We’re in the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is when we think about Jesus the Christ being made known, or manifested, to the world. Other Sundays have the Gentile Magi from the East; the presentation of Jesus in the temple; his baptism by John; and Jesus’ first sermon in his home synagogue, where he reads part of Isaiah. And, of course, we’re hard on the heels of Christmas and God’s manifestation as a vulnerable baby, completely reliant on human care. But today we have the very familiar account of the first miracle of Jesus, which was performed at the wedding at Cana. And, on the face of it, it’s an odd choice for a first miracle. So, I wonder what we are to learn from this?
What would you do?
Because if you were to announce yourself on the world’s stage as the incarnated God, what wonderful act would you do first? Would you heal someone who had been very obviously unwell? Would you bring rain to a land suffering from long-term drought? Or would you bring world peace? What would you do as your first act?
And what would your publicity be like to make sure everyone knew about it? You’d probably hire a media manager and announce it in advance to build up some expectation. Perhaps you’d go to a large arena, with a good sound system, so that you could be seen and heard by everyone? To spread the word more widely you might not need a TV crew, just someone with a smart phone and a savvy approach to social media but you would do something to make sure people heard about it – not least think carefully about the location.
My wife and I got the new Bond movie on DVD over Christmas and in one of the bonus clips that you get one of the film crew said that the scene location and the set-design are critically important to telling the story. Location, location, location.
So, for the first miracle, here we are located in Cana, of all places. We’re not centre stage in Rome or Jerusalem but Cana in Galilee. The back end of the empire. Scholars aren’t exactly sure where Cana was, but the most likely candidate makes it a small village – perhaps a bit like Four Lane Ends – a few miles from Nazareth. Far enough away for Nathaniel, who was from Cana, in a bit of local village rivalry, to say “does anything good come from Nazareth?” Like someone from Bury might say: “does anything good come from Bolton”.
But it’s close enough for Mary and Jesus to be known and invited to the wedding. Perhaps Mary and Jesus were related to the couple in some way. And maybe that’s why Mary is so concerned. It was the responsibility of the extended family to provide for the wedding, it didn’t just fall on the couple. Any shortfall or failure, and the shame which went with it, would have reflected on all of the family for their communal lack of provision.
Did the disciples drain the bar?
But our reading says that the disciples were invited too, though Jesus had only just called the disciples in the two days before the wedding. Let’s assume local lad Nathaniel was going anyway. But for the rest, this must have been a very last-minute invitation. Perhaps the disciples created the very problem of the wine running out by being there! Were they 11 extra, thirsty guests who hadn’t been catered for?…
And Jesus has to be cajoled into doing this first miracle. Does Mary give him a mother’s look at his initial negative reply, a reply which she didn’t take as being a ‘no’? What made her so confident that he could do something? Had there been signs in private of what he was capable of?
An impatient Mary?
Or indeed – 30 years on from the words of the angels, and Elizabeth, and the events in Bethlehem and Simeon’s song in Jerusalem – was Mary getting impatient and wondering when something would actually happen? Had it all been a dreadful mistake or did Jesus show enough promise to just need a mother’s nudge – and now seemed as good a time as any.
It may not be a coincidence but, in Judaism, 30 is a moment of truth when you if you are ever to be ready for leadership then it’s now. It’s the age when a Levite could enter the priesthood (Numbers 4:3,30) and when Joseph went from prisoner to prime minister in Egypt in a matter of hours (Genesis 41:46). And it’s when the heavens opened and Ezekiel first encountered visions of God (1:1). So, was this Jesus’ time?
And for his first miracle, Jesus doesn’t heal anyone, or do an exorcism or feed a hungry crowd. Instead, he makes wine for a party! It’s not life or death. Sure, there would be shame and embarrassment for the family if they ran out – but making wine seems frivolous somehow… Doesn’t it?
And he does it in industrial quantities. 6 jars of up to 30 gallons each. That’s 180 gallons or 820 litres or 1100 bottles of wine. And the good stuff too! You can do your own maths and work out the value of that, depending on how much you think a really good bottle of wine costs! We’ve no idea how many guests there were or how many days to go, in a celebration that could last a week, but you have to guess that this was way more wine than was needed.
And if you’re not paying attention, then you’ll miss the miracle itself. Jesus says to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so, they filled them to the brim. Then he tells them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
That’s it. A few whispered words away from the main celebration. There was no big announcement. Jesus didn’t interrupt the wedding reception DJ, or the dad-dancing, tap on the microphone, and tell everyone what he was about to do. The only ones that knew, at least beforehand, were his mother and the servants. I imagine afterwards that the servants would have gossiped about it – or that the bridegroom would have come asking questions – and word would have got out soon enough. Enough, certainly, for the disciples to believe.
But John doesn’t even call it a miracle. He calls it a sign. And except for one, all of the other signs in John are rather understated too. He heals the officials’ son from a distance, he makes the lame to walk by simply saying “get up”, he feeds thousands by pronouncing a simple blessing over the meal, he walks on water at night just to get the other side of the lake – and he heals a blind man by putting mud on his eyes and asking him to go and wash.
The only exception is Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead with a loud shout.
So, what do we take from all this? If this is how God is made manifest, how God is made known to the world, then what on earth do we learn?
It’s thought that John’s Gospel was initially written to the people of Ephesus. One of the principal gods in Ephesus was the Greek god, Dionysius. Perhaps you know him better as the Roman god, Bacchus. There’s more than one legend of Dionysius turning water into wine. So, maybe John was saying that Dionysius was only a myth – but the Wedding at Cana showed Jesus was flesh and blood and really did have the power of transformation, rather than just the illusion of it.
And at the time, communal meals were not served indiscriminately to guests. They were strictly based on social status. Some would just get the cheapest food and drink. The wine would be mixed with water and vinegar, such as was offered to Jesus on the cross. Whilst others would get the fine wine, the grand cru. Like the top table having champagne and everyone else Asti Spumante. The good news, the Gospel, is that the wine of Jesus is the same for everyone – and it’s the very best that you can get.
Historians tell us that there was real hardship and shortage in the rural communities in Israel at that time due to the tithes, tributes and taxes that were expected. The physical nature of this miracle, that could be shared amongst all those present, shouldn’t be underestimated.
Joy and celebration
And maybe John was thinking of the Hebrew Scriptures where wine is used as a symbol of the joy and celebration which comes from salvation. The prophet Amos speaks of a time when ‘mountains shall drip sweet wine and all the hills shall flow with it’ (9:13). Isaiah tells of the feast which God prepares for all peoples, ‘a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines’ (25:6).
So, the extravagant abundance of wine at the Wedding at Cana is a sign of the abundance of joy that awaits all peoples on the day of God’s salvation. Then, later in John, Jesus says: “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly” (10:10). Abundant life is to have a relationship with the God who loves us so much that he doesn’t know how or when to stop giving.
But I wonder too if we can read the Wedding at Cana like a parable, or a number of parables, to which you can make your own interpretations:
- The Kingdom of God is where small rural villages are put on the map – and we’re still talking about them two thousand years later.
- The Kingdom of God is like a wedding where everyone is treated the same.
- Or the Kingdom of God is like a wedding where the servants, and not those who think they’re in charge, know the truth about where the wine has come from.
- The Kingdom of God is where most people don’t know that a miracle is happening right at this very moment.
- The Kingdom of God is where mother knows best…
Hidden, mysterious and generous
Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Perhaps we learn that God is someone who comes to weddings, who mingles with us and enjoys our company, who expects our time together to be well, joyful – and who gives more than can ever be asked or expected.
Maybe it’s more complicated though. That you feel like you’re an earthenware pot that’s largely empty. And you have few expectations now. Perhaps you learn from this that at any moment, water may come rushing in – and that, unexpectedly, there may then be an astonishing sweetness and depth and colour that tells you that this isn’t the end. But there is much, much more to come.
Or is it that God sometimes comes and does his work quietly. No claps of thunder. No fanfares or earthquakes. That the glory of God is not what we expect it to be – but that God responds to our human needs in ways that are hidden and mysterious and generous… He just might need a mother’s nudge, every now and then! Amen.
- Card, M. (2014). John – The Gospel of Wisdom. IVP.
- Horsley, R. (2012). The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel. Eerdmans.
Blessing the Water, the Wine – by Jan Richardson
you had learned
to live with the empty,
You could place your ear
against the rim
of the vessel
of your life
and hear its ringing echo
not even bothered
to be a bystander
at the feast—
if not delighting
in the celebration
at least not
despairing in it.
When the water
rushed into the emptiness
you were surprised
that you were surprised,
that you could even feel
the sudden wellspring
when you thought
all had been poured out.
And then suddenly
that stuns you
that tells you
this was not all,
this was not the end
that this blessing
was saving the best
for last. Amen