Miracle at Cana 17 January 2016 All Saints
As you’ve been reminded the last few Sundays, this is the season in which the Church reflects on various manifestations of Jesus of Nazareth as divine. Suppose that around the turn of the first and second centuries of the Christian era there exists someone of exceptional insight sitting at his desk with an ample supply of writing materials to hand, thinking about how she or he too can make a contribution to understanding Jesus as a manifestation of the divine by writing a gospel – a new literary form in response to an extraordinary series of events. Out author will certainly know about the suffering and death of Jesus, and of some strange encounters with Jesus after his death, and he knows some of the traditions on which other gospel writers drew – there were a number of other people, probably not known to one another, trying to get these traditions and memories into some sort of shape. How is out author going to make his own very distinctive version of what he knows?
In its finished form, he gave his book a unique kind of preface by way of introduction, in the simplest but most profound language, getting his hearers or readers familiar in just a few verses with some of the key terms he will be exploring further in his text: God, light, life, witness, world, flesh, grace, truth and glory- and it is with that last word, glory, we focus on in this morning’s reading. But, and it is a big ‘but’ when we hear the word glory, we need to forget magnificence in all its forms which may be on display in a great state occasion, for example. Glory may indeed be manifest in beauty and splendour the beauty and splendour of God’s creation, but it also has connotations of the weight of authority, authorisation, clout, responsibility. So in Psalm 102, 6 we indeed find that ‘When the Lord shall build up Zion, he shall appear in his glory’ but as we learn from this morning’s gospel, that appearance can be subtle, obscure except to a few, and eventually lead the one who manifests it to his death.
So let us stay with this morning’s gospel and what our author makes of divine glory in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Unsurprisingly, he begins with John the Baptist, but instead of describing Jesus’ baptism directly, we find John provoked into declaring Jesus as Spirit-bearer, and as the Lamb of God, the never-to-be-forgotten death of Jesus throughout the gospel. Two of John’s disciples attach themselves to Jesus, ad Andrew ropes in Simon Peter, and the pair of them find Philip and they find Nathanael whose very name (most appropriately here!) means ‘God gives’ or ‘God has given’. This is apt indeed for a man recognised by Jesus as being without guile, and who in turn acknowledges Jesus as being Son of God, the language of the Psalms used for the King of Israel, and as we know, dangerous to anyone for whom the claim is made. What then?
Here our author contributes something quite new to the gospel tradition. He tells us that Nathanael comes from Cana, and indeed in his fidelity he turns up right at the end of the gospel, at the breakfast party Jesus cooks for some of his disciples by the shore of the sea of Tiberias. From the point where Nathanael joins the group, we move straight to a wedding feast in Cana. Who knows – it might have been a member of Nathanael’s family – what more natural to take his new companions along? After all, a marriage feast was one of the major occasions for festivity even in occupied territory, and we know from non-biblical sources that it would have involved a procession with the bridegroom’s friends escorting the bride to her new home for festivities lasting about a week. Quite possibly not all the guests would arrive and stay at the same time- they might well bring their own tents to spread around the locality and some provisions as well as contributing to the feast itself. Hospitality to them would include a good supply of clean water to wash and sooth much-travelled feet, to clean and refresh head and face, and a good final wash of arms and hands to make one presentable. The water would be found in the stone water jars at the host’s home, as we find in the marriage feast at Cana in our narrative- just about empty when some of the guests arrive, and the servants have yet to refill them from the nearby well. And depending on how the calculations are done, those stone jars might between them hold between 120-150 gallons of water – more than enough to be going on with!
We know nothing about the family apart from the fact that they may have been Nathanael’s but we do know about some of the guests. First of all , the mother of Jesus was present – one of only two occasions in this gospel where she appears – the second being near the crucified one when he and a much-loved disciple are helped to commit themselves to one another to begin a new kind of family. In this gospel Jesus’ mother is never known as ‘Mary’ but is simply – as in the case of most other women in this gospel, addressed as ‘woman’ – and we simply don’t know how to take this, to be honest. Is it a formal and most courteous form of address? But even if it is, it’s a bit odd in the address of a son to his mother – or is it an indication of a certain distance between them, – a hint of irritation even, pushing a little further away what is left of parental authority? Anyway, Jesus’ mother is clearly a person of some standing in the gathering as we see from the way she is to behave.
Jesus and his disciples are also invited to the marriage, and it is as though they have no sooner presented themselves than Jesus’ mother informs him of what he would soon have discovered, much to the embarrassment of his host, that ‘they have no wine’-something has gone wrong here, and, of course, maybe Jesus and his little group have turned up without much to contribute to the celebration. In any event, he seems to have taken this information as a request for help. What is it that she knows about him that makes that credible? We are not told, but we may recall the scriptural blessings of the gifts of wine and oil, not least in association with the figure of divine wisdom. Does she thinkg of him as in some sense the embodiment of that wisdom? We have no way of knowing. Anyway, In response to ‘they have no wine’ Jesus’ mother receives what looks like a brush-off. ‘What have I to do with you’ (in one translation) but there’s more to it than that. We know of other occasions in scripture when the phrase is used, and it is usually on the lips of someone ill at ease, or stressed-out we might say, such as the widow whose son has died and who fears the effect of having the prophet Elijah on her premises- though in her case the prophet restores her son. We find the phrase elsewhere in the gospels where demons challenge Jesus who is going to destroy them and restore someone to sanity. In this case, however, it is Jesus who is using the phrase – it is he who is ill-at-ease, unsure of whether to act ‘-‘my hour has not yet come’ – but for what, if not for this? His mother’s persistence pays off –there are other examples in the gospels of persistence being effective at times too!- and she simply tells the servants to do whatever he tells them. What is at stake here for him, after all? In any event, he simply tells the servants to fill up the stone water jars, but also, to draw out the liquid and take it to the master of the feast – was he simply going to receive freshly drawn water? The servants, fortunately for them, know better, and so do his disciples. And our gospel writer makes the point: this was the first of Jesus’ ‘signs’- some of them what the other gospels would call ‘mighty works’ but in this gospel also including many other actions of Jesus. But the sign is not just ‘first’ in the sequence of what Jesus does, but first in the sense of ‘primary’ – it is for them the first trustworthy manifestation of his glory, his authority, his grace in response to a human need, his contribution to festivity, for all the privacy and obscurity of his words and actions here. And if our author has it right it seems that the experience may have brought something into focus for Jesus himself. We find that our author goes on to write something equally extraordinary, but in a context anything but obscure. For when mother, brothers and disciples journey with Jesus to Capernaum, he leaves them and heads for Jerusalem, and it is here rather than much later in his gospel that our author records the cleansing of the Temple, and the headlong controversy with Jesus about the status of the Temple which will be one of the things which will bring him to his death. Changing water into wine and the manifestation of divine authority in the obscurity of a wedding feast at Cana was one thing – but it seems to have precipitated Jesus into quite other and far more dangerous circumstances, as well he may of course have feared-but once he had agreed that his hour had indeed come, it would be Jerusalem and not Cana where divine glory would be manifested, with grim consequences for him as Lamb of God as John the Baptist had foreseen.