What is it about a wedding? I imagine everyone has wonderful memories of family weddings. However, these past two years of COVID have made planning a wedding a nightmare rather than a dream come true.
Weddings in Jesus day were also joyous occasions. It was then, as it is now, party time! In the tiny village of Cana plans were made. The bride and groom along with their families and friends, prepared for the big day. Jesus was there with his family, including his mother. And it was here that according to John’s gospel, the first sign of Jesus identity was revealed. In other words, this sign or miracle was an epiphany.
When we think of Jesus’ miracles, we usually think of him helping those in desperate need- feeding the hungry, healing the blind and the lame, delivering the demon possessed or even raising the dead. Miracles that show Jesus as the one who relieves suffering, restores people back to community, health and wholeness.
So it is a bit surprising don’t you think, to find in John’s gospel, Jesus doing something miraculous in a situation that may, to many, seem frivolous?
Recently, at the Women’s Brunch, I spoke of my theological journey. I mentioned several readings of Scripture that as a young person, troubled me. This is one of them! It bothered me that Jesus comes across as a party animal making sure everyone has enough to drink. Growing up in a Methodist tradition, I used to think that it would have made much more sense if the water had been turned into fruit juice, especially the grape juice used for communion. But on the other hand, I also thought that Jesus being a party animal was not such a bad thing – at least he knew how to enjoy himself! I thought about the extravagance Jesus produced that day. So much wine – over 500 litres. What a waste! Food would have been a better option. How much could have been shared with the leftovers!
However, having discovered in recent years that nothing in John’s gospel can be taken at face, I want to now briefly explore the rich symbolism of his story as we seek to hear God’s word for us today in this passage.
First – A Great feast such as a wedding feast in the ancient Hebrew texts John was familiar with, was often used as an image of God’s future salvation. In the reading from Isaiah for example, the prophet speaks of God’s great love of his people Israel. As in a marriage, the people of God are renamed as God proclaims never ending mercy and love for them.
“You shall no more be termed Forsaken and your land shall no more be termed Desolate. But you shall be called My Delight is in Her and your land Married….. and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”
The early Christian community of John would have certainly recognised the link. They would have understood the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding feast as the symbol of the wedding feast of life and salvation promised by God and fulfilled in Jesus with abundant grace. Perhaps this is helpful way for us also to read the story.
Next. Did you notice the subtle way John has linked this story with the whole of Jesus life? The passage begins “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana.” Here is a reference to Jesus death and resurrection. For John, Jesus death and resurrection is important not only for the abundant gift of life made available in Christ, but also for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit by the Risen Christ to the gathered disciples for the purpose of mission. This is the theme picked up by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians – the abundance of spiritual gifts poured out on the gathered community for the good of the whole group. So, this abundant wine at the wedding on the third day, is a reminder to us, that when we meet as a community to drink the wine of life, a symbol of the blood of Christ, we are receiving his life through the Holy Spirit to continue God’s mission today, receiving all that we need and more.
And what about the six stone water jars? Why mention how many there were? Six was an imperfect number for John’s listeners. In the old Hebrew heritage, seven is perfect.
Also, the stone jars were used for holding water to purify the hands before eating. Such rituals came from Temple worship. For John, this is another important symbol. The jars belong to the past, now they are being replaced by a new order of grace. The water becoming wine symbolises the old temple being replaced by a new one – Jesus himself. The old is changed into the new. It is a reminder that change can be good and life-giving.
And there is yet another very important symbol that can be easily overlooked. In John’s gospel, this was Jesus first miracle, the first sign of his Messiahship. Here for John, the Light of the World begins to shine. Yet this first sign occurred in an out of the way place called Cana, in an insignificant event such as a family wedding, with ordinary people witnessing it.
Perhaps you hear a familiar ring here? Doesn’t it sound a little like John’s version of another event of generous giving– of an ordinary birth to an ordinary couple, in an insignificant place such as a stable in Bethlehem, with ordinary people like shepherds as witnesses?
And it is here I think we find the point of John’s story despite all the subtilities and symbolism. This wonderful story of the miracle at the wedding in Cana is a demonstration of God’s joy in giving. Of grace and life given abundantly, generously. Of God giving a sense of joy in living and blessing our human life with a sense of humour and fun alongside the deep concern for our human well-being.
Despite my early complaints about frivolity, did you also notice the concern for those who would be shamed if the wine ran out? According to John, it was first noted by Mary who pointed out to her partying son, that a disaster was about to happen.
James Macgrath in his excellent book “What Jesus learned from Women” comments that the groundwork for Jesus missional thinking could have come from not only of synagogue teaching, his own personal reflections, his cousin John the Baptist, perhaps other members of his family, but also importantly, from his mother. Her comment “they have no wine” acted as a wake up call to Jesus. Compassion was needed at that moment. Because of Mary’s intervention at this joyous, fun time, no one was humiliated because their neighbours did not receive the culturally expected hospitality. Compassion prevailed and a miracle occurred. Not only was there more than enough wine, God filled the hearts of everyone there with a zest for living that I imagine stayed with them even in the dark moments of their life. Is that how you experience God in your life? Is that how we experience God when we gather together as a community of faithful people? Do we stop and notice others with their concerns especially when we are made aware of them? Does compassion and justice motivate us?
Here at Cana, Jesus is revealed as Lord of the living or as our hymn which we will sing later puts it, Lord of the Dance. Our God is a living God who clearly enjoys giving life abundantly, lavishly and generously.
As we move into the New Year, with all our COVID concerns, let us also be mindful of the abundant joy, the sheer joy of living that God wants for us and in Christ shares with us.
Let’s continue to look to where God is changing the water of the past into the new wine of the future both in our personal lives and in our life as his gathered people and rejoice.
Let’s continue to be mindful of the powerful way we as a body of Christ, celebrate his presence in the symbols of bread and wine and receive strength to be part of God’s ongoing mission of which we are part.
And let’s never tire of celebrating the life God gives and be willing to share it with others around us.
My prayer is that you, that each one of us, may be able to celebrate the feast of life, joyously given by the giver of all life and who loves to celebrate with us today and into eternity. To God be praise and glory. Amen.
Written by Rev Margaret Middleton
The Rev Margaret Middleton is a retired Uniting Church minister. She occasionally provides supply ministry in the wider church but leads worship in TUC regularly.
Margaret also supports our work by leading several groups of people seeking to grow and deepen their faith. She is a member of the Karralika outreach team and is a member of the Presbytery Pastoral Relations Committee.More from Rev Margaret Middleton