Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
The Renaissance artist Veronese depicted the first miracle of Jesus in John’s gospel in a large scale painting designed for the refectory of the Benedictine monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. He deliberately transposed the biblical event from the time of Jesus to the 16th century. He turned a simple wedding banquet into a sumptuous feast.
At first, it seems strange to see Jesus and Mary at the very center of the painting and the bride and bridegroom off to the far left. After all, it is their wedding. But, it really is not strange at all. The artist wants us to understand that Cana is not simply about a particular marriage celebration, but about the marriage between Christ and His Church.
In the foreground of the painting, below the figures of Jesus and Mary, Veronese has inserted two dogs resting quietly. Their peaceful pose draws our attention to the still demeanor of Jesus and Mary, who remain calm and collected in the midst of musicians and raucous merrymakers. But, Veronese has a deeper reason for placing these dogs before our eyes.
In Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance art, a dog is the conventional symbol of loyalty. In fact, even today, we speak of a dog as “man’s best friend.” Though this expression is only as recent as 1821, the recognition of the loyal attachment of a dog to his master was already documented by Homer’s Odyssey in the 8th century B.C. By positioning the two dogs counterbalancing Jesus and Mary, Veronese is depicting the total loyalty of Jesus and Mary to each other and to the Father’s will. Furthermore, he is reminding us of an essential virtue for marriage, for life and ultimately for becoming guests at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Loyalty!
When men and women enter marriage, they vow their commitment to love each other with the well-known words “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” In essence, their marital vow is an oath of loyalty. And, it is only by remaining loyal to each other that they can form a stable family, providing the best environment to raise their children.
Unfortunately, in some instances, the pledge to be loyal to each other is merely a poetic embellishment on a moment that will soon pass. When feelings change, or the romance is gone, or hardship hits, the commitment disintegrates. It is all too easy to base one’s actions and commitment to a spouse, a friend, a parent, a child or a business partner on how one feels at a particular moment. In every relationship which we have in life, loyalty matters. No loyalty, no family, friendship or faith.
On the one hand, we require loyalty of our leaders. We make them take an oath when they assume their office of public service. We demand that they be loyal to the common good. Without their putting the interests of the community before their own personal aggrandizement, society collapses like a badly stacked house of cards.
On the other hand, we ourselves need to be loyal to our country. Jesus himself said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” (Mk 12:17). In effect, Jesus was telling us to be loyal to government insofar as government itself acts in accord with God’s law. When human laws contradict divine law, loyalty to God trumps loyalty to man. When Hitler began his program of exterminating the Jewish people, many people remained loyal to him at the cost of 11 million lives! This was a perversion of loyalty.
To be truly loyal to others is to hold them to truth and goodness. It means never surrendering our principles to any individual or institution. Practically speaking, loyalty to the state or to a particular political party can never mean accepting and promoting immoral laws that sanction the death of innocent children waiting to take their place at the banquet of life. It can never mean being indifferent to the campaign to terminate the life of the elderly or terminally ill. Loyalty is always truth in action. For the true follower of Jesus, there is never a dual loyalty. Jesus himself said, “No one can serve two masters” (Mt 6:24). Loyalty to God and loyalty to others are two sides of the same coin of love.
It is certainly wrong to think that loyalty to the government means acquiescing to whatever the government decides. It is equally wrong, in our relationships, to simply go along with what the other decides. To someone who is cheating on a spouse, a loyal friend objects. To someone who is ruining his or her health with drink or a bad diet, a loyal friend objects. To someone who gives up on the practice of the faith, a loyal relative or friend tries, through prayer and persuasion, to bring that person back home to the Church. Whether it is the health of the body or of the soul, the true good of the other comes first.
Within our families, our friendships and business associations, we deepen our relationships only insofar as we are loyal. Being loyal is translating into everyday life the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Loyalty does not mean closing our eyes to the faults of others. But, it does mean not broadcasting their shortcomings or shaming them in public. Truly loyal persons only speak well of their friends to others, while, at the same time, helping them improve in those areas of their lives where they need to become better.
Loyalty is not easy. Feelings change, like the weather, alternating between warm affection and cold indifference. Because our feelings change, we need to make an effort at being loyal. In weal or woe, loyalty stands steadfast. “A friend is a friend at all times” (Pr 17:17). Loyalty in marriage and in all relationships, paves the way to a stable society. And, in our relationship to the Lord, loyalty opens the door to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.