According to ancient Christian tradition, the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 is linked with three 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, a divine manifestation. In this liturgical year, we are privileged to hear all three of the traditional Epiphany texts over the course of three successive Sundays.
Today’s story 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. 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. 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 English translation we just heard, his response is “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” Now it sounds a bit rude to call one’s own mother “woman.” But believe it or not, the translators have toned down Jesus’ response. A more literal translation might 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 ever spoke to my mother like that, her response might be that my hour had indeed come!
But Mary’s reaction to Jesus’ rebuff is calm and composed. She tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” She trusts that her son will do the right thing, despite his sassiness. And he does! He asks the servants to fill six water jars, each of which held about 20 or 30 gallons. Just imagine what a task that must have been. 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 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. Here goes! First, why did Jesus act the way he did to his own mother? Well, Jesus knew that 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 have Jesus put to death as a rabble-rouser. Jesus knew where this first step would eventually lead him, and he was naturally reluctant to take it. Given the circumstances, I think we can excuse his rudeness.
But then, Jesus changes his mind and performs that first sign. I don’t think it’s because of the special pleading of his mother, at least not directly. After all, he explicitly denies any claim his mother might have on him in this regard. We can only surmise that God the Father heard Mary’s request and that the divine will was moved. Then, as always, Jesus obeyed his Father.
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. 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 there was a purpose greater than simply keeping the party going. For as a result of this first sign, later generations have learned four important lessons about God and Jesus, and about our relationship with them.
First and foremost, this miracle is an epiphany, a manifestation of Jesus’ divinity, performed so that we, like the disciples, may believe in Jesus Christ.
The story also points to the power of human prayer. Mary asks for intervention, and her faith in the face of initial denial seemingly results in a change of the divine will. How might our faithful prayer affect the will of God, I wonder?
Jesus’ first sign also points to the cooperation between the human and the Divine that is necessary for the transformation of the world. If the servants had failed to tote those 120 gallons of water from the village well, there might have been no miracle in Cana. Surely, our hard work, in cooperation with God, is an integral part of his plan for salvation.
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 are symbols of abundance and joy. The 120 gallons of wine that Jesus provides for the wedding feast in Cana demonstrates the extravagant joy that he willed for the wedding guests. And God wills that same extravagant joy for us today.
So, to summarize, the take-home message for today is fourfold:
1) believe in the divine power of Jesus Christ, as revealed to us by the first of Jesus’ seven signs;
2) be faithful in the face of unanswered prayer, just as Mary was at the wedding feast in Cana;
3) be willing to cooperate with the Divine, just as did the servants who filled the six water jars; and
4) rejoice in God’s extravagant and intoxicating love, as did the joyful revelers in Cana of Galilee.