For those of us who enjoy a glass of good wine, or even a bottle between friends, the Gospel reading that we have just heard is very good news!
The writers of John’s Gospel remember Jesus with his disciples and his Mother at a wedding in Cana in Galilee.
This is the first miracle that is recorded in John’s Gospel, and it is worth noting that we find it in John’s Gospel alone. Whichever oral tradition it comes from (however the authors came to hear about it), it is not known to the writers of Matthew, Mark and Luke in their presentations of the life of Jesus.
We are not really sure why it happened, the Gospel writers do not tell us, but either through over indulgence, or perhaps because there were more guests than had been planned for, the wine at the wedding had all been consumed. We can only imagine the embarrassment – followed by the panic of those involved. Hundreds of guests, celebrating together, and nothing left to drink; and as we heard just a moment ago, Jesus’ Mother (Mary) goes to him and tells him what is going on, and then she goes to the servants and tells them to do whatever Jesus asks of them.
That pointing by Mary, of the servants to Jesus, is as much a statement of faith as it is a practical action. The authors of the Gospel are reminding us that saintly people point not to themselves but to Jesus. Mary alerts Jesus to the problem, and then she points others to him for the solution. Just as it was for her, that is the pattern for our own Christian lives – as individuals and as the Church – to point others to Jesus, and to encourage others (as we do ourselves) to put our hope and our trust firmly in him. That action of pointing others to Jesus sets the stage for what is to happen next.
Jesus asks the servants to fill the six stone water jars that are there for the guests to use to wash in the rite of purification. And when the jars are filled, in response to Jesus’ direction some water is drawn and taken to the chief steward (the head waiter). The servants must have wondered what on earth was going on. But when the steward tastes what has been drawn from the jars it is water no longer, for it has become wine, and not just any kind of wine, it has become the best wine. Truly a wonderful wedding gift! A great sign, although they do not know it yet, that God is among those who have gathered to celebrate and to party.
It is these signs that we focus on year after year during this season of Epiphany. So far this is the third ‘Epiphany’ that we reflected upon together in this season after Christmas. Firstly there was the visit of the Magi, the reminder to us that God has been made manifest (because that is what Epiphany means) not just to the Jews but to people from the far corners of the world. Secondly – last weekend – there was Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan by John, when something like a voice from heaven accompanied by a Dove points to the presence of God in the life of Jesus, a presence so powerful that he is revealed as God’s son.
And now, thirdly, this week in the first of Jesus’ miracles, we find that the glory of Jesus is made manifest to Jesus’ disciples so that they believed in him. Epiphany means ‘manifestation’ and the Church arranges its readings during this season to help us to reflect on these ‘epiphanies’ for ourselves, and to celebrate them with great joy. In the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church these three events in the life of Jesus are brought together in one of the antiphons that is read or sung at the Feast of the Epiphany. They are brought together into one image of the joining of the Church (the bride) to Jesus (the bridegroom). This is how the liturgy expresses it:
“Today the Church is joined to her celestial bridegroom, for, in Jordan, Christ washed her sins away; the Magi hurry with gifts to the royal wedding, and the guests are made glad with water turned into wine.”
So Christians for a very long time have seen something particularly important in these three epiphany experiences. Each one of them points to something momentous being revealed about the life of Jesus, and the interconnections between that life and the life of God.
Now that I am living on the door step of the Hunter Valley I am aware that I have not consciously been in a place where there is so much wine before. A miracle takes place every day in the vineyards around us. Water from rain and irrigation is transformed through the vines that it sustains into grapes that are pressed into wine. Right here in Australia, on our doorstep, the miracle of water turning into wine is taking place on a daily basis. But the transformation in the story which we are focusing on at this Eucharist today was far more instantaneous than the natural processes going on in our world.
Six large stone water jars, used for the observance of Jewish law become the means by which the normal laws of life are broken. It is a deeply symbolic act. Jesus takes the vessels of religious law and transforms them from law into grace: he changes them from symbols of law to symbols of God’s abundant and freeing love and life – from an obligation to a celebration. It is no accident that the drama happens around those jars, it is deeply symbolic. The water on hand to obey the old washing laws becomes the free flowing wine of celebration ushering in the new Kingdom.
But we will miss the point of this story if we see it merely as symbolism. Jesus is doing more than a symbolic act, he is doing something physical and practical as well. He is responding to the need for people to party and to celebrate together. In a very real way Jesus is the reason that the party is able to continue. That fact will only surprise us if we have a view of Jesus that suggests that he would not have been interested in parties and celebrations. But as we read the Gospels one of the things that seems to be clear about the life of Jesus is that when there is a good meal, an opportunity for people to be together to enjoy each other, Jesus is right there in the middle of it all. And there is no reason, I think, to suggest that having performed this miracle, so that the wedding party could continue, that Jesus did not remain in the centre of that party – right to the end.
The quantity is staggering. Six jars each containing up to thirty gallons: that is something like nine hundred bottles of wine. There is a sense of the humorous about the whole story. They need wine, and so Jesus provides it for them, but in such abundance that the guests could not hope to drink it all. We can only assume that what was left over at the end was taken home by those who had been at the party. Not only was there enough for everyone on the night of the party, but there was enough for them in the days to come as well. It is little wonder that the authors of John’s Gospel wanted to put this story first, as an introduction to their account of the ministry of Jesus, because it so clearly introduces all that is to come about the abundance of the Kingdom of God.
What is intriguing about the story is that we do not know whether the guests even knew what had happened. Jesus’ glory was revealed to his disciples in the miracle, but there is no indication that any of the guests knew anything about it. And yet the party went on.
As I have been pondering this extraordinary story this week I have been wondering what it might say to us this morning. Yes, it says to us that Jesus turned water into wine back then, but what insight might it be giving to us today? Here are two thoughts that might help us on our journey. Firstly, we could fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus turns over the old laws and replaces them simply with parties. “The old laws,” we might say, “symbolised by those ritual purification water jars are replaced by jars overflowing with wine for celebration.” But that would only be partly true, and it would be to remove the story from the context of Jesus’ ministry as a whole, in which, yes the new Kingdom of God’s love is inaugurated with much rejoicing, but through which each one of us who is called by Jesus is also taught that if we want to save our life we must lose it in self sacrifice by taking up our cross and following him. So in this new Kingdom of celebration there is also cost.
Secondly, I think we find in the actions of Jesus a blue print for our own participation in God’s mission to our local community. Notice carefully what Jesus does. He responds to the need as it is expressed by the people that he meets. In the end not even turning water into wine for those wedding guests will have an eternal consequence, and Jesus knows it. And yet he begins his ministry by responding to the earthy momentary needs of those people. It is only later that he will address their eternal need to be open to and reconciled to the loving call of God. That means, I think, that we need to be careful in our own acts of mission to begin (as Jesus did) by listening to the needs of those around us, rather than starting by offering them a response to needs that they do not know that they have.
At a very practical level we might say that our participation in God’s mission in this Parish will lack any kind of credibility if we spend our time giving people answers to questions that they are not asking, or responding to needs that people do not know that they have. What speaks to me most clearly in this story, is Jesus’ ability to listen to the actual physical (even if simply momentary) needs of people and to respond to those needs as a foundation for addressing their much deeper needs as well.
If we ask, ‘what do we learn about God in Jesus through this Epiphany moment?’ it might simply be this, that God in Jesus begins his work where people are, rather than where he would like them to be. If we wanted one example of the Christ-like ministry in the life of this Parish, we need look no further than at the ministries in our drop-in centre, where week by week we do not sign people up to baptism in Christ and church membership (much as we might like to) but we do – as Jesus did in this encounter – meet people’s physical needs for today. That is where we start, (at a simple practical level of supporting people in the difficulties of their lives), if we wish to follow in the way of Jesus.
Jesus responds to a practical need as he turns water into wine at this wedding feast at Cana, so that there is more than enough for everyone. But the drinking of that wine is a communal activity – there is nothing nice about drinking wine on our own. The love that God pours out in Jesus far outweighs anything that we could hope for. But just like a good bottle of wine, the Good news of God’s love is for us to share in practical ways with others.