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3rd Sunday of Epiphany

19 January 2018


Genesis 14.17-20; Psalm 128; Revelation 19.6-10; John 2.1-11


JESUS visits Cana immediately after gathering his first disciples (John 1.35-51). As Jean Vanier observes, another religious leader might have led new followers into the desert for a spiritual experience, or to a school to deepen their knowledge of the scriptures (Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John). Jesus, however, takes them to a week of feasting in an obscure Galilean village. There he reveals himself, and the nature of his mission, in a miracle of transformation.

At Cana, as throughout the Gospels, Jesus enters fully into the joys and sorrows of those around him. Elsewhere, he is criticised for being a “drunkard”, and keeping unrespectable company (Matthew 11.19). He also spends much time in quiet prayer, and is deeply immersed in the scriptures. But he does not use these times of retreat to evade the realities of daily life: rather, they inform and intensify his engagement with it.

For the Fourth Evangelist, the physical and spiritual are woven together. The word is always enfleshed. Therefore the physical details of the story are the key to its deeper meaning. That message, in turn, has implications for our material relationships.

The feasting at Cana would have lasted for about a week. Such celebrations were times of great revelry: the Aramaic word for “wedding feast” has the same roots as the word for “drink”.

While many residents of Galilee were involved in the production of wine, they could afford to drink it only on very special occasions. The bridegroom and his family would have saved for a long time to put on such a feast (Gerard Sloyan, Interpretation Bible Commentary: John). Running out of wine at your wedding was one of the most powerful ways in which poverty became a cause of shame.

Mary, presumably aware of these dynamics, implores her son to act when the wine runs out. The exchange between Jesus and his mother is brusque. This signifies a move from the obedience that Jesus showed his family while he lived in Nazareth (cf. Luke 2.51) to a public ministry based entirely on obedience to his heavenly Father.

When Jesus tells his mother that his hour has not yet come, he is both indicating the dependence of all his actions on the will of the Father and connecting the miracle he is about to work with the mystery of the Cross. “This hour is not yet come; that is the first thing that needs to be said. But Jesus has the power to anticipate this ‘hour’ in a mysterious sign” (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth).

Jesus’s action quietly transforms the situation of his host, restoring dignity to one of many Galilean families living in the shadow of scarcity and shame. The shortage of wine is known about by only a few people: the servants, Jesus, Mary, and his disciples. Jesus’s discretion saves the bridegroom and his family from public humiliation. Here, as elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus’s exaltation does not come at the expense of those around him.

While its immediate effect is to rescue his host from shame, the miracle at Cana heralds a far greater work of transformation. As the eucharistic preface for this season expresses it:

In the water made wine
the new creation was revealed at the wedding feast.
Poverty was turned to riches, sorrow into joy.

The water at Cana is in jars for ritual purification. Their transformation points us to the new wine of the Kingdom: the blood that will be poured out when Jesus’s “hour” finally comes. This blood itself effects the most fundamental change of all. Fallen humanity is purified in an act that it can receive only as a sheer, unmerited gift. Because of Christ’s self-offering, sinful human beings can become his spotless bride (cf. Revelation 19.9).

This miracle both echoes and foreshadows the Last Supper. Each is a moment of transformation. Each directs our gaze to the very heart of Jesus’s mission: the “hour” of the Cross, which sets us free from sin and draws us into union with God.

At Cana, at his last supper, and at each celebration of the eucharist, Jesus reveals himself in deeds as well as words. These actions summon us to bear witness to him in our daily, material relationships, so that the abundant love of God is made known in a world still held captive by scarcity and shame.

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