In the Middle Ages Our Lady was often presented in art as holding in her arms the infant Jesus clutching a bunch of grapes. This was a reference to her presence at Christ’s first miracle (water becoming wine) at what was probably a family wedding. At the end of the same Gospel, Mary is present at Calvary when blood flows from the pierced side of her son.

This changing of water into wine is the first miracle attributed to Jesus in St John’s Gospel (2:1-12). It took place in Cana, close to Nazareth where Jesus grew up. 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 celebration unexpectedly ran out. This might have been due to the crowd being larger than expected or, perhaps, they ‘drunk the house dry’ …

In response to his mother’s intervention, Jesus miraculously changed the water in six stone vessels into fine 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’. John’s Gospel recounts seven of these signs in all, each one leading up to the final – and greatest – sign of all: his death and resurrection which Jesus called his ‘hour’.

The setting of a wedding for this first sign from Jesus was no accident.  St John chose the occasion to remind us that the promise made in the First Reading (Isaiah 62:1-5) – with its rich wedding imagery – was now being fulfilled in the person of Jesus.

The image or analogy of marriage is used frequently in the Bible to portray God as a faithful husband who never deserts his ‘bride’ i.e. his people. In spite of their infidelity, God remains their infatuated, love-struck and committed husband who never abandons them. So in the setting of a wedding for Christ’s first ‘sign’ of his identity, the young married couple at Cana symbolise God being ‘wedded’ anew to his people through the person of Jesus.

In Judaism then purification rites were an important feature of people’s religion. The large amounts of water in the stone jars at this wedding were not for drinking but for religious purification. So in transforming this water into wine, Jesus was signifying that what the water represented was no longer necessary. People were now to respond to God’s love not through minor rituals, like acts of purification, 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 now offering to humankind. Hence, the pivotal 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 are we meant to respond to this Gospel story?

For those first disciples and us now, the Cana story presents us with a challenge: it is to accept what Mary said to the steward: ‘do whatever he [Jesus] tells you’. The whole of John’s Gospel portrays a drama between those who did as Mary said and those who refused. The same challenge in different times confronts us, to try and keep on trying to do what the Lord asks. To really listen and respond to him more than any other – isn’t it the very goal and struggle of the whole of our Christian life?

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
16 January 2022

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