The Wedding at Cana
Genesis 14.17-20 Psalm 128 John 2.1-11
Last week, President Biden marked his inauguration with a speech in which he quoted St Augustine, not Augustine of Canterbury, but Augustine of Hippo. He lived in the late fourth and early fifth century at a time of political turmoil in the Roman Empire. Later on in his life, he wrote a great treatise called the City of God. President Biden quoted Augustine when he described a people as ‘a multitude defined by the common objects of their love’ – words which provoke some further reflection on what we might mean when we speak of the common good.
Augustine may have been surprised to hear his words quoted by such a powerful figure. He was the Bishop of a small provincial town in the Roman province of Numidia in North Africa, modern day Algeria. Week by week he would preach to his congregation, and Augustine has left us with a number of sermons on the gospel passage which we have just heard, the Wedding at Cana.
The intriguing thing about Augustine’s sermons on this passage is that for him it is not the miraculous element of this story that is significant, but its symbolism. He says this: ‘The miracle of our Lord, Jesus Christ, by which he made wine from water is certainly no wonder for those who know that God did it. For he, the very one who every year does this on vines, made wine on that day at the wedding in those six water jars, which he ordered to be filled with water. For just as what the attendants put into the water jars was turned into wine by the Lord’s effort so also what the clouds pour down is turned into wine by the effort of the same Lord. But that does not amaze us because it happens every year; by its regularity it has lost its wonderment. Yet it merits even greater reflection than that which was done in the water jars’ (Augustine, Tract. Ev. Joh. 8.1).
Augustine is picking up on the fact that John describes in his gospel not simply a succession of miraculous events but a series of signs. At the end of the passage we have heard, John says ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’. The signs mean something. They convey something. They reveal his glory.
Now a health warning. There is a tendency to read this story in entirely supersessionist terms, simply contrasting those stone jars of the Old Jewish Law with the new wine of the Kingdom. When John refers to ‘the Jews’, we can forget too easily that John is himself Jewish. His theological imagination is shaped by this inheritance of faith, and the gospel is full of the language and imagery of the Old Testament. That imagery may help us to make sense of this story.
There is a density of meaning in this story that goes beyond the recollection or a rather embarrassing and unsuccessful wedding banquet when the hosts ran out of wine. The clue to its meaning lies in three key words.
The first word: ‘glory’. When John speaks of ‘glory’ in the course of his gospel, he is drawing on language and imagery which pervades the Old Testament. The ‘glory of the Lord’ refers to the presence of God. There is a particular exchange at the heart of the story of the Wedding at Cana between Jesus and Mary his mother. We tend to get stuck on the rather abrupt and almost dismissive response of Jesus when Mary tells him that they have no wine: ‘What concern is that to you and to me?’ but then he says, ‘My hour has not yet come’ (John 2.4). Now John’s gospel is very carefully crafted. And later in the gospel, in chapter 17, just before the passion narrative unfolds, Jesus says, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you’ (John 17.1). The ‘hour’ is John’s shorthand for describing the passion and crucifixion, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the mystery at the heart of John’s account of the incarnation. Again and again, he points forward to the mystery of Easter, to the revelation of divine love on the cross, and to the promise of eternal life in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is there at the moment that Jesus says, ‘It is finished’, in that hour, that moment of epiphany, that the glory of God is revealed. And that moment is anticipated in some mysterious way in this sign.
The second word: ‘bridegroom’. It’s always struck me as rather odd that a story which ostensibly is about a wedding that the bride hardly features at all. But when the servants draw the water which has become wine and offer it to the chief steward, the steward tastes it and calls the bridegroom and says, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now’. In the Old Testament, prophets like Hosea and Jeremiah and Isaiah use the image of a betrothal or a marriage between God and Israel to talk about the renewal of the Covenant. In the New Testament, the wedding-feast is a symbol of the coming of salvation, the fulfilment of time. The ‘bridegroom’ almost always refers to Jesus Christ, and a little later in chapter 3, John the Baptist will refer to the Messiah in precisely those terms. Here in chapter 2, John anonymizes the bridegroom. We’ve no idea who he is – some bloke in Cana. But the words uttered by the steward could so easily be addressed to Jesus himself. As the rabbis who looked forward to the coming Messiah put it, ‘This world is like a betrothal… but the actual marriage ceremony will take place in the Messianic days’ (Midrash R. Exod. 15.20). The bridegroom is the Messiah. The messianic banquet points to a future of which are present lives are but a shadow.
Finally, the third word: ‘wine’. They have no wine. Not the greatest wedding – but as the story unfolds, we shouldn’t imagine for a moment that this extraordinary abundance of wine – gallons of it – is simply about providing a copious amount of alcohol. This is really fine wine. This is the best wine. In the Old Testament, wine is a symbol of wisdom, of holy wisdom, of divine revelation. The first century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, wrote of the passage we heard from Genesis: ‘Let Melchizedek instead of water offer wine, and give to souls strong drink, that they may be seized by a divine intoxication, more sober than sobriety itself’ (Leg. All. 3.26.82). In his sermon, St Augustine makes exactly the same connection between wine and wisdom.
So what is John telling us here? What does this sign signify? There isn’t enough wine. That perhaps describes our predicament rather well. It is not that there is no joy in life, but that the joy there is leads us to want more. And yet so many of the good things in life seem short-lived. They seem so fleeting. Our lives are filled with expectations so easily shattered: ‘It’ll all end in tears’. ‘Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live’. The story of a wedding celebration, where there is some drink but not quite enough, seems to speak to us as we contemplate the experience of the current lockdown. We do not know what is coming next. We look to our religious and political leaders. Wisdom seems to be in short supply. We might be forgiven for imagining that the wine is running out.
But not too fast. The glory which is revealed at the Wedding at Cana is this: the promise of eternal life is not some future hope to console us in the dim and distant future. The gift of eternal life speaks of the abundance of God’s presence, right here, right now. In the Wedding at Cana, the glory is revealed, the bridegroom beckons us to sit and eat, and at this wedding feast wine is poured out abundantly, lavishly, and liberally so that we can discover again the wisdom we have lost. That is the gift which is revealed at the Wedding at Cana. It is an anticipation of the glory which is to come, just as this Eucharist is a foretaste of the glory which is to come. For as we gather round this table, we are invited to sit and eat, wine is poured out so that our hearts can be renewed by that ‘spring of love, the fount of all forgiving,’ which ‘flows when you need it, rich, abundant, free’ (Malcolm Guite), right here, right now.