words of my mouth

Epiphany II

John 2:1-11

Wedding! The word brings all sorts of thoughts to mind, especially if you’re planning one. There are so many things to consider, the bride needs a dress, a veil, shoes, jewelry. There needs to be a photographer, possibly musicians for the reception. Then there’s the organist – and, oh yes, maybe even a church and a minster. But the venue, now that’s a really important issue – where to hold the reception and who will cater it. Guests will remember how beautiful the bride was, how lovely the church looked, but they’ll talk for a long time about just how good or bad the reception turned out to be.

In some cultures, Chinese and Indian come to mind, the wedding banquet is almost of more importance than the wedding itself. Failure to put on a good reception can shame a family. In the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, the wedding feast was an event of extreme importance, and wedding banquets lasted for days. And - there are a lot of wedding banquets in the New Testament, which are meant to represent for us that final Heavenly Banquet, in the Kingdom of God. Despite their abundance, this wedding feast in John’s Gospel is unique.

John’s Gospel is full of hidden images, signs if you will, and this story of the wedding at Cana is full of them.

“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.”

For the most part, Biblical stories about weddings are contained in parables told by Our Lord. In order to understand what Jesus is teaching us, we, the listeners, are meant to find ourselves in these parables. In the ones about weddings, usually we arrive improperly dressed, like the man who did not have a wedding garment, misinformed, like the person who had to be told to go to the lower place and wait to be invited to move up to a place of greater prominence, or totally unprepared, like the foolish maidens who didn’t have enough oil for their lamps.

Most of the time we are being taught something by Jesus, but today’s wedding is not part of a parable. Today’s wedding feast is taken from what purports to be a moment in Jesus’ life. But in John’s Gospel there are images and references that are not what they at first appear to be. This is not done to deceive us. The early Christians would have caught the double meaning. But centuries later, we Christians are likely to miss what’s really being said.

So here we are in today’s reading presented with the picture of a wealthy family entertaining the people of the village together with some special friends such as Mary of Nazareth from another village. As a result, the father must have invited Mary’s Son also, already on His way to becoming famous in the vicinity - but not quite yet. Jesus comes to the feast together with the new friends He has very recently called to Himself, the group that will come to be known as His disciples.

The party must have been unfolding with much good cheer since they quickly ran out of wine. And now something very strange is recorded. The hosts run out of wine, but it is the mother of Jesus who goes to her own Son and reports this: “They have run out of wine.” She doesn’t ask for anything, but the “do something about it” seems to be implied, because Jesus understands much more than she says. “Why should that concerns us?” Jesus asks her. More specifically, he asks, “Why should it concern you and me?” And then He says, “My hour has not yet come.”

Ouch! Why is Jesus so short and gruff with His mother? Now we come to that interesting thing about John’s Gospel – the information that is hidden out in the open for those who understand. Mary is Jesus mother, so when it is said she is at the wedding, that makes sense to us. Obviously – we reason – she has been invited, as has her Son and His followers. But Mary’s presence in this story represents something else. In the epistles of St. Paul, when the Church is mentioned, it is always as a female entity. It was also common in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, to symbolize God’s Chosen as a woman, and following this tradition, in today’s reading, Mary symbolizes the Church. Now we have the Church present at a wedding where Jesus will perform His first miracle.

Not only that, except for a passing mention of the bridegroom, there is no mention in the story of the young couple whose marriage banquet this is. We are meant to reflect on the Church as the bride – as the familiar old hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation”, tells us, ”From heaven Jesus came and sought her, to be His holy bride…”.

Thus, in this morning’s reading, the Gospel writer means for us to see Our Lord speaking not just to Mary His mother, but to the bide, to Mother Church! Jesus does not refuse to do the miracle she asks for, He merely reminds her of her place in His ministry. Her “place”, the next time Jesus’ mother Mary will appear in John’s Gospel, is at the foot of the cross.

In today’s reading, Mary (mother Church) tells the servants to do as Jesus tells them, and leaves the wedding banquet.

Now standing there were six stone water jars... Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ 

What are huge stone jars doing at this wedding feast? In Leviticus, it is written that a Jew will not eat unless they first wash their hands and if they’ve come from the market, they must first purify themselves. The water is to cleanse the defiled.

And they filled them up to the brim.”  

Filling up those water jars would have been no small feat considering their large size and the fact that water had to be drawn from the nearest well. But, dutifully, the servants haul in enough water to refill the nearly depleted jars. 

And when the steward tasted the water, it had become wine! 

The jars are filled with the best wine, which to the amazement of the steward, has been saved for last! This is the opposite of how things work in our world. Everything starts out at its best, new. Youth gives way to age. No matter how much stuff we buy, it deteriorates. Nothing can stop the advance of time and its inevitable destruction of everything including life itself. We are born filled with hope and promise, but in the end we all go down to the dust. One thing this story tells us is that with Jesus, the best comes last. And there’s more.

In Jesus’ day, the listener to this story would also get the unspoken reference to Moses – the revered prophet of the Jewish people – he who came first. Yet, see, now Jesus has come. The best has been saved for last.

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

It is interesting that until the steward acknowledges the contents of the water jugs, now filled with the best wine, no one even catches on to what is happening. The servants who had refilled the jugs certainly knew where the wine had come from, but there is no mention of their believing a miracle has occurred. The steward can certainly tell that this is wine, but he too misses the point – the fact that Jesus has performed this miracle. Only the disciples actually realize what has happened and believe in Him, but that belief will be sorely tested over the next three years, and not become the bedrock of their lives until after Jesus’ resurrection.

In the parables, where Jesus is the storyteller, we are meant to find ourselves in the narration. At the wedding feast, we examine each character, but it seems unlikely that any of them are meant to be us – or perhaps – there is a part of us in each of them.

We learn, of course, from Mary’s example to be concerned for the welfare of others, to speak simply and directly, to not be afraid to ask Jesus for what is needed, and to be patient, to wait until our time comes. This is sound teaching for an individual and for the Church as a whole. From the servants who drew the water, we learn how easy it is to miss the miracles we encounter every day. The steward expresses the amazement we are meant to experience when God moves in our lives, the joy and the gratitude we should feel, but reminds us to look beyond the surface and find the hand of God at work. And the disciples, those who believe, we are much like them, always having our faith challenged by our everyday lives in the world.

There is even something to learn from the stone jars that hold the wine, as we hold within us the Holy Spirit and the Good News that is the Gospel. We were empty before God filled us with this richness, and we are not meant to keep it bottled up inside ourselves. From something as insignificant as the water jugs we learn that before we begin any good work, we must first be filled by Jesus, and the water of our souls changed to wine. This we had at our baptism and we sustain its freshness though our worship and prayers. Our responsibility now is to be vessels of God’s great Love, from which all who meet us can drink.

Jesus came to a wedding feast, little known, but building a reputation as a rabbi. Here His ministry begins as He performs His first miracle. This miracle makes a strong case that our lives are to be grounded; that they can include simple, daily pleasures like good food and wine. When we think that living as Jesus’ followers demands too much from us, we need to understand that following Him is more about our earthly ministry than about heaven. We need our prayer life and worship to sustain us, but we need to live our calling in this world as Jesus wants us to do.

We are Mary the Church, we are those who see but do not always understand, who have faith, but sometime also doubt. We are full of the wine of God’s grace and love, but we must not be made of stone. God became incarnate not to pull us out of our bodies and into heaven, but rather to bring heaven down to us, to bring the peace and abundance that is God’s intention for all people and places, into every corner of human life – and in all our human weakness and imperfection Jesus calls us to do just that – to spread the Good News and to love one another as He has loved us.

Let us pray:

Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with your most gracious favor, and further us with your continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in You, we may glorify Your holy Name, and finally, by your mercy, obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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