According to ancient Christian tradition, the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 is linked with three different Gospel stories: the visitation of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the wedding feast in Cana. Each of these stories, in its own way, deals with an epiphany, with a divine manifestation. In this liturgical year, Year C, we are privileged to hear all three of the traditional Epiphany texts over a period of eleven days.
Today’s story of a divine manifestation takes place at a wedding banquet, which in Jesus’ day was a week-long affair. Friends and family would come and go throughout the week; and the feasting, singing, and dancing would continue each evening. Guests were expected to bring gifts of food and drink to help the groom keep the party going for the whole week. In return for the wedding gifts, the groom was honor-bound to entertain his guests in style. And if he didn’t, the guests could take their host to court!
In today’s story, disaster strikes. The wine runs out. Some Bible commentators have speculated that maybe Jesus and his disciples failed to bring an expected gift of wine and were in fact the cause of the shortage, to the dismay of Jesus’ mother. Perhaps! But that is just pure guesswork. In any case, Jesus’ mother notices the problem and asks her son to do something about it. She realizes that the groom would be publicly shamed and legally liable if the celebration had to be cut short.
Jesus’ response to his mother’s request is troubling. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, his response is translated as “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” Now it sounds a bit rude to call his own mother “woman.” But believe it or not, the translators have worked hard to tone down the rudeness of Jesus’ response. A more literal translation would be “Woman, what right do you have to bother me?” His only explanation for rudely denying her request is that “his hour had not yet come.” Frankly, if I spoke like that to my mother, her response might be that my hour had indeed come!
But Mary’s response to Jesus’ rebuff is acquiescence. She tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Despite Jesus’ flat denial, Mary presumes that he will, in fact, take appropriate action. And he does! He asks the servants to fill six huge water jars, each of which held about 20 or 30 gallons. Just imagine what a task that must have been for those poor servants. They had to lug over 120 gallons of water from the nearest well. When they had complied with Jesus’ request, a sample is then taken to the chief steward, who proclaims the transformed water to be top-quality wine. The Evangelist says that this miracle was the first of Jesus’ seven signs. And by it, he revealed his glory, and the disciples came to a new level of faith.
This short episode evokes so many questions. Why did Jesus rudely deny his mother’s request? What did he mean when he said his hour had not yet come? Why did Jesus immediately change his mind and take action to save the wedding feast? Why did St. John the Evangelist call this miracle a “sign”? And finally, what significance, if any, does this miracle story have for us today?
Well, I’m going to take a crack at each one of these questions! First, why did Jesus act the way he did to his own mother? My guess is that his rude response came about for two reasons. The first reason is that, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus is in perfect union with his Father in heaven and does only what is in accordance with the will of his Father. Human requests are answered in the affirmative if, and only if, the Father’s answer is Yes. Second, to take action now to save the day would require that he perform a public miracle, a “sign,” as the Evangelist prefers to call it. And after such an action, there could be no going back. One miraculous sign would inevitably lead to another. And as you may recall, by the time that Jesus performed the seventh and final sign, the raising of Lazarus, the authorities had decided to do away with Jesus, because they feared that these public miracles might lead to political unrest. Jesus undoubtedly knew where this first step would eventually lead him, and he was naturally reluctant to take it. Is it any wonder that Jesus, when faced with the prospect of a journey unto death, reacted rudely to his mother’s request to start down that road?
But then, with no explanation at all, Jesus changes his mind. I don’t think it’s because of the special pleading of his mother, an argument made by many Roman Catholic apologists. Jesus makes this quite clear when he explicitly denies any claim his mother might have on him personally. We can only surmise that God the Father heard Mary’s request and that the divine will was moved to take action, even if it meant starting Jesus down the road to Calvary. (Of course, if Mary had known the ultimate consequence of her request, she never would have asked for her son’s intervention. But she did, and the course of all salvation history was changed.)
Next question! Why does St. John call this and six other miracles of Jesus “signs”? Well, the short answer is because they are meant to point to something. These signs are big neon arrows pointing to God and to his only Son. They point to the fact that the Kingdom of God is breaking into the world. They point to the fact that Jesus is one with the Father and can perform the works that only God can do. Now, it may seem that Jesus’ changing water into wine was a rather “pointless” sign, for it isn’t obvious what greater purpose it served. But even in this case, there was a purpose greater than simply keeping the party going, a purpose that affects us even today.
First and foremost, this miracle is an epiphany, a manifestation of Jesus’ divinity, performed so that we, like the disciples, may have faith in Jesus Christ. The Gospel story also points to the power of human prayer. Mary asks for an intervention, and her faith in the face of denial results in a change of the divine will. How might our faithful prayer affect the will of God? Perhaps God wants us to care enough about the world to gently prod him to take action and then trust that he will, when the hour has come. This first sign of Jesus also points to the cooperation between the human and the divine that is necessary for the transformation of the world. If the hardworking servants had failed to tote those 120 gallons of water from the village well, there would have been no miracle in Cana. Surely, our cooperation is desired by God as he works his will in the world today. And finally, Jesus’ changing water into wine points to the fact that humans are meant to be joyful. In the Bible, bread and oil and wine serve as symbols of abundance and joy. The 120 gallons of premium wine that Jesus provides for the wedding feast in Cana demonstrates the extravagant joy that he willed for the wedding party. And God wills that same extravagant joy for us today.
And lest we forget, the banquet of bread and wine that we will share at this Holy Table is yet another sign that points to God’s extravagant love for us. For it reminds us that God the Son came into the world, revealed his glory, and was exalted on the Cross that we might have life and have it in abundance.
So, the take-home message for today is fourfold: believe in the divine power of Jesus Christ, as revealed to us by the first of Jesus’ seven signs; be faithful in the face of unanswered prayer, just as Mary was at the wedding feast in Cana; be willing to cooperate with the Divine, just as did the servants who filled the six water jars; and last but not least, rejoice in God’s extravagant and intoxicating love, as did the joyful revelers in Cana of Galilee.