Today, we’re taking a little liturgical detour. Since the beginning of Advent, we’ve gone merrily along, following the gospel of Saint Luke, when suddenly—whoops! —we’re into the gospel of Saint John. Like many detours, this one requires us to shift gears. Remember that John’s is a mystical—a liturgical—gospel, mining the narratives for spiritual depth and bringing life to the sacraments of the Church. So, we’re asked to pause here and search out the deeper truths hidden beneath the words of the gospel so that they can come to life again for us today.
As I read the gospel, I asked myself why the liturgical redactors chose to interrupt our passage through Luke’s gospel narrative this way. I think the answer lies in the Epiphany—Jesus’s manifestation to the world as the Messiah, the Christ. What began in the manger in Bethlehem matured and became fully present at Jesus’s baptism—which we celebrated last week—and appeared again, at a still greater level, in the first of Jesus’s signs, or miracles: the wedding feast of Cana. It makes sense to connect Jesus’s manifestation at his baptism with his manifestation at Cana, even though only Saint John’s gospel reports it.
How John chose to arrange his gospel also gives us clues about why he chose to include this event. The gospel, of course, begins with the Prologue that echoes the Book of Genesis, and after that, John presents us with John the Baptist, his disciple Andrew and his brother Peter, then Jesus’s disciples, Philip and Nathaniel. John presents this section after the Prologue in the context of four days. On day one, John the Baptist tells the crowd the Messiah is coming. On day two, John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the Messiah. On day three, the Baptist’s disciple, Andrew gets his brother, Peter, and they go to find Jesus. On day four, Jesus calls Philip, and Philip goes and gets Nathaniel. It’s at this point, that John gives us the wedding at Cana. The passage begins, “On the third day, there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee.” I don’t know why the redactors left off “On the third day,” because, as we’re about to see, it’s important.
The chronology is significant. After the Prologue, John gives us four days with John the Baptist and Jesus’s first disciples. Then, three more days takes us to the wedding feast. It’s impossible not to make the connection between the Prologue and the eternal Word through whom all things were created and the seven days that followed, leading up to Jesus’s first sign. In John’s mystical, symbolic way, he’s showing us the manifestation of a new creation, superseding the old one—a creation not of a material universe, but of Spirit and truth, ḥesed we emeṭ, God’s enduring love. And, just as the first creation story led to God’s rest—the sabbath, the sacrament of the Jewish faith—so, this new creation leads up to the first of Jesus’s signs.
Going further, it’s not too much of a stretch to make the connection between the waters of chaos over which the Spirit of God moved, bringing to birth all that is, and the six stone water jars at Cana, filled to the brim. In both narratives, the Spirit effects a transformation, and, in both cases, the spiritual transformation is more important than the physical one. John does not call the transformation of the water a “miracle.” Instead, he calls it a sign, pointing to Jesus’s transformational power working through his actions. They are sacramental actions.
If we continue our search, we’ll find that there’s yet another layer of meaning here. Jesus’s first sign takes place in the context of a wedding feast. Several times, we hear Jesus saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…a wedding feast.” By locating this sign at a wedding, Saint John is giving us a peek into heaven—a new creation where the ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary. Water is transformed into wine. The Christians for whom John is writing couldn’t help but call to mind, “In the same way, after the supper, he took the cup [of wine], saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.’” [1 Corinthians 11:25] From that perspective, we can see why those three days between the call of the first disciples and the wedding feast are so important. They prefigure the three days that Jesus lay in the tomb before his Resurrection.
As if that’s not enough, there’s one further connection between the eucharist celebrating Christ’s Passover from death to life and this wedding feast. It’s the presence of Jesus’s mother, Mary. “Woman,” he said to her, “how does your concern affect me?” Calling Mary “woman” was in no way disparaging her. At that time, “woman” was a more formal way for a man to address a woman. But, as such, it would have been unusual for Jesus to address his mother formally like that—unless, of course, Saint John was trying to make a point. The one other time that Jesus addressed his mother as “woman” was from the cross, when he said, “Woman, there is your son; son, there is your mother.” [John 19:26] So, once more, the wedding feast and the eucharistic sacrifice are connected.
What can we take away from all this? Every aspect of John’s gospel that we’ve looked at has spoken to us of transformation. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, everything is transformed. We become a new creation. Our blood, sweat and tears are transformed into “the blood of the new and everlasting covenant that will be shed for you and for all” to deliver us from futility and death. When we present our needs to the Lord, as Mary did, and trust that the Lord will care for us, then wonderful things will happen. Our needs are transformed into gifts. We may not recognize these gifts right away because, like wine in stone water jars, they most often come to us in ways we weren’t expecting. But, when we do recognize them, we’ll see, like the wine at the wedding feast, they’re far more and better than we could have hoped for. Every prayer answered, every grace received, is a sign—a sacrament—no less miraculous than drawing fine wine out of water jars.
What do we bring to the altar today? We bring the bread of our earthly hungers and the work of our hands for survival. We bring the grapes of our hopes and dreams, crushed and fermented and the water of our blood, sweat and tears. We give them to the Lord to do with them what he will. They’re returned to us, transformed into the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation.