Now that the liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas are over we begin what is prosaically called Ordinary Time. This year is, of course, the year of Luke’s Gospel. But for reasons that might become clear we begin with the story of the first miracle as recorded in the Gospel of John.
It is a story that we know so well. But I was astonished to realise that this Second Sunday of Year C is the unique occasion in the three-year cycle that it comes up as one of the Sunday Gospels. Otherwise about the only time we would hear this important Gospel is at a wedding.
And it is an important Gospel. It is not only the first miracle, or as John calls it ‘the first of the signs given by Jesus,’ but is Jesus’ first revelation of his glory. As John says: ‘He let his glory be seen and his disciples believed in him.’
John’s account of these events is very carefully crafted and loaded with significance. Almost every phrase is layered with different levels of meaning and this text provides ample material for hours of fruitful meditation. Try it sometime.
But today let us just take a look at perhaps the most memorable of all the lines in this Gospel: You have kept the good wine till now.
These words make perfect sense in the context of the account of the miracle and we could hardly think of a better expression. And, of course, it is a phrase that has entered the language of almost every Christian country.
But this phrase also has a much deeper meaning since it refers to Christ himself. The prophets and holy men that went before him, right back to the time of Adam, were all excellent messengers of God. But none can compare with Christ, God’s own Son. He is the best wine of all.
There is no other who can compare with him, not in the importance of his message, the sublimeness of his words, the grace of his actions or in any other way.
We know that, because of our obtuseness, God revealed himself to mankind only very gradually over many centuries of history. As mankind grew and developed over the generations, as we became more cultured and educated, so God revealed more and more about himself and about what he expected of us.
He took us through this process by easy stages, as and when we were capable. He did this through the prophets and many other agents. So unteachable were we that he had to repeat particular lessons over and over again.
For example, early on he demonstrated his power by overthrowing the enemies of Israel in battle, enabling them to win improbable victories. This is something that today we can hardly comprehend but which was certainly in those days the only way the people came to realise that God had singled them out and intended to give them his protection.
Later on when the People of Israel had grown more sophisticated in their understanding and appreciation of God he used gentler methods. Remember the story of Elijah and how God was to be found not in the blasts of the mighty storm but in the gentle zephyr.
You can trace the myriad of ways God used to reveal himself in the pages of the Old Testament. But when all was ready, he finally and definitively revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ, his only Son. And in Christ our understanding of what kind of God we have is brought to its height.
We realise that he is a God of love and gentleness, one who is prepared to make the greatest of sacrifices in order to save us from our sins; one who wants us to love him entirely of our own volition.
In this sense Jesus certainly is the best wine. He is the fullness of the revelation of the Father.
We also realise that in this first of the signs given by Jesus the wine has a special significance. There is a clear reference to the Eucharist here.
As is often the case with the Gospels in looking at the beginning we see the end. My hour has not yet come, says Jesus. And we know which hour he is referring to—the moment when his mission of salvation comes to its fruition on the Cross of Calvary.
In the Last Supper wine is taken and given to us in commemoration of the pouring out of his blood on the Cross. Of course, when we say commemoration we do not mean commemoration in the same way as we would commemorate a birthday or an anniversary. What we understand is that the Last Supper is made present to us in a real way. The elements of bread and wine become the body and blood of the Lord. We enter in to the Eucharistic sacrifice.
The transformation of water into wine at Cana prefigures the transformation at the Last Supper of wine into the blood of our Saviour. John understands these things well; he was there at Cana, and three years later he stood at the foot of the Cross. It was he, alone among the apostles, who kept faith with Christ when his hour had finally come
This first of the signs given by Jesus was given at Cana in Galilee—at a wedding. And how fitting this was for the wedding of that anonymous couple symbolises the far greater marriage that was taking place—the marriage between heaven and earth, between Christ and his Church
God chooses not to show the depth of his love and care for us by slaying thousands of Amalekites or Philistines but through the sacrifice of his own dear Son
We wondered why there was a sudden switch from Luke to John just for this Sunday in the year. The reason is that the Early Christians understood fairly quickly that there were actually four manifestations of Christ:
1) his birth at Bethlehem—the Nativity,
2) his being made manifest to the wise men, the first Gentiles to acknowledge him as the Messiah—the Epiphany,
3) his Baptism by John in the River Jordan, which inaugurated his public ministry and during which the Father’s voice is heard acknowledging his Son,
and 4) his changing of water into wine at the Marriage Feast of Cana.
This was his first miracle and directly because of it, as we are told, his first group of disciples believed in him. Up to that point they only had the word of John the Baptist but now having witnessed this extraordinary transformation of water into wine they truly believe in him. In this it is just as an important manifestation of Jesus as the others.
You will not expect me to finish this brief look at the Marriage Feast of Cana without remarking on the extraordinary quantity of water that Jesus transformed into wine. Lets say the six water jars each held 25 gallons of water, that’s 150 imperial gallons—turn that into litres. There’s 75 centilitres in a bottle, so multiply by a hundred and divide by 75. I did the sums once and it works out at over 900 bottles of wine!
Now, remembering that all the wine that had been provided by the host was already consumed, this was something extraordinarily generous. Getting away from the undoubted joy of the wedding guests, what we see here is an astonishing demonstration of the overwhelming love that God has for us, his people.
This first of the signs given by Jesus provides us with the pattern for all the other miracles and indeed for all of the dealings between God and his people. It is a pattern of overwhelming and undeserved generosity; going so far as to pay, as the price for our sins, the life of Jesus his Son.
Our only possible response to this is to praise him, to bless his name and to try our best to live the kind of life that he wants us to live so be enabled to enter into glory with him for ever.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket