This is the time of year that finds us exploring the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. Each Gospel has a different take. Mark tells of teaching, casting out demons and healing. Matthew relates teaching, healing, and preaching a sermon from a mountain top. In Luke we hear a sermon preached in Nazareth that riled the assembly so much they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. And John? John begins at a wedding.
The wedding was at Cana, a village in Galilee. It sounds like a typical wedding. Lots of joy, celebration, and some fairly heavy use of the fermented grape. It’s likely the whole village was there, as well as the extended families on both sides of the marriage. Weddings, in those days, in that part of the world, celebrated more than the joining of two people. They were about building relationships, alliances and covenants between families. At Cana, Jesus’ family was being joined with another. The celebration would go on for days.
And then, unthinkably, the wine ran out. Unthinkable on so many levels. For the host family to run out of wine in the middle of a celebration as important as a wedding would have meant a loss of standing in the community. In a culture steeped in traditions of honour and shame, that loss of standing would have affected every member of the family. Suitable marriages and opportunities to build other alliances might have dried up along with the wine. No wonder Jesus’ mother called on him to take steps. Filling in the role of eldest female relative, she tells the servants to follow his instructions as he acts to rescue the family honour from the brink of disaster.
An audience hearing this story in Jesus’ time would have grasped the implications instinctively. On the edge of their seats as they heard it play out, they would know that only a miracle could save the family now. Jesus prolongs the tension by refusing to comply. Asserting his own authority he tells his mother he’ll be the one to decide when it’s time to step in and save the day. And then he tells the servants to fill the purification vessels. His ministry begins. The miracle is underway.
As miracles should, it shifts the scene from the literal to the metaphorical, from a covenant made and upheld between families in the sight and heart of God, to an ancient covenant made between the people and God. The faith symbolized in the rituals practiced with the purification waters is revitalized with the wine they now bear to the people. The wedding host is astounded. This wine is richer, stronger, better than anything served before. Why didn’t the family lay this out at the beginning and serve the less expensive brands later on, when the guests were too inebriated to know the difference?
So there we have it. A wedding, a covenant between families and God that saw two people and their extended families join in fate and destiny, used as the ground of understanding that framed the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel according to John. A faith that had become more about rite and ritual than commitment and understanding was given a taste of a heady and powerful Spirit. A Spirit that would give new life, new energy and a renewed covenant to an aching and yearning people.
In our time and place we too might be seen to be seeking a miracle. Wanting Jesus to step in and beef up the wine, enhance the Spirit, rebuild the faith. Where’s Mary when you need her to tell her son to get the job done and save the family from disaster? Where are the vessels, how would we fill them, and how would Jesus use them, when we did?
Keith Simmonds is a diaconal minister in the Communities in Faith Pastoral Charge serving Beaver Valley, Rossland, Salmo and Trail.