Isaiah 62.1-5; Psalm 36.5-10; 1 Corinthians 12.1-11; John 2.1-11
Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THERE must be many readers of the Gospel according to John who wish that the Evangelist had supplied tasting notes to accompany chapter 2. If the wine that emerged from the stone water jars was anything like the Lebanese vintage brought recently by my generous dinner guests, then the wedding party at Cana was blessed indeed.
Wine is deeply associated with time and place, and the memory of drinking something unusually good keeps other memories alive — people, conversations, reunions.
My guests remembered a Lebanese colleague teaching in a university close to the Syrian border. He was still mourning his own colleague, the 82-year-old scholar, Khaled al-Asaad, beheaded because he refused to lead extremists to the precious remains of the ancient city of Palmyra. The disciples would have remembered the “good wine” (John 2.10) as part of the moment when they first believed in Jesus (John 2.11).
How frustrating, then, for the master of the feast, who tasted the wine, and could not establish its origins (the servants had tactfully not mentioned the water jars), but also how true to John’s purpose (John 2.9).
This is in every sense new wine, celebrating a new order, and gesturing towards the glorious feast in the Kingdom that is yet to come (see Matthew 26.29, Luke 22.18, Mark 14.25). But, if its origins are in the future, it has an associative power that gathers up the promises of Israel’s past.
The feast immediately suggests the wedding banquet of the Lamb (Revelation 19.6-9, 21.1-5), but associated with this final vision is another marriage, established between God and Israel. It is the restoration of this bond that Isaiah is celebrating when he describes the nation returned from exile and restored to its original dignity as a beautifully adorned bride (Isaiah 61. 10-11, 62.1-5).
We must turn to Jeremiah for a slightly different angle. His description of the desolate cities of those who have broken faith with God poignantly mentions one particular absence: there will be no song of the bridegroom and bride (Jeremiah 7.34, 16.9, 25.10; Baruch 2.23).
Not until the nation is purified will the bridal song ring out again (Jeremiah 33.6-16). That marriage will be the sign of a new covenant, when a “righteous branch” will spring from the house of David and the nation will be known by a new name, “the Lord our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 33.16).
Purification returns us to the water jars, placed ready for the performance of a traditional rite. Brendan Byrne suggests that in changing the contents of the jars into wine, Jesus begins “a far deeper ‘purification’ of human life that will renew relations with God” (Life Abounding, Liturgical Press, 2014).
Jesus has himself submitted to the baptism of John, which, in the light of a “discussion about purification” which arises once Jesus himself is baptising (John 3.22-28), suggests that Jesus, who did not need to be purified, nevertheless inhabited his humanity without claiming special exceptions.
His next recorded act after the wedding at Cana is to cleanse the Temple (John 2.13-17). His conversation with Nicodemus moves away from purification, but continues an interest in water: he insists that entry into the Kingdom depends on new birth “of water and Spirit” (John 3.5).
To the Samaritan woman at the well, he offers living water, not as a labour-saving mechanism, but as an image of the true worship of a Messiah who will speak to God’s people face to face (John 4.7-15, 22-26). Finally, a soldier will pierce his side as he dies on the cross, releasing a stream of water and blood (John 20.31-35).
The miracle at Cana begins the work of the Spirit which John says will be Jesus’s distinctive gift to the world (John 1.33). Embodying all the Spirit’s gifts in himself, he models their use for his followers (1 Corinthians 12.1-11). He changes the time-honoured conventions of wedding celebrations; he changes identity from guest to bridegroom (John 3.29); he produces the best wine as if from nowhere.
In short, he exhibits the glory of God in the midst of human life. Sunday’s collect dares to pray that those who see the glory will themselves experience the grace-filled renewal of the ordinariness of their lives. We may resemble the water jars, but the potential of what we carry is great (2 Corinthians 4.7).