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3rd Sunday of Epiphany

17 January 2019

Isaiah 62.1-5; Psalm 36.5-10; 1 Corinthians 12.1-11; John 2.1-11


WHEN the Virgin Mary draws Jesus’s attention to the fact that the wine has run out, his response seems surprisingly negative: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” It is not the only occasion when Jesus initially rebuffs a petition which he subsequently grants (cf. Mark 7.24-30).

After Jesus’s baptism, one of the ways in which Satan tempts him is to urge him to perform miracles for worldly glory, and throughout his public ministry he remains wary of this temptation. This wariness is echoed in our epistle, where Paul warns the Corinthians against an unhealthy obsession with miracles and supernatural gifts.

As Maria Pascuzzi explains, “some viewed their gifts, especially speaking in tongues, as tokens of superior spiritual status, exercised for self-aggrandisement. It is this skewed view and abusive use of the gifts that Paul rejects and seeks to correct” (New Collegeville Bible Commentary: 1 and 2 Corinthians). He reminds them that each manifestation of the Spirit is given for the “common good”.

While we can understand the reasons for Jesus’s wariness about miracle-working, the tone of his response to Mary is none the less significant. At the start of his public ministry, it indicates the separation opening up between mother and son. Mary had a foretaste of this when the 12-year-old Jesus tarried in the Temple, causing her and Joseph great anxiety (Luke 2.41-end). Although he returned home to be obedient to them, the episode intimated that a day would come when Jesus’s service of his Father would cause Mary to suffer a much greater separation — culminating at the foot of the cross, where she remains faithful even in the hour of deepest desolation.

At Cana, Mary’s response to Jesus’s words is instructive. She does not argue, but neither does she withdraw her request. Rather, she prepares the servants for a positive answer to her petition, instructing them to “Do whatever he tells you.” Her words convey a combination of obedience and expectation, qualities both evident in Luke’s depiction of Mary in his infancy narrative.

Her instruction to the servants has an application that goes far beyond this context. Pope St John Paul II writes that “The revelation made directly by the Father at the Baptism in the Jordan and echoed by John the Baptist is placed upon Mary’s lips at Cana. . . ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ This counsel is a fitting introduction to the words and signs of Christ’s public ministry.”

As Mary expects, her petition is ultimately granted. John draws our attention to the deeper significance of Jesus’s action: this is not simply a miracle which saves a wedding couple from embarrassment, it is “the first of his signs” by which he “revealed his glory”.

As St Augustine explains, this sign points forward to the eternal union of Christ with his Church. At Cana, Jesus does not upstage the unnamed bridgegroom. Only he, his disciples, and the servants know that he has stepped into the groom’s position as provider of the wine. This prefigures the part Jesus plays at the “marriage-feast of the Lamb” (Revelation 19.6-9), where he is the bridegroom of the Church and provides the wine in the form of his own life-blood. In this eternal feast — anticipated at every celebration of the eucharist — Christ does not overwhelm or cancel God’s work in creation, but brings it to completion.

Our Old Testament reading compares God’s delight and care for a “converted and purified” people with the love and intimacy of a bride and her groom. The juxtaposition of this passage with the Cana miracle “is intended to point out that Jesus blesses human marriage and elevates it to serve as an image of a completely different kind of wedding joy”. The love and intimacy of marriage offer us an “admittedly inadequate image” of the “intimate” union between Christ and his Church (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Light of the Word).

The spiritual significance of the miracle at Cana — pointing to both the eucharist and the eternal wedding-feast — is summed up in this sixth-century Syrian hymn:

Christ, as a sign of his power,
clearly changed the water into wine.
Now we all partake at the banquet in the Church;
for Christ’s blood is changed into wine,
and we drink it with holy joy,
praising the great bridegroom.

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