The wedding at Cana
It is Jesus’ mother who pushes. John’s gospel doesn’t name her, but we know who she is: Mary, who was young and courageous and who took on the task of bringing Jesus into the world. This mother, who heard the voice of angels, saw shepherds and nobles alike come to see her newborn son, who muted her fears and went ahead with this crazy plan of God coming to the world. She protected her son and raised him, fleeing with Joseph into Egypt until it was safe to return.
But John’s gospel doesn’t tell us all that. John doesn’t include such birth stories. He starts things differently: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That’s how Jesus’ story begins in John.
Jesus is also a bit different in John’s gospel. We could say he is a man on a mission. Jesus is all knowing in John’s account. He knows exactly what his future will hold, and he faces it with stoic acceptance. He knows what tasks he must do – teach, heal the sick, and to know when his “hour” will come. Jesus is on a serious mission of salvation, bringing in a new kingdom of God to God’s people.
But John begins Jesus’ public ministry with a party, at a wedding of all places, in a little town north of Nazareth, in Cana. It is Mary who prods. “They have no wine.” With no more wine, the week-long celebration is in danger of ending early, the host in danger of a big social indiscretion in a culture of hospitality.
Mary knows Jesus can do something about it. John doesn’t tell us, and maybe it’s pointless to speculate, but Mary probably already saw some things as Jesus was growing under her watchful eye, as she pondered all those things in her heart. Mary knows Jesus can do something about this party continuing and she directs the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do.
Jesus’ response is a bit puzzling. We are not sure he will listen to his mother. He asks her, “what concern is it to him that the wine has run dry? What has it got to do with him?” Maybe that’s why he mentions “his hour”. Jesus isn’t sure this is either the time or the place to begin to reveal God’s plan.
Again, we don’t know whether it is his mother he listens to or to God, but Jesus is urged to respond. So he says, see those six stone jars? Fill them with water; by the gallons! As the servants draw the water out, they see it has changed colour and aroma. It is no longer water but wine. The steward makes the funny comment to the bridegroom that it is not merely wine, but good wine, saved for the last, after the guests have had too much to drink and their palates are dulled.
But because Jesus responds, is urged to do something, the party can go on.
In the commentaries on this particular text, there is a lot of mention about the symbolism within the story, pointing to deeper meanings within the body of the text. Jesus performs this sign “on the third day” – perhaps indicating that the theme of resurrection is present within the text. “On the third day he rose again.” The six stone jars with water were there for the Jewish purification rite of cleansing before and after a meal. Maybe they are placed in the story to set Jesus and his work within the larger context of the Jewish/Hebrew religious tradition. There is, of course, the extravagant abundance of good wine that continues to flow for the wedding guests, indicating God’s abundant and extravagant grace for God’s people. But there is also the hint of the ominous, in Jesus’ fairly aloof response to his mother, and talk of his “hour”, his death, that is to come.
These are all interesting and valid explanations of the text. It is also good to simply see the story for what it is: God loves a party. God takes the time to respond to human need and makes important what is important to people, the celebration of a wedding, of new life beginning.
I know I need to remind myself of that – not being the party type. I tend toward the serious side of life and I often think parties are too noisy and too crowded and they go on too late for me. Usually around 10 o’clock, I’m yawning and making my excuses to head home – which is interesting because the stories I love so much in the Bible are usually about a party, a meal, a banquet.
There was a son who was lost, who found his way back home and his father threw his arms around him and threw a party!
There was a huge crowd of people who stayed too late one night, and fish and bread were multiplied and all were fed.
There were meals shared with tax collectors, sinners and Pharisees alike.
There was a last meal between friends and family, where wine and bread was infused with rich and deep meaning of sacrifice and love.
There was a surprise breakfast of broiled fish and an opening of hearts and minds.
Sometimes we forget God as the great, extravagant host of a party. We forget it in our lives and we forget it in the church. We think we must be about serious business in a serious world.
Rightly so, sometimes. To be truthful human beings, we need to acknowledge that sometimes our own lives are serious, very serious, with turmoil and illness and grief. To be authentic human beings, we need to see that sometimes, unfortunately too often, the life of the world is sad and violent and cruel. We can hear and see a hint of that ominous note, that “hour” of which Jesus’ speaks.
But we also must see the truth in Jesus’ life – God’s extravagant grace for us and for the world; God’s absolute delight in us and in the world; God’s abundant love for us and for the world.
A couple of years back, I saw a little girl, maybe 4 years old, in a red coat. In a small town, I stood at a Remembrance Day service on a cold November day. A few people had gathered around the cenotaph to pay their respects, to remember family or friends who had died in war, and to pray for peace. A Salvation Army chaplain led us in prayer and remembrance, mourners who were no longer strangers for the moment as we gathered together in the crisp morning air.
As the chaplain spoke of peace, I watched the little girl. She was dancing in her red coat! Her mother tried to stop her from time to time, but thankfully she wasn’t too successful at it. Her daughter broke loose from her mother’s hand and danced. She skipped. She held her arms out like the wings of an airplane and balanced on a low ledge. She was a child, doing beautifully childish things.
But more than that – that day as we gathered about serious business, she was a ray of light and life in her red coat. God urged me to see a party where there should have been none. God urged me to see life in the midst of death.
So it is today with the wedding at Cana. The good news of great joy is that Jesus performed his first “sign” and the party could go on. The good news of great joy is that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Pr. Katherine Altenburg