John the Evangelist tells us at the end of this Sunday’s Gospel passage: “Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs at Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.” As John recounts it, this is the first of the great “signs” that Jesus does in his public ministry.
While the first three gospels identify numerous miracles of the Lord, the fourth Gospel concentrates on seven of these miracles. The miracles are presented as “signs.” Approximately the first half of the Gospel According to John presents the stories of these signs giving significant attention to each. In addition to the miracle at Cana, the other signs are: the healing of the royal official’s son (cf. 4:46-54), healing of the paralytic at Bethesda (cf. 5:1-18), feeding of the five thousand (cf. 6:5-14), Jesus’ walking on the water (cf. 6:16-24), healing of the man born blind (cf. 9:1-7ff) and the raising of Lazarus (11:1-45).
Each of these miracles are signs of life and give insight into Jesus and his mission. The greatest sign comes in the second half of the Gospel, that being Jesus’ death and resurrection. His being “lifted up” becomes the “sign” of eternal life through his self-offering.
The first “sign” is the changing of the water into wine. The story is one in which we are all familiar. Jesus and his mother are at a wedding feast. To the great dismay of the hosts, the wine has run out. Informing Jesus of this, Mary tells the servant: “Do whatever he tells you.” The instruction to the servant is an instruction for us as well.
Here at the very beginning of the great manifestation of Jesus and his Kingdom, we are told, “Do whatever he tells you.” They are words to keep in mind as we follow, once again, the path of Jesus to the cross. This is the path of life; for Jesus, as he will say later in the Gospel, is “the way, and the truth and the life.”
The significance of the water being turned into wine is great and nuanced. Most of us associate wine with special occasions and meals. This would have been true in the ancient world as well. However it is also good to remember that in those days wine was the “common” drink as water is today. Wine through its making preserved it, for the most part, from contamination.
How will Jesus bring about new life in us? Mary’s words give the answer: “Do whatever he tells you.”
Water on the other hand could easily become “bad” and undrinkable. (Think of the precautions many people have to take, even today, when traveling to certain parts of the world; how often have you heard “don’t drink the water” or “only drink bottled water”). Thus wine was considered necessary, it was not a luxury.
The situation at the wedding feast could have been a source of great embarrassment, humiliation and possibly a violation of hospitality for the host of the feast to run out of wine. It was a serious situation.
Mary recognizes this and is moved with compassion for her friends. She tells her Son about the situation wanting him to do something. He objects, saying: “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” She is not put off or turned away from his statement, saying to the servant: “Do whatever he tells you.”
Jesus instructs the servant to fill the “six stone water jars” with water. John tells us that each of those jars held “twenty to thirty gallons.” The detail magnifies the significance of what is happening. There can be no question that something great has happened here.
The abundance of new wine that will be produced reminds us the magnitude of God’s transforming grace. If Jesus can transform water into wine, imagine what he can do to us; the words of Mary come back to mind: “Do whatever he tells you.”
What happens is incredible. Jesus simply says: “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” The servant does. As the headwaiter tastes it, not knowing where it came from, he says to the bridegroom: “Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.” Not only has the water been changed into wine, it is the choicest of wines, and it is given in abundance.
The “sign” of water becoming wine points to Jesus’ mission. The mission will make known the saving power of God. He will bring healing to the sick, forgiveness to the sinner, wisdom to the ignorant and life to the dead.
The manifestation of God’s love and mercy is at the heart of the “signs.” This is the source of joy and exaltation so we join the psalmist: “Give the Lord, you families of nations, give to the Lord glory and praise; give to the Lord the glory due his name!”
The Gospel account of the Wedding Feast of Cana invites us to be transformed. The transformation in this case is not from water to wine, but from death to life. Allowing Jesus further into our lives brings life. As we will see through his mercy, he forgives sin. Through his love, he cultivates virtue. Through his death, he gives life. We might ask, “how does this happen?” or “what am I supposed to do?” Mary’s words provide the answer: “Do whatever He tells you.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.