Epiphany 2: 17 January John 2:1-11
This is a ‘wow’ story: what a miracle! - until the dimensions sink in. It is undoubtedly one of the miracles the fourth gospel reports, but it is clearly more than that. There is almost a tongue in cheek humour at the amount of wine produced: over 120 gallons or 500 litres. Perhaps at some stage the story belonged to a collection of such ‘wow’ miracles where all the attention was upon the fantastic achievements. A number of John’s miracles are sensational in this way.
John has no interest in calling such miracles into question, but it is evident that he sees faith based primarily on such ‘wow’ miracles as far from adequate. That becomes very clear at the end of the chapter where he reports that ‘many believed in his name when they saw the miracles he performed, but Jesus did not trust (believe in) them because he knew what people are like’ (2:23-24). Nicodemus is such a person. He declares: ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God because no one can do these miracles which you are doing unless God is with him’ (3:2). Nicodemus is missing the point, though his words are correct, and will not really see, until he has been born from above (3:3).
These exchanges, like many others in John, tell us that there is more than one perspective from which to understand the miracle at Cana of Galilee and that the one which focuses primarily on the miracle is a long way from understanding it. We might begin with the imagery of the wedding and the wedding feast. John certainly plays with such imagery when he has Jesus meet the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, a traditional betrothal scene, and when he has John the Baptist describe himself as playing the role of the bridegroom’s friend in 3:29. The image of future salvation as a great feast, often a wedding feast, was sufficiently widespread for hearers of this miracle to recognise its symbolism. The provider, rather than the bridegroom, Jesus makes the full celebration possible.
It would have been almost impossible for Christian communities in which a special meal of bread and wine prefigured the future feast of salvation not to sense an allusion here to their eucharist. Similar allusions are present in John 6. As is the case throughout John’s gospel the symbols have a common focus: Jesus as the bearer of eternal life. If we read John within the broader framework of the writings of early Christianity, this story is symbolising the life which is promised when the vision of hope and transformation becomes reality. It celebrates this good news.
If we trace the Johannine weavings which hold this story together, we find there is more to the pattern. The ‘third day’ may well be a subtle allusion to Easter. John’s gospel is conscious of timing and makes a point of saying that only after Jesus’ death, resurrection and return to the Father do the greater possibilities become reality. For then the Spirit is given, the mission expands, the community meet to celebrate the new reality in the meal Jesus’ body and blood. So, after Easter: the feast of abundant wine - a way of looking at the eucharist and what it represents. The same sense of timing is present in the rather abrupt quip which Jesus makes to his mother: ‘My hour has not yet come’ (2:4). That hour is the same major turning point, the climax of Jesus’ ministry, when as Son of Man he will be lifted up, glorified, and made the focus of angelic adulation as Jesus has just announced in 1:51. There, too, he emphasises that this is something ‘greater’ (1:50) to be seen than what currently and rightly impresses Nathanael.
There are also darker threads. Six stone jars are standing there full of water. They are transformed to become vats of wine. Minds sensitive to numbers and their symbolism would have noted the number six, falling short of the perfect, seven. The well versed Jewish Christians of John’s community would have known why the jars were of stone: they cannot contract impurity and so are eminently suitable for holding water used to purify the hands before eating. Such rites are often reported in John as common practice (see later the practice of immersion of pilgrims which forms the background of the footwashing story of John 13). They are never ridiculed. But they belong to the past and have now been replaced by a new order of grace, which that old order of grace foreshadowed (see 1:16-17). So the water has become wine, the old temple, a new one in the person of Jesus. That ‘leaving behind’ is also part of the story’s theme.
The story is also like a mini stage play. Sometimes the double meaning sits neatly within the drama. Sometimes it almost protrudes awkwardly, as in the reference to ‘the hour’, which blatantly points forward to the cross and associated events and has little relevance to the literal story. Mostly the meaning is much more subtle. ‘Do whatever he tells you to do,’ says Mary to the servants/slaves/‘ministers’ (Greek: diakonois), a fitting instruction for all time and for who will serve Christ. The MC did not know where the wine came from, but the ‘servants knew’ (2:9) - indeed they did and do! Even the reflection about the drinks at a wedding with which the story concludes is making its subtle point. Normally you don’t waste your best wine on people who are already half drunk; you serve the best wine first. Those who want to ‘party on’ can have the cheap wine. Not so here: the best has come at the end.
There are lots of distractions in the story. One way or other some people may need a little help to move beyond the massive miracle, either because they believe it or because they don’t. Others may worry about the alcoholic content of the wine. We may confidently assume that this was the real thing. The nice little blessing of marriage which wedding liturgies often cite using this passage is rather more like Jesus, the barman, ensuring the party goes on. What it blesses incidentally is a full blown party drenched in wine. At this level the story may even need to be restrained somewhat; don’t tell the teenagers this is what was happening! But the story is not really about promoting excessive drinking. As many of Jesus’ parables reflect raw, uncensored life, so here the symbolic celebration has created its wild incidentals which are not for emulation at a literal level (but that does not mean we deny the positive attitude to celebration and wine).
As with much that we find in John, the passage has a simple theme: Jesus brings life. That message needs unpacking and for that we usually have to go beyond John. It is as though John tells us where to stand and we need the rest to know what to say. We do not leave John behind: the personal encounter and relationship of trust and love remains fundamental, but John scarcely goes beyond that to the wider vision. In the same way the tradition tells us where to stand and our eyes and ears alert to our world and its needs will enable us to make the connections, to discern the Spirit, to weave the truth of the story for our day.