I wonder, how many people, particularly non Christians, when asked to describe something miraculous, would mention water being turned into wine? I’m guessing many people would think of something more dramatic such as walking on water or the dead being brought back to life.
A miracle is defined as an unusual or mysterious event that doesn’t follow the usual laws of nature and whilst a miracle features in our gospel reading today it is not of the dramatic life changing type nor is it one witnessed or lauded by a large number of people. This first miracle takes place in the presence of Jesus’ friends and family. The bridegroom and chief steward appear to remain unaware of Jesus’ actions and incredible gift of superior wine, perhaps reminding us that whilst the gift of God is better than anything that has gone before not all people are capable of recognising it. We’re not told of the impact of Jesus’ miracle on the wedding guests but we are told of its effect on his disciples- which was that they believed in him.
The turning water into wine is of course the first of Jesus’ miracles, the first of his “signs” as John calls them. It’s a story which we hear read many times, particularly at weddings, as well as at this time of year.
Signs points to a deeper truth and in John’s gospel they are meant to reveal who Jesus is. By this sign at Cana Jesus reveals his glory in an ordinary setting, at a common family event, a wedding.
This is a sign which speaks of the abundant generosity of God as well as pointing us forward to the ‘hour’ of Jesus’ death and it reminds us too of the wedding theme which features throughout the Bible (as in our earlier reading today) including in the closing verses of its last book, Revelation. We’re all familiar with the parable of the wedding feast and in the next chapter of this gospel John the Baptist will speak explicitly of Jesus as the bridegroom.
But this account is as much a reminder of Jesus is humanity as his divinity and on re-reading the account again for the purpose of this sermon I was struck more than ever by the central role of Jesus’ mother in this particular miracle, in this first act of his public ministry.
The passage begins not by speaking of Jesus first but by telling us his mother was at the wedding and that Jesus and his disciples had also been invited. Jesus was thus amongst the invited guests who would have been consuming the wine which soon ran out. One assumes he and his disciples will have been relaxing and enjoying the celebrations which is why, when his mother approached him to point out a problem with the wine, I can well imagine Jesus might have felt rather irritated (possibly like a doctor jetting off on holiday only to hear that dreaded announcement- is there a doctor on the flight?- as their beloved volunteers their services). I understand why Jesus’ response to Mary when she tells him “they have no wine” is considered by some to be rude and dismissive but as a mother of two sons I tend to disagree with those commentators who believe Jesus was rebuking his mother or putting her in her place. I suspect he was simply speaking with the familiarity of a son who was enjoying himself and didn’t want to be disturbed, as opposed to intending to disrespect her. Having recently called his disciples to follow him he may have been reluctant for his mother to appear in charge, but he doesn’t ignore her. He doesn’t refuse to act. His mother isn’t offended by his response. Instead she exercises a quiet authority, simply ignoring his protest and telling the servants to do whatever he tells them. She puts Jesus on the spot. It is her prompt that triggers the start of his public ministry. She pushes him out there. In the fullness of time that will cost her a lot. The next time Mary appears in this gospel is at the foot of the cross.
Some commentators (predominantly male) suggest Mary had no knowledge or understanding of God’s designs for her son, that she would have no clue about what he would do. Some even suggest the passage indicates Jesus would only take orders from his father or that he was deliberately putting some distance between himself and his mother. I venture to disagree. This, I believe, was a mother who will have remembered the words of the angel Gabriel on his visit to her. This was a mother who we are told treasured the words of the shepherds and pondered them in her heart. This is a mother who heard Simeon’s prophecy about her son on his presentation in the temple, a mother who could hardly have forgotten the time her twelve year old son went missing and was found in the temple amazing the rabbis with his knowledge and understanding. This was a mother who, no doubt, would have watched carefully as that twelve year old matured into a man of thirty. This was a mother who will have learned much more about him than anyone else, a woman who would have known him intimately, a woman who was well aware he was special, a woman who would have been acquainted with his generosity and compassion.
We’re not told what happened in the years that intervened between Jesus’ visit to the Temple and this wedding in Cana, who knows what private signs of Jesus’ greatness Mary may have seen?
Mary’s response to her son’s reluctance to get involved in the wine crisis suggests to me that she knew her son would not let people go wanting. It also seems to me that her response to Jesus’ words “my hour has not yet come” suggests she understood him,. After all, we’re not told that she looked puzzled or that she asked him what he meant.
Those words of Jesus of course point us to the end of his life. His initial desire to avoid acting here, at the outset of his ministry, reminds me too of his wish to avoid his fate when praying in Gethsemane towards the end of it.
Mary trusted Jesus. She had faith that he would solve the problem and that is exactly what he did. It may be that she didn’t expect that he would convert some 180 gallons of water into superior quality wine. It may be that she didn’t foresee that he would transform symbols of ritual (the water jars used for Jewish rites of purification) into an abundant source of celebration, something ordinary and common being turned into something joyous, but she knew him well enough to know he would not let the celebration be ruined. He would ensure the guests were provided for.
There is some academic debate about the translation of Mary’s words and whether she was making a statement or making a request of Jesus. It seems to me likely that Mary would know she didn’t really need to ask. She merely had to point to the need and Jesus would meet it. She trusted that he would do something. Her faith was well founded. Water for life became wine for rejoicing.
This miracle wasn’t performed when Jesus was centre stage, in front of a huge crowd, or trumpeted in dramatic fashion. Instead it took place in the presence of those closest to Jesus and amongst many who were probably too inebriated to have any clue that a hospitality crisis had been averted.
It wasn’t a grand spectacle. It wasn’t a fear inducing display of God’s awesome power like the casting out of demons or the calming of the storm. Rather it was an act of quiet generosity calculated to bring joy to the human community of which Jesus, his mother and his disciples were a part, as much as it was intended to reveal something about his identity to his disciples.
Jesus had been immersed in humanity for some 30 years, no doubt sharing in many such family celebrations as well, presumably, as having his share of family sorrows.
The miracle at Cana arguably tells us as much about humanity of Jesus as his divinity. It also perhaps serves as a reminder that we encounter God not just in the spectacular or during the more dramatic life changing events we sometimes experience, but more often in the midst of the ordinary, in those times when God simply provides us with moments of joy.
Richard Young (Rector)