The changing of water into wine at a wedding is the first miracle attributed to Jesus in St John’s Gospel (2:1-12). It took place in Cana in Galilee, understood to be close to Nazareth where Jesus grew up.
The occasion was a marriage to which Jesus, his mother and disciples were invited, suggesting that it probably was a family wedding. Indeed, Mary (who is not named) seemed at some level to be officially involved in the celebration since she took charge of things when the wine for the occasion unexpectedly ran out. This might have been due to the crowd being larger than expected or, perhaps, that things became quite festive and they ‘drunk the house dry’ …
In response to his mother’s intervention, Jesus miraculously turned the water in six stone vessels into the finest wine. This, the Gospel says, was the ‘first of the signs given by Jesus’. A ‘sign’ in this Gospel is a miracle that offers a glimpse into Jesus’ identity and reveals his ‘glory’. St John recounts seven of these signs in all, each one leading up to the final – and greatest – one of all: the death and resurrection of Jesus which Jesus called his ‘hour’.
The setting of a wedding for this miracle was no accident. It was chosen to remind us that the promise made in the First Reading (Isaiah 62:1-5) – with its rich wedding imagery – was being fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Isaiah had promised to the Israelites living in exile (6th century BC) that they would be restored to their homeland and begin a new relationship with God:
You shall be called ‘My Delight’ and your land ‘The Wedded’; for the Lord takes delight in you and your land will have its wedding. Like a young man marrying a virgin so will the one who built you wed you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so will your God rejoice over you.
The image of marriage is used frequently in the Bible to highlight God’s loving commitment to his people. God is portrayed as a faithful husband who never deserts us: we are God’s bride and when we are unfaithful, God remains the infatuated, love-struck and committed husband who will never abandon us. So byusing the setting of a wedding for Christ’s first ‘sign’ of his identity, St John was alluding to the young married couple at Cana being a sign of God being ‘wedded’ to his people through Jesus.
The traditional way for Jewish people to respond to God’s faithful love is to observe the Law of Moses. This contains the Terms of the Covenant or contract between them and God. In Christ’s time purification rites were an important feature of this Law. The large amounts of water in the stone jars for the wedding at Cana were not for drinking or for personal hygiene but for religious purification. You may recall (St Mark’s Gospel, ch.7) that Jesus was questioned why his disciples did not observe this rite before eating.
In transforming this purification water into wine, Jesus was signifying that what the water stood for was no longer necessary. People were now to respond to God’s love not through minor rituals but through the person and teaching of Jesus. He was the ‘new wine’, infinitely superior to the ‘old wine’ of an exhausted Judaism, that God was offering to humankind. Hence, the declaration of the steward to the bridegroom:
‘People generally serve the best wine first and keep the cheaper sort till the guests have had plenty to drink; but you have kept the best wine until now.’
How might we respond to this Gospel story?
The first way, perhaps, if you are married, is to be aware of how in the Church your care for each other is a sign of God’s care for us. Of course not all relationships and marriages survive and people – for good reasons – have to part. But for those who have been able to stick it out and survive the difficult times along the way, your persistence and continued devotion to each other is a reminds of how God persists and sticks by us.
The second is for us to respond to what Mary told the steward: ‘do whatever he [Jesus] tells you’. Doing what the Lord tells or teaches us – isn’t this the goal and struggle of the whole Christian life? So we might ask if there is anything in particular we think Christ might be asking you or me to do today – and, if so, what’s stopping us, especially if we remember, as the Angel Gabriel told Mary at the Annunciation, ‘nothing is impossible to God’?
Holy Name, Jesmond
20 January 2019
PS: In the Middle Ages Our Lady was often presented in art as holding in her arms the infant Jesus clutching a bunch of grapes, a reference to her presence at Christ’s first miracle at Cana. Later in the same Gospel, Mary is present at Calvary when blood and water flow from his side.