As you may recall, we’ve been spending this Epiphanytide looking at the different ways our Lord Jesus is manifested or revealed to his people in the early stories from the Gospels. On Epiphany we looked at Jesus manifested to the gentiles in the Visitation of the Magi. Two weeks ago we looked at Jesus manifested to the faithful teachers and doctors in the Temple when he was a boy. Last week we looked at Jesus manifested as the Son of God and as God the Son to the repentant in his Baptism. Today we look at the manifestation of the Lord’s glory at the first of Jesus’ miracles.
But before we look at the Gospel passage in more detail, let’s set the scene as presented in the 4th Gospel. Our passage begins with the phrase “On the third day…” As I mentioned earlier, last week we remembered the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. In the context of John’s Gospel, the baptism occurred in the previous chapter, followed by two days of Jesus calling the first disciples. 19th Century priest, historian, and Jewish convert, Alfred Eddersheim, says that the Apostle Nathaniel, who was called the previous day to follow Jesus, was likely from Cana. At that call, Jesus had revealed to Nathaniel that he had seen him, presumably in a vision, under the fig tree in prayer or study earlier. Nathaniel then declared that Jesus was the King of Israel and the Son of God. Nathaniel immediately realized that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Jesus answered him, saying that he would see greater things. As we know from the end of today’s Gospel passage, it didn’t take long for Jesus’ prediction to come true!
But in the meantime, we have a wedding in Nathaniel’s village. There is a sense where Jesus attending this wedding could seem a bit odd at this point. After all, in his baptism he had just been commissioned by his Father to begin his ministry. If he’s got to get about his Father’s business of preaching the Gospel and bringing the Kingdom of God, does he really have time for a party? On the contrary, says St. Augustine, the wedding at Cana is a microcosm of our Lord’s mission. Augustine writes:
The Lord was invited and came to a wedding. Is it any wonder that he who came to that house for a wedding came to this world for a wedding? … Therefore he has a bride here whom he has redeemed by his blood and to whom he has given the Holy Spirit as a pledge.
In other words, in this the “first of his signs,” we see a manifestation of Jesus’ glory that sets the stage for his entire ministry. With that in mind, let’s take a look at today’s Gospel passage. We’ll focus on two aspects of this story: the manifestation of glory as Jesus’ first sign, and the response from the Blessed Virgin Mary. Please turn in your bibles to John 2:1 (page 113 in your Prayer Book, page 834 in your pew Bibles):
On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
Unlike the Synoptic Gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark, and Luke), St. John portrays very few miracles. In fact, he only gives us seven, six of which are specifically called “signs” in the text. All of these happen in the first half of the Gospel, which has led some scholars to call John 2 through 12 the “Book of the Signs” and the rest of the Gospel the “Book of Glory.” The seven “signs” of John’s Gospel are:
- The turning of water into wine in this passage
- The healing of the official’s son in Capernaum in John 4
- The healing of the paralytic at Bethesda in John 5
- The feeding of the 5,000 in John 6
- Walking on water in John 6
- The healing of the man born blind in John 9
- And the raising of Lazarus in John 11.
For St. John, the signs are special miracles that reveal Jesus’ identity as the Divine Logos, the Word made Flesh. As we read, today’s miracle is the “first of [Jesus’] signs.” As St. Augustine said, this sign sets the tone for Jesus’ ministry and mission as portrayed in John’s Gospel. First of all, it reveals Jesus’ divinity with a powerful act of creation. As the concluding verse of our passages says, with this powerful act, Jesus “manifested his glory.” And what an extravagant act it is! Six stone jars with twenty to thirty gallons of water are the equivalent of 600 to 900 bottles of wine! Even if the entire village and their neighboring relatives were all at the wedding, there is no way they would be able to finish so much wine at one celebration! Indeed, they probably wouldn’t have been able to finish that much wine in an entire year! Indeed, the German Reformer Martin Bucer (who helped Archbishop Cranmer with the development of the first Book of Common Prayer) pointed out that some Christians would probably have rebuked or even excommunicated Jesus over such extravagance, lest it lead to drunkenness! Search the Scriptures: never had any prophet from the Old Testament or later Jewish stories performed such a miracle.
The sign and the glory also reveal the nature of Jesus’ ministry: it was a ministry of God’s grace. Whenever you read John’s Gospel remember that the Evangelist is fond of incorporating multiple meanings into the text. The surface story is rarely the entire point. The main events and facts of Jesus’ life were already well known through the other three Gospels. As St. Clement of Alexandria said, “Last of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain [in the other canonical Gospels] … composed a spiritual gospel.” There are always deeper spiritual truths in the stories of John’s Gospel.
In this case it is significant that the first sign is at a wedding. Jesus’ mission was to win and woo his bride, the Church. He was laying the preparation for the Great Marriage Supper of the Lamb, as we read about in Revelation and in some of the Parables. Also note the significance of the wine. Wine is not a necessity in life; it is a luxury. Jesus came to give us life, and life to the fullest. He came to give us abundant life. The miracle of the wine at Cana is a picture of that abundant life.
Wine is a symbol of fellowship and a symbol of joy. In this miracle we see God’s grace poured out and manifested in extravagant joy. The jars were “filled to the brim,” as our text says. The Christian life is one of abundant joy as well as a life of holiness. Holiness and joy are not antithetical concepts. The one does not preclude the other. As the Scripture says in Nehemiah 8, “The joy of the lord is your strength.” This joy includes appropriate times of celebration and feasting, such as at the wedding. Indeed, our joy as Christians extends even to times of difficulty and suffering. If you’re following along in our Prayer Book’s Daily Office Lectionary or were with us this past Friday for Matins, we just began St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians in Morning Prayer. Despite Philippians being one of the letters written from prison, the book includes major themes of contentment and joy, both of which St. Paul roots in thanksgiving.
Notice that the text speaks of the water jars being used for “Jewish rites of purification” (verse 6). It’s important to note that these were not rites from the Old Testament ceremonial law. The washings of Old Testament were largely either related to the Temple service or to ritual impurity, neither of which would take present in the context of private homes with water jars. Temple washings would, of course, take place at the Temple. Washings related to ritual impurity (e.g. touching a dead body, issues of bodily discharge, etc) would be performed in running water, often at the synagogue. Rather, the kinds of purification rites that would take place in this context are more likely extra-biblical traditional washings. This is the kind of thing that the Pharisees criticized the disciples for when they complained to Jesus that his followers ate without washing their hands.
With that in mind, see the contrast between the joy of the Gospel versus the burden of legalism. The Pharisees, like all legalists, piled extra “laws” on top of God’s Law, in order to protect God’s Law from being broken (as if the Bible cannot stand up for itself!). The Covenant relationship with God had been perverted into a checklist of “do’s” and “”don’t’s.” As much as we find the Pharisees bewildering in that tendency, remember that legalism is always a tendency within our hearts, especially for those of us who are traditional in the faith. There is always a temptation to become a Pharisee, often out of a good desire to be holy.
The joyful wine of the Gospel, on the other hand, gives us freedom within our holiness, freedom within our obedience to God. It gives us the joy of rooting ourselves in what Jesus has done for us rather than in our own poor attempts at being good. It keeps our focus on God rather than on our performance. The result of that joy and freedom, paradoxically, is that we do end up more obedient and more holy, in spite of ourselves.
Finally, let’s take a look at our Lord’s Mother and on the Disciples. It’s important to remember that the Blessed Virgin Mary is often a type of the Church in John’s writings. In Revelation 12, she is shown as the mother of all of Jesus’ brethren who is persecuted by the Devil, a clear symbol of the Church. In St. John’s depiction of the Crucifixion, she is entrusted to the care of the Apostle, which can be read as a symbol of the Church being entrusted to the Apostles. Even in her very role as the one who bore Jesus into the world, she is a type of the Church who brings Jesus to the nations. In today’s passage we also see her as an example and a stand-in for all the faithful.
Notice how she goes to Jesus on behalf of the groom when there is a problem. She is interceding with the Lord on behalf of the wedding party. We, too, are called to intercede on behalf of our brethren in prayer. You should certainly pray for yourself, but don’t neglect prayer for others. That’s why there is so much “we” in the Prayer Book. We pray as a body and we pray for the body. Also notice her words to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you” (verse 5). This is the cry of the Church to all the faithful: “Do whatever Jesus tells you.” Follow Jesus. Obey his word. Most especially believe in him!
And that’s what we see with the disciples. The end result of this first sign is in the last sentence of our passage: “And the disciples believed in him.” So it is for us. When we see Jesus manifested in his Word, through the Sacraments, through the ministry of his people, our belief should be strengthened, and we witness the manifestation of his glory and his grace.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.