I am frequently befuddled by some of the accounts in the Gospels. More specifically, the editorial decisions made by some of the writers so as to include this or exclude that. I know, I know, if only they had had me around to make some suggestions…
Actually, they would have probably been a lot longer, given my penchant for verbosity. Perhaps we all lucked out in the end.
John’s Gospel is traditionally held to be the last one written, and one gets that sense in that it seems to be quite a bit different from the Synoptics. Not only is there a lot of unique material, but even the terminology seems a little more refined, in that Jesus’ miracles all receive the title of signs. The church historian Eusebius offers the traditional explanation for this:
When copies of the three Gospels had come to the Evangelist John, he is reported, while he confirmed their fidelity and correctness, to have at the same time noticed some omissions, especially at the opening of our Lord’s ministry. Certain it is that the first three Gospels seem only to contain the events of the year in which John the Baptist was imprisoned, and put to death. And therefore John, it is said, was asked to write down those acts of our Savior’s before the apprehension of the Baptist, which the former Evangelists had passed over. (Eusebius, Church History)
One of these ‘omissions’ is the first of Jesus’ signs, the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. Of all of the signs one could relate, this one has always struck me as odd. True, John tells us it is the first of seven, but when confronted with all of the other miracles and signs Jesus performed it can, at first glance, seem out of place.
Hence my befuddlement. (Which is a fun word to say!)
After all, it just feels so trivial. Granted, running out of wine at a first-century Jewish wedding was a major social faux-pas, but some of Jesus’ other signs run all the way from healing to creating something out of nothing to raising the dead. Changing water into wine so wedding guests can drink more doesn’t seem on the same level.
However, if John (inspired by the Holy Spirit) decided to put it in his Gospel because it was lacking in the others, there must be something important about it, right? At least more than just keeping wine running freely at a party, surely.
A Mother’s Request
I don’t know if Mary was in charge or catering this wedding or not, but she is the first to notice that wine is gone:
When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” (John 2:3 NRSV)
It is fascinating to note that of all the Gospel writers, John is the only one who doesn’t refer to the mother of Jesus by name, preferring instead the circumlocution (or perhaps honorific) ‘mother of Jesus.’ In a somewhat similar manner John uses the phrase ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ in reference to himself. This causes me to speculate that John’s Gospel, while certainly arising from his own experiences, recollections and theological reflections, is also an insight into Mary’s own reflections on the life of her son and her part to play in it. We are told by John, after all, that Jesus gave his mother to John to care for as he was being crucified:
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 19:26-27 NIV)
It is thus probable that the narrative of the wedding at Cana is essentially autobiographical, as Mary related the account to John. The circumlocution could thus be her way of referring to herself much as John’s employs one for his own actions.
Whatever the case, at the wedding Mary senses a crisis and instead of going out to buy more wine comes directly to Jesus. Some early psuedo-gospels attribute miraculous events to Jesus’ childhood, but even if this was to be his first miracle/sign, Mary certainly understood what he was capable of. In fact, she does not even tell him what to do, but rather simply mentions the problem, confident that he will not only be able to help, but will be willing to do so.
Jesus’ response can seem, on first blush, a bit harsh:
And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” (John 2:4 NRSV)
Theologians throughout history have struggled to make sense of this passage, for Jesus appears to rebuff her quite bruskly. And even though the term ‘woman’ in the Greek of John’s writing does not denote any shade of disrespect, the whole phrase can come off as impatient and perhaps just a bit mean. After all, she is simply asking for help, and displays an immense amount of faith that Jesus can do anything. Why the attitude?
The Right Time
Well, there’s no necessity to infer any kind of attitude, for there are deeper things at play here. If we start with Eusebius’ argument that John’s Gospel is filling in some omissions and with John’s own admission that he is writing so that people will believe, then his words here (and thus Mary’s) are clearly in reference to something more than just changing water into wine.
This very conspicuous phrase- my hour- is used by Jesus in John’s Gospel on several other occasions. For example, in John 7:30 we read the
Then they tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come. (John 7:30 NRSV)
Likewise in John 8:20:
He spoke these words while he was teaching in the treasury of the temple, but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come. (John 8:20 NRSV)
John clearly seems to have an idea in mind of what this ‘hour’ is, and Jesus mentions elsewhere that no one has the power to take his life, but that he lays it down of his own accord, according to the will of the Father. It is in this context that Jesus, after knowing all had been finished, is finally said to bow his head and give up his spirit- his time had come.
John’s point here is ultimately that when Jesus responds to Mary’s request, he is not thinking of merely the beginning of his ministry but in actuality is referring to his death, the hour for which he came into the world. But why then, it might be asked, does this conversation take place during a lull in the festivities, over something so seemingly trifling as wine?
The curious thing about Jesus’ ‘rebuke’ is that it ends up not being a rebuke at all, for if her request were only aimed at providing wine for the wedding then that’s exactly what he ends up doing. There is more afoot, however, and Mary knows exactly what her request entails. She understands who he is, and knows that once he starts down that road he will finally come to his hour.
But even more her deep faith leads her to understand something that the prophets had foretold, that God was going to be establishing a new covenant with his people. New wine, after all, was highly representative for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day of this new covenant. Jesus himself even uses this imagery to explain how God is making things new, and even in the context of a wedding to boot:
Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.
“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (John 9:15-16 NIV)
St. Augustine picked up on this idea and noticed that a similar parallel is drawn between the Old Testament and the Gospel, in that the former is fulfilled and transformed in the latter:
When these words of the Gospel are understood, and they are certainly clear, all the mysteries which are latent in this miracle of the Lord will be laid open. Observe what He says, that it behooved the things to be fulfilled in Christ that were written of Him. Where were they written? “In the law,” says He, “and in the prophets, and in the Psalms.” He omitted no part of the Old Scriptures. These were water; and hence the disciples were called irrational by the Lord, because as yet they tasted to them as water, not as wine. And how did He make of the water wine? When He opened their understanding, and expounded to them the Scriptures, beginning from Moses, through all the prophets; with which being now inebriated, they said, “Did not our hearts burn within us in the way, when He opened to us the Scriptures?” For they understood Christ in those books in which they knew Him not before. Thus our Lord Jesus Christ changed the water into wine, and that has now taste which before had not, that now inebriates which before did not…
When, however, He turns the water itself into wine, He shows us that the Old Scripture also is from Himself, for at His own command were the water-pots filled. It is from the Lord, indeed, that the Old Scripture also is; but it has no taste unless Christ is understood therein. (St. Augustine, Tractates on John, 9.5)
He teases out an interesting notion here, for the water is not invalidated in the transformation but is rather perfected and taken up out of itself and transformed. In a similar manner the Old Testament Scriptures take on new life, and as this new wine is brought forth it is placed into new wine skins; otherwise it could not be contained.
Wedding Supper of The Lamb
Mary’s request may have yet another subtle dimension to it. She knew that Jesus had an hour for which he was waiting, and that the coming of that hour would mean the fulfillment of God’s promises and the establishment of the new covenant. After all, she was the one who taught him as a child the very words of the Scriptures he was fulfilling, and now she is the one who is wondering if this is the moment, if this is the hour when everything comes to pass. The prophets had routinely depicted God’s relationship with his people as that of bridegroom and bride; what more appropriate place and time than this to bring it all to fruition, to put the new wine into the new wine skins when the old ones have run out?
Nor is Mary the only one who wanted Jesus to bring about thew kingdom at a certain time. The Gospels have many other instances where the disciples ask if this is the time for God to restore the kingdom of Israel; John’s own mother (perhaps at his request!) even petitioned Jesus that he or his brother might sit at Jesus’ hand when he came into his kingdom. It is perhaps fitting that Jesus responded by asking if they were able to drink the cup he had to drink.
But the hour was not yet to come, and Jesus’ response brings this to bear. It is thus not a rebuke but rather a profound statement that God’s purposes are not always what we want them to be; Jesus’ hour will be when it is the Father’s will.
In other instances in the Gospels the reaction to God’s timing is impatience, trying to bring it about, etc. Mary’s is different, however, in that she submits herself completely to her Son’s will. Instead of trying to press him further to bring about his hour, she lays down her will and tells the servants:
“Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5 NRSV)
The incredible thing about this, which makes it clear that Jesus’ response is not a rebuke, is that he ends up turning the water into wine. This would make absolutely no sense if his ‘hour’ was merely the hour of starting his ministry. He had already chosen his disciples and was thus already engaged in his Father’s business. The important thing though is that while Mary may have wanted him to take up the cup of the new covenant then and there, instead Jesus foreshadows this by turning the water into wine. It is thus easy to see what John calls this particular miracle a ‘sign,’ since the purpose of a sign is to point to something else.
The water that is turned into wine at a wedding feast thus prefigures the cup of the new covenant between God and his people, the renewal of vows between the bridegroom and the bride. The type of submission and faith that Mary evidences here is precisely the mark of the Bride, the Church. John writes elsewhere:
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
to her it has been granted to be clothed
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. (Revelation 19:6-8 NRSV)
Jesus’ address of his mother here is interesting; ‘Woman’ seems to be an echo of the title of Eve in the garden, of whom God promised:
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15 NRSV)
The early church always understood Mary to be a Second Eve as Christ was the Second Adam, and as the first of the Church, the Bride of Christ, she both fulfills the promise of the defeat of the evil one through her Son and stands in for all who will join in the wedding feast of the Lamb. Here in this private exchange at a wedding another marriage is beginning, for Jesus will soon come to his hour and will purchase his Bride with his own blood.
Truly, the best wine has been saved for last.