Readings: Revelation 19: 6-10; John 2: 1-11
An alternative title for the feast of Epiphany is ‘The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles’ and at the end of today’s gospel, John the gospel-writer tells us that in this beginning of miracles which Jesus did in Cana of Galilee he ‘manifested forth his glory.’
The Marriage at Cana is one of the best-known New Testament stories, and a popular one with Jesus providing something like 120 gallons of wine – some party! – some miracle! This is super-abundance, telling us of God’s generosity. Jesus saved the bridegroom from embarrassment when the wine gave out. From what we know of first-century wedding traditions, this event looks to be fairly typical.
Apparently, in Cana, weddings were usually held on a Wednesday evening. The couples would wear wedding robes and crowns on their heads, and they would be treated like a king and a queen. After the ceremony they would be led home by torchbearers filling the street with light. A canopy would be carried over their heads, just like royalty. Bride and groom would not go away for a honeymoon but instead have ‘open house’ and a party, which would last for a week. It could be that Jesus and his disciples arrived later on for this ‘open house’ gathering, which may be why Mary was apparently there first. Some have even suggested that it was the arrival of Jesus with his twelve friends which led to the crisis with the wine running out. Guests would have to wash their hands and feet on arrival, which explains the presence of the six stone water jars.
Now we can simply enjoy the story and rejoice in the miracle, or we can dig deeper into the text. John records that this is the first miracle, or, in another version, ‘sign’ that Jesus did. It is Jesus’ mother who alerts him to the predicament of the shortage of wine. Some people think Jesus’ reply to his mother sounds a little harsh, but it need not have been. He might have been saying ‘You don’t quite know what’s going on here; just leave it to me.’ And he added, “My hour has not yet come.” Jesus saw his life in terms of God’s purpose for himself, and generally in John’s gospel, he talks of his ‘hour’ as being the moment of being lifted-up on the cross. It’s significant that even though Mary would not have understood all this fully, she had enough faith in her son to tell the servants ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ A message there for us to trust in God even if we do not see the way clearly.
Some commentators see in the six stone water jars a representation of the old Jewish religion, which Jesus had come to supersede. Six is an imperfect number in biblical terms – lots of things in the bible are in 3s, 7s, 12s or 40s, but not 6s. Jesus had come to bring something better. The moment of the miracle is not recorded, just its effect. What has happened isn’t made clear until Jesus says to the servants “Now draw some out.” It is significant that the steward of the feast did not know where this superior wine had come from, but the servants who drew the water knew. Just a mere detail of the story? Or is the gospel-writer pointing out what becomes clear throughout Jesus’ life, that it was seldom the religious leaders of the day or the people in authority who accepted his message, and the good news he brought, but ordinary people in the street – the outcasts, the tax-collectors, the prostitutes, those more likely to be servants at a wedding feast than hosts.
And then the tantalising final word of the dialogue that goes on, the steward saying to Jesus, “You have kept the good wine until now.” Most people serve the good wine first, and then the inferior when the good has run out, but you have kept the best wine until now.
Is it a coincidence that all this took place at a wedding? Weddings and the images of bride and bridegroom occur frequently throughout the bible. Today’s reading from Revelation rejoices in the marriage of the Lamb, and says how blessed are those who are invited to his marriage supper.
The Church is often referred to as the Bride of Christ in the New Testament, and as members of the Church we are the ones invited. An ancient antiphon or refrain for this Epiphany season says, “Today the Church is joined to her heavenly Bridegroom; Christ washes away her sins in the Jordan; the Magi hasten with gifts to the royal wedding, and the guests rejoice in the water made wine.”
Tom Wright, a former Bishop of Durham, in one of his commentaries, says this: “Pause to reflect on God’s choice of weddings as signs of his glory. When we leave church, or rise from prayer, would people mistake us for wedding guests? For party-goers? Why not? Did we ‘do whatever he tells you’ – as Mary instructs the steward at Cana? Did we see his glory and believe?”
The wedding at Cana speaks of Jesus bringing new life to old and weary situations – and joy to the world. Marriages, as I have often told couples in preparation, have to be worked at. And we are invited to this royal wedding with Jesus. We can accept, but as with all invitations to weddings, we would want to prepare ourselves for the occasion, perhaps by putting on the ‘fine linen, bright and pure’ that the author of Revelation mentions, adding that ‘the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.’
Today we find ourselves in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Some might say that the Church shows no more signs of unity than when the week of prayer started in 1908. It is true that many issues cause divisions among Christians; issues of doctrine, of biblical interpretation; of church practice. However, so much has been achieved in better understanding amongst the denominations, and in worshipping with each other, and in joining together to work on issues of justice and peace and social concern. This year’s theme for the Week of Prayer is ‘Abiding in Christ.’ The material for the week notes that ‘We need a long period of maturation, an entire lifetime, in order to plumb the depths of Christ’s love; to let him abide in us and for us to abide in him. Without our knowing how, the Spirit makes Christ dwell in our hearts, and it is through prayer, by listening to the word, in sharing with others, by putting into practice what we have understood, that the inner being is strengthened.”
We all know how our human resources can and do run out. We become exhausted; our batteries need recharging; we need to be refreshed and renewed. Perhaps you’re feeling that you’ve reached the bottom of the barrel in this rather arid time of pandemic, with all its restrictions on daily life.
But Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Abiding in him, we find our drained resources are renewed with his generosity and power, and we can be assured that ‘the good wine is being kept until now.’
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