Wednesday, January 13, 2016


Traditionally, three events in the life of Christ have been taken to be interconnected elements in his 'Epiphany' or 'Manifestation'  -- the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, the Baptism of Jesus by John, and the Wedding at Cana. In this year of the 3-year lectionary cycle (Year C) they are recounted consecutively. Accordingly, following the Feast of Epiphany itself, and the Baptism of the Lord, the Gospel for the second Sunday after the Epiphany is John's account of the wedding at Cana. He identifies it as the first sign that Jesus did, and ends his account of what happened by making it the 'sign' that confirmed the disciples in their belief that Jesus was indeed the Messiah long awaited by the Jews.

On the surface it is a rather puzzling episode, and one that appears only in the fourth Gospel. As is characteristic of that Gospel, it is replete with allusions and symbolic references. In fact, it would be hard to find another eleven Bible verses that are as densely symbolic as these. Understanding them, and thus the episode itself, requires us to hear resonances beyond John's Gospel, not only with the other three Gospels, but with the books of the Old Testament that provide an indispensable backdrop. One critically important allusion is the concept of marriage itself, because this is used in several other places with the aim of capturing something deep and important about the intimate relationship of God to Israel; God is the bridegroom and Israel the bride. 

Wedding at Cana - He Qi
In this ordinary village wedding at Cana, however, appearances are deceptive. Jesus is not the bridegroom, just a guest. But he becomes the central figure at the wedding, because it is his action that wholly transforms the occasion. This transformation is symbolically depicted. The celebration is not at an end, but the wine runs out. The only thing left is the partially used water provided by the host for guests to ritually 'purify' themselves before the celebration began. It is this water that Jesus transforms, not only into the best wine, in what John's readers would have recognized to be vast quantities.

It is reading this 'sign' for what it said about Jesus, and not what it did to salvage a faltering wedding ceremony, that led the disciples truly to believe. Probably early readers of John could 'read' this passage more easily than the modern reader can. But the truth that the evangelist means to convey remains the same.

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