Why did he do that one? Of all the many exciting things that Jesus got up to, the transformation of water into wine during the wedding at Cana is a tricky miracle to get our heads around.
Indeed, the more we look at the story of the wedding at Cana, the more the whole-water-into-wine business seems problematic.
In the light of these combined difficulties, I was advised earlier in the week that the wedding at Cana topped Mrs. Padley’s leaderboard of most-pointless miracles.
What consolation or explanation might we offer in response to Mrs. Padley’s concern? What is the point of this story?! And why does John’s gospel give it such a prominent position, emphasising that it was the first of Jesus’ miracles?
We should start with the context, a wedding. There are many passages in the Old Testament and other Jewish literature which liken the days of God’s Messiah to a wedding feast. Time and again the prophets compared Israel’s faithlessness to fornication and adultery. And then those same prophets went on to promise that in the last days God shall ‘marry’ his people afresh, binding them in a new and eternal covenant. There are many stories about weddings in the Christian gospels which draw on this prophetic tradition: the wise and foolish virgins, the king who gives a wedding feast for his son but nobody turns up, the story of a wedding guest who is not wearing the proper clothes, the story of the guests who choose the highest and lowest places at the banquet, and so on. And then the book Revelation, written by the same community which produced John’s gospel, uses a wedding as a metaphor for heaven – God’s perfect world compared to that vital Jewish idea of table-fellowship, the whole family united in harmony over food, old injuries healed and forgiven.
Mindful of this Jewish background, we can start to unlock the picture-code of the Cana story. The account of this sign is a proclamation of spiritual truth about the coming of the messianic age, not a practical conundrum about an empty cellar and related social embarrassment.
The story of the wedding at Cana is saying that God in Jesus is doing something new. John’s use of numbers points towards this.
And the action and the agent are bound up together. In telling us that God in Jesus is inaugurating the last days, the story of the wedding at Cana is also proclaiming Jesus as Messiah. The gospel of John does not use the term ‘miracles’ for Jesus’ unusual deeds. Consistently, it talks about ‘signs’. For John, the significance of the miracles lies in what they say about Jesus and his mission, not in what might (or might not) have happened. Thus at the end of today’s narrative we heard, verse 11, ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.’ The signs reveal Jesus’ glory, and result in belief.
The word used in verse 11 for ‘reveal’ is important. It is ‘epiphany’, manifestation, a light-bulb moment. Throughout this season of epiphany we are rejoicing at the ways in which God told people about Jesus – the wise men, onlookers at his baptism, and now, today, the disciples – helping them (and us) make connections, to see further, to trust deeper, to perceive and to celebrate.
Cana is the first of those signs which declare Jesus’ messianic activity and divine nature. Note in this regard the conversations at the beginning and end of the story. At the start, Jesus tells his mother that ‘my hour has not yet come’. But by the end of the reading, the steward says that ‘the good wine is now.’ It is a real turning point, a moment of initiation and revelation – maybe even to Jesus, certainly to those around. The now moment of the messianic age, hidden so long in the heart of God, has finally arrived and is being broadcast.
That’s nice, Vicar – what does
it mean for us? What should I say when Geoff Goodall sidles up in the porch afterwards
and asks about relevance for today? Well,
firstly, the wedding at Cana is about the present because John believed that
the Church lives in the same messianic age which Jesus initiated. John believed
that the end times are now. One day,
we will sit down at the wedding in heaven, but in Jesus the party has begun in
all its fullness. And secondly, because I fear this answer will not entirely
satisfy Mr Goodall, on this particular occasion and with deference and
apologies, I’m going to say ‘tough’! The story of the wedding at Cana is
consciously not a practical, ethical text. The whole point of miracles-as-signs
is to lift us out of over-worldly, literal, readings and to set our eyes on higher
and more distant horizons. And maybe, just maybe, after a week as intense and
highly-politicised as the last, that is the tonic we really need.
 John, Jeffrey, Meaning in the Miracles, 47.