Marriage at Cana, Jan Steen, 1676, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA, USA.
“Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.” John 2:10
Taking a look at Jan Steen’s picture above of today’s gospel scene, it shows a 17th century group of people clearly having a good time! Jesus looks a little grumpy in the left background but his mother is well and truly in charge, standing next to him telling him what to do. A very Jewish mother/son picture it seems to me! A grown-up Jesus unwillingly (“my hour has not yet come…”) doing what his mother is telling him to do. And all this in the gospel of John, always taken as the most spiritual, difficult to grasp and ineffable of the gospels. Apparently not this time! This first of Jesus’ miracles (though John always calls them “signs”) is so human that it must win over the reader immediately. And if Cana was anything like the today’s somewhat impoverished town, the people probably could not believe their good fortune when they tasted the new wine.
But we are talking about the gospel of John here. It is the most challenging of the four, and so there has to be a much greater depth here than my superficial reading of it. Inevitably, the scholars have combed through this passage and found incredible meaning and significance way beyond people having a good time. For example, consider the water for Jewish purification which is transformed into the finest wine. The significance here is “purification”. Christians believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah. What was written down through the ages is now transformed into the person of Jesus, hence the water of purification in today’s gospel is transformed into the life-giving person of the Lord disguised as the best wine; and bearing in mind we are told these jars each held 20-30 gallons, the abundance of wine makes much more sense, echoing the abundance of the purifying presence of the Lord at all times, everywhere. The stone Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest place in the Jewish world (the Western Wall of which is still the holiest place for Jews) is transformed into the body of Christ, and worship moves from the physical limits of the Temple into the universal spiritual worship of the body and blood of Christ anywhere in the world. So, “All the previous religious institutions, customs and feasts lose meaning in his presence” (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, Doubleday & Co., 1966, p.104).
Additionally, the presence of Jesus’ mother, addressed as “Woman” by Jesus (never called Mary in John’s gospel) is considered highly significant. If you look at the Book of Revelation, traditionally also ascribed to John, there is the figure of a woman which is central to the drama of the end times. Recall also the fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:15) where there is war declared between the evil serpent and the “woman”. In Revelation, the great dragon turns on her as she brings forth the Messiah, the ultimate victor. Hence Eve, presumably the first mother, and Mary, mother of the Messiah, are linked in the imagery of John, and in the language used by Jesus. To broaden it, Brown states clearly that “we believe that the Johannine stress is on Mary as a symbol of the Church” (p.109).
So John is no simple story-teller. His is the deepest, most revelatory of the gospels, difficult to understand, and having a depth of meaning still providing revelations to the experts 2000 years later. Other signs in John suggest the same explosive transformation of the old revelations into the new. The multiplication of the loaves in the sixth chapter of John twins with the wine of today’s gospel, culminating in the consecrated bread and wine of the Last Supper, and of every Mass. And so we could go on and on. Hence on many levels, today’s gospel is food for the mind, soul and body. Perhaps the Lord is inviting us to examine our gifts from God, and use them to transform our world for the better. To multiply our efforts, generosity, care of others and so leave this world in much better condition than we found it. With God’s grace, we should at least try.
Benedictine Abbey, site of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, Summer 2018, Tabgha, Galilee, Israel.