January 20, 2013

Water into Wine

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. - John 2:1-11
When the mother of Jesus tells the servants at the wedding feast,  "Do whatever he tells you," I wonder what she expected Jesus would do.  I wonder what she hoped he would do.

We can understand this story literally, as a party with a problem.  It seems like there's always a problem at a wedding.  There are so many details that can go awry.  At my wedding the air conditioner in the reception hall was on the fritz and it was 100 degrees.  At my sister's wedding, the pillars on the wedding cake slid, making the otherwise beautiful confection look a bit like the leaning tower of Pisa.  This ancient wedding in Cana would have gone on for several days, during which time the wine would have kept flowing to entertain the guests.  No wine?  Problem.

We can understand the story like that -- Jesus saved the party! -- but I don't think we're meant to.  I cannot imagine that the mother of Jesus, under any circumstances, was coming to her son to say, "Since you are the incarnate Son of God, please perform your first miracle by turning water into wine."

The problem, as John hints, is not one of ancient hospitality, but of prophetic expectation and fulfillment.

The Christian church, since the earliest days has seen the Messiah (Christ) as the bridegroom and the church as his bride (cf. especially Revelations 19:5 and 21:2).  Jesus himself uses the metaphor in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13).  Wedding feasts are one of those biblical motifs that should cause us to prick up our ears and wonder:  Is something more going on here?

Another hint is those big jars which Jesus orders to be filled with water.  They're not just jars.  They are, John tells us, "for the Jewish rites of purification."  They were filled with water to be used for ritual washing, washing prescribed  by God's law, which made someone who was ritually unclean, clean again.  That's the sort of water Jesus is turning into wine.

Finally, there is this clue that something more than a failed party is at stake:  "My hour has not yet come," says Jesus, at first.  What does his "hour" portend?  Here we need to look backward, from later in John's gospel.  In John 17:1, Jesus declares, before his arrest, "‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you..'"

Although Jesus' hour has not yet come, his prophetic action at Cana points ahead toward the Son's glorification of the Father, the saving act of Jesus death and resurrection that fulfills the law (cf. Matthew 5:17).  His turning the water of purification into wine for the wedding feast is a prophetic sign of fulfillment.  We no longer need the ritual purification (and sacrifice) prescribed by the law.  The fulfillment anticipated by the law has come.  It's time for the wedding.

The mother of Jesus in John is not the personal "Mary" of Luke, but, perhaps, the symbol of all of Israel and its fervent expectation of salvation from exile with the coming of God as king.  See this excerpt from Isaiah 62 which is paired with today's gospel:
2 The nations shall see your vindication,   and all the kings your glory;and you shall be called by a new name   that the mouth of the Lord will give. 3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,   and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken,   and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,   and your land Married;for the Lord delights in you,   and your land shall be married. 5 For as a young man marries a young woman,   so shall your builder marry you,and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,   so shall your God rejoice over you.
Israel is the bride whose restoration and redemption are likened to being joined to the bridegroom in a great wedding feast.

When the mother of Jesus calls upon her son to act and tells the stewards to "Do whatever he tells you," is she not anticipating this restoration that is symbolized by the wedding feast?  She is pointing to Jesus -- which is what prophets do, point to what God is doing or about to do.

"Do whatever he tells you."  It doesn't matter what it might be.  Whatever it is, he will cause the wine to flow.  Then we can join in the feast.

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