This past Sunday the Gospel reading was from John 2 about the wedding feast at Cana and Jesus’ first miracle turning water into wine. Unique among the gospel writers, John refers to Jesus’ miracles as signs, and given the biblical penchant for presenting things in sevens, his Gospel contains seven signs.
There is some overlap between the signs contained in John’s Gospel and the miracles in the Synoptics, but John’s Gospel is the only account of the sign of the turning of water into wine.
John’s Gospel is notably different from the Synoptic Gospels, in that it is much less an historical account than what many of the early church fathers would term a “spiritual” account. Clement of Alexandria noted that:
Last of all, John perceiving that the bodily facts had been made plain in the gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, composed a spiritual gospel. (Eusebius, Hist. Eccles. 6.14.7)
Yet for being a spiritual Gospel John takes pains to note elsewhere (perhaps in subtle contradistinction to nascent Gnostic theologizing) that his writing is a revelation of the one “which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched.” (1 John 1:1)
John seems to interpret Jesus’ miracles as signs in that they not only reveal Jesus as the Messiah; they additionally are the conduit through which Jesus “revealed his glory,” and the mode through which his disciples believed in him. In the course of turning water into wine, Jesus presents a microcosm of salvation history and foreshadows what this revelation of his glory will entail.
Because at this wedding, Jesus is preparing for a funeral.
John’s account begins with a seeming contradiction, or at least what appears to be a very abrupt change of heart. The wedding party is about to suffer a social faux pas by running out of wine (some wedding feasts in the ancient world lasted around seven days), and Mary tells Jesus that “they have no more wine.” The assumption here is that Mary believed Jesus could do something about it one way or the other, and perhaps she was expecting something miraculous.
Jesus response seems initially unambiguous:
“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” (John 2:4)
I used to find this statement curious, not because of what Jesus said, but rather because of what he went on to do. For at first blush he seems to brush off the request as something it isn’t time for him to engage in, as if, sure, he is supposed to perform miracles, but just not yet. However, he then turns right around and performs the miracle anyway. Was Mary just a few too many minutes early, and once the next hour struck it was literally his hour? Or did Mary somehow spur Jesus on to finally accept his mission?
It is important to bear in mind the end of the story; John indicates that this miracle is a sign. That is, the event itself- as important as it is- is only a shadow of the real thing, and- in this case- is actually a foreshadowing of what is to come. Jesus’ hour is still years off, and a careful reading indicates why there is no contradiction between rebuffing Mary’s request but still performing the miracle. For he says:
“Woman, why do you involve me?”
Jesus is here somewhat cryptic, as he gives away the ending by concealing it out in the open. His hour has not yet come, but the sign he is about to perform will portend that hour. Miracles, of course, reveal the glory of the Son on the human level, but, as he asks- what does that have to do with him? Rather, the glory that will be revealed is not actually in the miracle, but is still yet to come at “his hour.”
Mary instructs the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them, perhaps having realized that the hour she has known about for some time- when a sword would pierce her, too- has not yet come.
Interestingly, the water that will be turned into wine will be contained in water jars used for ceremonial washing. Jesus instructs the servants to “fill them to the brim,” which suggests a sense of completeness, as well as sense of limitation. John here seems to be making a multifaceted statement which draws on a lot of theology of the transition from the old to the new covenant.
The ceremonial jars function as a sort of stand-in for the law, which was given by God to his people but which was, as the author to the Hebrews will state, a shadow of things to come. The law was given through Moses, John says earlier in his Gospel, but grace and truth come through Jesus Christ, who will reveal the Father because he is one with the Father. Moses was representative of the law and the prophets, and through God’s revelation to his people through the latter the law was essentially “filled to the brim.” The ceremonial washing could make one outwardly clean, but what was needed was clean heart, a new covenant given by the one who is the Word of God in flesh.
The water thus becomes a polyvalent image; in being turned to wine it illustrates the transition from the old to the new covenant, to a newly established relationship between God and his people. But it also symbolizes the medium of that transition in baptism, which stands over against the circumcision of the old covenant. One is also reminded of how in just a couple chapters Jesus will offer the woman at the well water which will “become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14) As I have written elsewhere, this event is- on the spiritual level- a wedding proposal in itself, which is apropos for this particular sign.
The wine is not only replete with new covenant imagery from the Old Testament, but John uses it as a symbol of Jesus’ blood, and ultimately his death. The transformation of water to wine coincides with the transition from the old covenant of circumcision to the new covenant of baptism, as St. Paul explains illustrates:
Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12)
This movement from the old to the new is further enhanced in John’s account of the sign as the wine is brought to the guests. The banquet master tastes it and is surprised, for this wine is better than the wine from the beginning of the festivities, which is a reversal of the norm. One is reminded of Jesus’ saying that one doesn’t put new wine into old wineskins, but the superiority of the new covenant by means of Jesus’ death is central here. The old covenant was used by God and in effect filled “up to the brim,” but the new covenant is even better, and never ending. What the law could not do for humanity, Jesus accomplishes through his sacrifice.
This sign thus points straight to his “hour,” which in the account of this sign is in a mode of “yet coming and has now come.” (John 4:23)
As we move towards that hour, Jesus’s words finally reveal exactly what his hour is. As he watches his betrayer leave, he exclaims:
Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once. (John 13:31-32)
And as his arrest looms immanent, he prays:
Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began. (John 17:1-5)
Jesus’ glory is in his death in obedience to the Father. As he states on several occasions, he does whatever he sees his Father doing, and is obedient to his Father’s will. A parallel seems to be subtly drawn here between this first sign and Jesus’ hour: In the miracle at Cana his hour has not come, but Mary tells the servants to “do whatever he tells you.” And here when his hour arrives, he does what his Father tells him to do.
There is a sort of reversal here as well. Jesus’ glory is revealed through this sign, but the glory is not seen or understood until his “hour” comes with his death. So while he seems to be revealing his glory through a miracle, he is actually pointing to that hour, where the wine he transforms portends the shedding of his blood. In a similar manner, his death seems the ultimate ignominy, hardly glorious as the world would understand it. Yet it is precisely in his death that his glory is revealed, and just as he brought forth wine from water, so he will bring forth life from death.
Thus, at this wedding Jesus is preparing for his funeral, but in doing is preparing for an even better wedding. Writing in his Revelation, John reveals Jesus’ glory in his own wedding, the Wedding of the Lamb:
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.” (Revelation 19:6-8)
His glory was revealed in the hour of his, and comes full circle to “the glory I had with you before the world began.” The white robes of the saints- the bride which has been made ready- are white because “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14)
Jesus turned water into wine at wedding in Cana, which is a sign of the water and blood which would pour forth from his side on the cross, which are recapitulated in baptism in water and in blood. The bride of Christ is foreshadowed at this wedding, and here made ready.
Jesus’ hour had not yet come, yet at the same time has been “from the foundation of the world.” (Revelation 13:8)
Every wedding eventually ends in a funeral, but in bringing forth wine from water, Jesus prepares for his own wedding that will never end.