January 17, 2015

Today we hear the first miracle that Jesus performs in the Gospel of John. In Matthew, the first act of ministry performed by Jesus is the Sermon on the Mount. In Mark, it is an exorcism. In Luke, it is a sermon in the synagogue. But in John, the first act of ministry performed by Jesus is that he turns water into wine. This miracle launches a series of signs that Jesus performs including:

–Healing a paralyzed person,

–Feeding a crowd of five thousand,

–Walking across water,

–Healing a blind man,

–Raising Lazarus from the dead, and

–Washing the disciples' feet.

Why does Jesus start out his ministry supplying wine for a party? Why not do something, well, a little more significant? Take into account the situation, though. We have here a first-century Jewish wedding in a village named Cana, just down the road from Nazareth. Weddings there were an even bigger deal than they are now. For one thing, they had little competition. These folks did not have sports teams, television, movie theaters, or video games. They did have weddings, which were the best things going for entertainment.

And a wedding didn't last for a few hours. It went on for seven days and the entire community was invited. Wine was essential to these weddings.

So this young couple, just married, ran out of wine in the middle of their wedding feast. What a disappointment! What a disaster! Everybody will be talking about it! Fifty years from now, when they totter in to celebrate their golden anniversary, some gray-haired smart-aleck will whisper, "I remember their wedding. They ran out of wine!"

Among the guests is Mary, the mother of Jesus along with him and a group of his followers. She notices when the last wine jug is emptied and wants to forestall a social disaster, a blot on the future of this fine young couple. She brings the matter to Jesus' attention. Jesus seems to shrug off the matter. But Mary tells the wait staff to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. The moment is fast approaching when this joyous wedding celebration is about to crash into the brick wall of social disaster. So Jesus acts. He tells the wait staff to fill with water a half dozen big stone jars and drag them over to the banquet manager.

Perhaps the wait staff are anxious over the sudden shortage of wine and willing to welcome a strange suggestion. So they fill up those jars––the size of small barrels––and roll them over to the banquet manager, who by this time is sweating bullets and wondering what new career he should pursue.

Curious about what's in the jars, he takes a sip. It's wine! Really good wine! Not the sort that comes with a screw top, but the wine that appears on fancy menus at an outrageous price, and most of us wonder who buys the stuff! This Cana vintage, only a few minutes old, is really good wine, and there's enough to float a boat, the equivalent of some 750 bottles.

The banquet manager orders the wait staff to decant this wine and start filling glasses as though their lives depend on it. Breathing a deep sigh of relief, he bends over and speaks in the groom's ear a remark about how it's strange that he's saved the best wine until so late in the game. Again, it's an odd way to launch a ministry. Or is it?

What Jesus does is an act of compassion, meeting the needs of people where they are. But something more is going on here, something that concerns everybody, not just those in need of immediate help.

John's Gospel speaks of this episode as a sign, one in a series of signs about Jesus found in that Gospel. When we look at the wedding episode or any of the other signs in John, what stands out is: some people understand their significance, and some people don't.

Assess the cast of characters at the wedding celebration. Mary and the disciples and the wait staff apparently catch on to the wonder of water changed into wine. On the other hand, the banquet manager, the groom and his bride, and most of their guests apparently don't have a clue about what's going on. Yet the wine is there for them as well as for the others. Signs of God appear all around us. They happen whether or not we acknowledge them. They benefit us whether or not we notice them. Yet it's a joy to see these signs for what they are and believe in the one to whom they point.

What we think of as miracles are not weird exceptions to the orderly laws of the universe. They have the same origin as those laws. Indeed, they teach us the context of those laws. Consider what George Macdonald says in this regard:

"The miracles of Jesus were the ordinary works of his father,

wrought small and swift that we might take them in."

Or consider some words of St. Augustine about this morning's Gospel:

"He who made the wine that day at the marriage feast

does this every year in vines.

But we do not wonder at the latter because it happens every year;

it has lost its marvel by its constant occurrence."

To grow in grace means to become increasingly aware that everything in life is a miracle, a sign pointing to Christ. As St. Basil says:

"All the objects in the world are an invitation to faith."

Perhaps the Cana story appears first in the Gospel of John because in reality the world is a wedding celebration. Here Jesus transforms the water of ordinariness into the wine of miracles. All benefit from these transformations, though some know the cause of them, and others do not. To share our faith means letting others know that God’s love is abundant.

So Cana continues. It continues not simply at this table, this feast of grace, but also when we leave here to encounter God active throughout the world. Not only here, but there as well he changes the ordinariness that wearies us into the wonder that renews us and makes us glad.

So look eagerly, look intently, and you will find the signs of Christ everywhere in the world. He has saved the best wine until now.