Today, as we continue in the season of Epiphany, we are presented with the story of Jesus’ first miracle. On the surface it is a very nice story about a wedding, and avoiding a social faux pas — running out of wine in the midst of a big party. But, in typical fashion for St. John the Evangelist, the story is not recorded for its sentimental or entertainment value, but for its theological significance. This story is a “sign”, a symbol, a revealing, an epiphany — showing us God at work in our world, teaching us important lessons about God and about ourselves.
We can rightly say that something is miraculous when it is outside the natural order of things, and that the breach in natural order can only be ascribed to God. Furthermore, miracles always have a divine purpose; they are brought about in order to accomplish God’s will. Often times a miracle is a way to show us in a small picture, what we fail to see in the large picture. As St. Augustine reminds us, perhaps we only see Jesus’ turning the water into wine as strange, because we fail to see and appreciate the spectacular chain of events that make vines grow and grapes ripen and juice ferment into wine. At Cana, Jesus reminded us that only by God’s care and power do these things come about at any time. Likewise, it should not require healing the sick or raising the dead to remind us that God is the source of all life and health. But sometimes we need to be shaken and awakened and so miracles remind us of the glory of God; they encourage us to see things as they are, and expect greater things to come.
Next, in order to understand the meaning of this sign, we need to understand the significance of some of the things mentioned in the story. The water which Jesus transforms isn’t just any water, but water stored for the ritual washings prescribed by Old Testament Law. This water is symbolic of the Old Law, of the old way of doing things. Even the number of jars is significant; the number seven signified completion or perfection in Jewish and early Christian writings, so the presence of six jars tells us that the old way of doing things is incomplete and imperfect. The amount of wine that results is also significant; the party went from having no wine (a shameful breach of hospitality) to having somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons (more than they could possibly use), furthermore it was wine of the highest quality. Several of the Old Testament prophets had used the image of a super-abundance of wine to describe what life would be like when the messiah arrived. By changing Old Testament water into the new wine of Christ, we are told that the old age has passed away and that the kingdom of God has come.
The setting for this miracle, this revealing, is also very appropriate; this sign takes place at a feast, a banquet, at a wedding. It is a fore-taste of the heavenly banquet at the marriage between the Lamb and his bride, the Church, which St. John records in his Revelation. The wedding couple that day in Cana may not have realized that Jesus was at work to make things right, but he was there blessing them with his presence and helping them to get off to a good start. Likewise, with all Christian marriages, God is there to help, to bless, to make things right — when we let him. In a Christian marriage we will make room for God — we will listen to him — we will pray for our spouses and for our marriage — we will do what Christ tells us to do.
The day on which the miracle took place is also important; we are told, “on the third day there was a wedding…” Here Jesus is glorified on the third day, even as he rose from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. Nothing is superfluous or meaningless in St. John’s writing. John uses this story to help explain the glory of God. John tells us that in this miracle Jesus “manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” “Glory” is a very important biblical concept; sometimes it is used to refer to worship. To — give God the glory — means to worship Him remembering what he has done for us, but most often the term “glory” is used to refer to a revealing of God’s presence, of realizing and knowing that God is in our midst. Sometimes the glory of God was very obvious, such as when the pillar of fire and cloud went before the Israelites during the Exodus or when the smoke filled the temple during Isaiah’s vision. But in the Gospels, the term is reserved for the work of Jesus which revealed him to be God working in the midst of his people. St. Paul also used the word glory to speak of the resurrected life which God wishes to share with us.
There is yet another very important lesson revealed to us in this passage. How often does something go wrong in our lives, something that we don’t understand, something that must be fixed, yet we don’t know how? Look at the example of Mary’s faith in Jesus in this story. She instinctively turned to him when something went wrong; she knew that he would take care of it. She did not know what he would do, yet she trusted in him completely, saying to the servants, “do whatever he tells you”. What wonderful advice she gives to us, “do whatever he tells you”— and all will be well. Mary had faith that could trust, even when she did not completely understand. She knew that by trusting and following her Son everything would turn out all right. Her love, her trust, her faith kept her close to her Son, even through the agony of the Cross. May we have the strength to follow her example and obey her direction, “do whatever he tells you”.
This is now the third great Epiphany which the Church has recalled for us in this season: the coming of the magi, the baptism of our Lord, and today the wedding at Cana. In today’s gospel Christ is revealed as God to his disciples, to those who had newly chosen to follow him only two days earlier. They saw his authority, even over the elements of creation. They saw him transform water into wine, new wine – better than the old which had passed away. This was the first of seven great signs that St. John records, signs showing both who Jesus is and how the kingdom of God is in our midst. These signs show that in God’s kingdom there is a super abundance of all that is good, and there is no sin, no suffering, no sickness, no death – because these things are not a part of God. And life in the Kingdom means life in communion with God. As Christ once turned water into wine at a wedding feast, so he now turns the bread and wine we offer into his own Body and Blood to feed those who would follow him. And we should also remember a vision of another wedding at the end of the age, a marriage between Christ and his Church, the bride for whom he gave his life. At that time there will also be a wonderful banquet, a great feast to which each one of us is urged to come. Come, let us now prepare our hearts, our bodies, and our minds for the Feast.