Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/QpLa9i_cueY
St Mary’s Day John 2:1-12
I chose this narrative of the Wedding at Cana to read today because it is a very interesting text, while being a very familiar story, and I think it reveals more about Jesus and more about the relationship between Jesus and Mary than any other that we have. The problem with this text is that it throws up more questions than answers. A key to unlocking the mysteries of this text and indeed this miracle, is found in verse 11. The gospel writer speaking here as the narrator, tells us that Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. OK- so firstly this story of a miracle is a sign- we are to read it not literally as being about a lot of wine being drunk at a party, but we are to look for the inner meanings that point to God’s glory. The reveals who Jesus is- he is God, the glorious one and the response that it is meant to engender is also spelled out for us- we are to believe. But for John, unlike Mark for example, it is not enough to hear of a miracle and say, ‘oh well, that means that Jesus is God’- no there is a lot more to it than that. John gives us a whole lot of pointers and some are about time and some are about place.
This wedding takes place, or rather begins, on the third day. Now, from the context it is impossible to say what third day it is. Of course, we immediately hear a resonance, on the third day he “rose again from the dead”, so this immediately gives us a post-resurrection context for this story. And yet, in Jesus’ own reference to time he says that his “hour has not yet come”. I think this tension between the now and the not yet is important because this Wedding feast that becomes one revealing the abundant grace of God is part of the eschatological Wedding banquet, so the banquet in the end days which announces the Kingdom of God.
The place is also important, Jesus is back in Galilee, not the Jewish heartland of Judea from whence Jesus has recently come, bringing with him the first disciples, and it is important to note that in terms of the narrative these disciples barely know Jesus, so the fact that at the end of the story they believe in him is important.
The place, Galilee, stresses the fact that the banquet will be for everyone, gentiles included, not just the most noble Jews. So that is the setting for the action in which God’s glory will be revealed. And in the large cast of characters we have two who bear an equal weight in the action here, that is Mary and Mary’s son, Jesus. Because that’s the way around that they appear- Mary is invited to the wedding and Jesus and his disciples tag along with them. In this introductory bit Mary doesn’t seem necessarily very important, except for the order of things which is always important- Mary was there and so was Jesus. But as the narrative goes on Mary assumes quite a bit of importance- first of all she feels it incumbent upon her to do something about the lack of wine, and then she gives the servants orders. She is not taking a back seat here. Now whether this speaks of her being actively involved- maybe she was aunty or something, or whether it is just because she was an important woman in the village- the president of the CWA for example, we can’t be sure but she is certainly not a nonentity in this narrative. And her sphere of influence includes her son.
This relationship between Mary and Jesus has been understood in the Roman Catholic church as a mandate for prayer to Mary as a go-between. Mary asks Jesus to do something and he does, therefore we should use that same conduit to get results. I find this quite problematic for a number of reasons, not least the textual evidence.
Mary comes to Jesus and tells him that they have no wine- this is the language of scarcity- there is not enough. Now Jesus’ reply is tricky on two counts, and a lot of ink has been spilt over it. Firstly he calls her “Woman” not “Mother”. Now what are we to make of this? Is he being just plain surly? As one commentator said, he could feel a slapped face coming on. Some commentators seek to mitigate Jesus’ putative rudeness by translating it other ways, “Donna”, or “Ma’am” or “Senõra”. I think the argument that John wants us to see Mary, not as Jesus’ mother but as the archetypal woman, mother of us all, that is Eve, makes much more sense. This story is about far more than a domestic scene. If Mary becomes Eve, then Jesus is the new Adam, remember what St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “For as all die in Adam, so will all be made alive in Christ”. Mary/Eve is part of the old kingdom, and Jesus is the new wine, that will be poured out as a drink offering for the salvation of us all. Then he says something that is translated as “what concern is that to you and to me”, this is a common idiomatic phrase, which is a bit like, “It’s not our problem” or perhaps “whatever” and then he tells her that his hour has not yet come. Now, this suggest all kinds of things- firstly whenever John uses the phrase “his hour”, it relates to Jesus glory being revealed, mostly on the cross. And so when Jesus does this miracle he is preempting, or foreshadowing his glory- it is the first revelation of glory as John tells us. Now the conversation reveals a couple of things- one is that Jesus had not gone there thinking that this was going to be the beginning of the revelation, and that he expects Mary to know what he means- there is a kind of intimacy about this exchange and that intimacy is continued in Mary’s assumption that he will act, and indeed in the very last verse which tells us that when they went on their way they went together. This is Mary the Mother knowing her son better than he knows himself. She knows that compassion will overrule his sense of what is supposed to happen. We see this same impulse in Matthew’s account of the Canaanite woman who asks him to cure her daughter, he tells her that it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs but she argues with him and he relents- his compassion triumphs over what he thinks is the right thing to do, at that moment, and somehow Mary knows this about him. She doesn’t however go away completely sure that he will- the Greek is in the subjunctive, more like, “If he asks you to do something, do it.” But Jesus does and turns a huge quantity of water into wine. There are all kinds of symbolic things happening here, the water that is to be used for the OT rites of purification is transformed into the new wine of the Kingdom, and notice it is not that old wine gets made into new wine- no the transformation is from a set of rules, into joy and abundance, and freedom. Jesus is enabling them not to perform some ritual that requires purity, but to celebrate with an outpouring of grace. The water, is replaced with wine, which will then become a symbol of blood, and it is Mary and her initiative that causes this to be the first moment of glimpsing Jesus generous grace.
So the question is, what does it tell us about Mary and what does it tell us about ourselves? The first thing is that she is theotokos, the God bearer, and this gives her a special relationship with her son. And you know we are also God bearers, if we are indwelt by the Spirit of God. But at the same time as being the mother of God she is also Eve the archetypal human being who can only be redeemed by this son of hers, the new Adam. And that is true for us as well, we are living in the now and the not yet, simultaneously sinful human beings and new creations made in God’s image. And our relationship with God is both the intimacy of family and the worship of the splendor and majesty that is God. It was through Mary’s human efforts that God’s glory was revealed, she was an important part of the process, she asked God and God’s glory shone out.
Something else that is important about this story is that Jesus is not here healing someone sick or providing the food for 5,000 hungry people, he is pouring out a huge quantity of wine for a party because the celebrations of life are important too. Celebration is part of the way that relationships hang together and God is a God of joy and beauty and pleasure. God thought that this wedding feast was important and through the provision of wine he enabled great joy. And this wine was not just any wine- it was special because the things of God’s creation are beautiful and wonderful no matter what kind of jars they come in.
So as we celebrate the feast of Mary today, we should remember her in her complexity- Mother to the savior of us all, and as human and flawed woman. She has been the first of us to hold the Christ in our hearts, and the first to ask him to do something for others. I am sure she will be a guest of honour at the great wedding feast that is the kingdom of God.