned by those who would truly know God. More worryingly, it genders this contrast as one between man and woman. John leaves Mary for Jesus. And though this upsets any straightforward mapping of gender unto sex, as John becomes wife to Jesus, and Jesus mother to John - feeding him from his breast - this incestuous union (which repeats that between Jesus and Mary, Christ and the church), never - or hardly ever - mobilizes the masculine gender, which remains tied to the male body.7 But as we have seen this denigration is always paradoxical, because the ascetic ascent is figured in bodily terms of fleshly longing, as the language that is alone most appropriate to heavenly eros (see further Turner 1995b). Here we realize that the spiritual can grow out of the carnal, by which it is taught and then teaches in turn; so that spiritual asceticism is not the denial but the transformation of yearning - even in and through that yearning: the attraction of the beautiful.

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