You Have Kept the Good Wine Until Now
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.
Most people who have attended a Christian wedding ceremony are familiar with the story of the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus is said in the Gospel of John to have performed his first miracle. There is little doubt that this brief pericope is one of the most well-known texts from the Gospels and one of the most beloved in the whole Christian tradition. On the surface, this is a tale of a wedding at which the wine runs out. Having experienced a Free Presbytarian ‘dry wedding’ — an alcohol free wedding — on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, I can appreciate how the tap running dry would put a dampener on the merriment and festivities. If ever there was a time for a miracle, this would be it.
Jesus’ mother, knowing her son and knowing his strange power, informs Jesus of the potentially embarrassing situation and instructs the servants to do whatever her son tells them. After some protest, Jesus told the servants to fill water jars with water. When this was done, he told them to draw some out and present it to the master of the feast. This chief steward tastes it, his eyes light up, and he goes to the bridegroom to congratulate him on saving the finest wine till the end of the celebrations. This is a lovely wee story and is rightly a favourite for weddings everywhere — well, perhaps not at dry weddings. But few drink deep enough from this tale to realise that much much more is happening in this wonderful passage.
The framing of the story tells the reader that something quite unexpected is happening here. Mary, ‘the mother of Jesus,’ was at the wedding. This may appear to be an insignificant detail, but the attentive reader will note that she is mentioned first; this is a wedding she was at. Jesus and his disciples are introduced in addendum. The Gospel — as the Good News of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus — is about Jesus. Not his mother. Yet, in this reading Mary is given narrative priority. It is Jesus’ mother who takes charge, it is on her initiative the miracle of the transformation of the water into wine is proposed as a solution. While this is ‘the first of his signs,’ Jesus’ mother already knows what he can do — mothers always do. The implication is that this is not his first miracle. This is his first public miracle. Without mention of the miraculous birth in Bethlehem, it was his mother who launched Jesus’ public career. Mary, the ‘God Bearer,’ the Θεοτόκος, brought Jesus into the world; she nurtured him and raised him to adulthood. She knew him.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
So, it is the public nature of this first miracle that makes it a ‘sign.’ The word ‘miracle’ is absent from the story. This was ‘the first of his signs.’ Signs point to something or somewhere, and this story is about pointing. We are being pointed to something — or someone. Mary points to her son, and Jesus points us to something else. In this way the text becomes visual, because signs are visual. Our eyes are being directed around the page. We are being invited to look for something. Yes, the wedding at Cana contains a hidden message.
Where else we find this odd convention is in the iconography of Mary and the Christ child, where a suspiciously adult-looking infant Christ is seated on the lap of Mary. With her right hand, Mary, often painted as a queen, gestures with her open hand to her son, and Jesus is pointing up. Again, the viewer’s eyes are being directed over the icon — the viewer is being invited to look for something. This is the purpose of the ‘signs’ in the Gospel and the icon. The wedding feast at Cana is a textual icon, just as the icon is a visual Gospel.
‘Woman!’ Just try addressing a Scottish mammy like this! This reads as though Jesus was being disrespectful to his mother, perhaps dismissive — even misogynistic. Whatever the intention here, this is certainly a deliberate choice on the part of the author. The gospeler would have been aware of how odd it would be for Jesus not to address his mother as ‘mother.’ It is likely, however, that this too is part of the pointing. As Jesus prepares to take centre stage, he introduces a transition from humanity — ‘woman’ to the divine. The initiative was human. It was his mother, a woman, who alerted her son and brought him to the attention of the servants. Now Jesus — the Word made flesh (John 1:14) — moves the story from human initiative to divine action.
Jesus’ apparent reluctance to do this sign is because his ‘hour has not yet come’ — an allusion to his crucifixion (John 13:1). Throughout the Gospel of John Jesus speaks of an hour that is coming, a time in the future when he will be killed or ‘glorified’ (John 12:23). This too is a sign; one that does not end with his death. The ‘hour’ is a moment, the supreme moment of history where Jesus’ death draws us into the mystery of his death and resurrection — ‘when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out’ (John 5:28–29). When Jesus acts on the advice of his mother, the author ties the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry into the story of his passion and death. In this sense, then, the wedding of Cana is a foretelling of how the story will end. The end is woven into the beginning.
‘Do whatever he tells you,’ Mary says to the servants. In the episode immediately before the wedding at Cana in John’s Gospel, Jesus called Philip with the instruction ‘follow me’ and he followed him. Now, we, the readers, are the servants and the disciples and it is Jesus’ mother who is instructing us to do whatever he tells us. The sign of Mary was her pointing to her son. Jesus takes this gesture and unites it to the mystery of the cross:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Discipleship is costly. Jesus calls his hearers to follow him regardless and his mother points to him and instructs those who are listening to obey.
Things take a bit of a turn when Jesus asks the servants to fill up the stone jars with water, ‘water jars for the Jewish rites of purification.’ There are six of them, and they are massive — ‘each holding twenty or thirty gallons’ (ninety to one hundred and thirty-six litres). Six of them! That is something like 540 to 816 litres or 720 to 1,088 standard 750ml bottles of wine — an inordinate volume of vino by any estimation. At a stroke, Jesus had guaranteed this would be a wedding no one would forget — or, more likely, no one would remember. The number six is significant too. In Biblical tradition, six is the number of humanity (Revelation 13:18). ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them,’ says the psalmist, ‘mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour (Psalm 8:4–5). Seven is the divine number, the number of fullness and completion. At the end of creation, we are told, God rested on the seventh day — the Sabbath, God’s day. A little lower than this is humanity, and so the number six represents human beings in this ancient tradition.
It is significant too that these jars, representative of the whole human family, are vessels used for ritual purification. What is pointed to here is the purification of all people. The action of Jesus in the mystery of the cross and resurrection will transform and renew humanity — it will purify all people; ‘God became man that man might become God’ (St Athanasius, On the Incarnation). The servants filled these gigantic stone vessels ‘up to the brim’ with water, one of the most basic necessities of life; a detail reminiscent of the overflowing cup in the psalm (Psalm 23:5). When it is drawn out it has become not only wine, but wine of the finest quality. It is easy to see a Eucharistic reference in this element of the story; where wine is changed to the life-giving blood of Christ, but there are other riches too. Wine is a symbol of royalty and kingship, of blessing and wealth. Where water is a necessity, wine is a share in the finer things — bread and roses, so to speak.
Turning water into wine is a beautiful metaphor for the radical transformation of human beings brought about by the incarnation. It is about the change of the ordinary into the extraordinary, the making new of the old, the lifting of the human spirit from weeping to laughter and celebration. No doubt the bridegroom did provide the best wine he had first, but now the best has been made even better. Human beings were made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26), and here the sign points to that divine image in people being perfected.
The final framing is magnificent: ‘After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.’ We came into this scene with Mary in the lead role, and the curtain falls as Jesus takes the lead. He has accepted that his hour has come, that all of this is about the cross — about being on the way of the cross — that his life and death and resurrection are intimately involved in the renewal of the human race. He leads the way to Capernaum and we are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and Mary — who walk ahead of us.