Portable Commentary

16 January 2022

Thought for the day  
The (extra)ordinary experience of “everyday” love is itself a sacrament. As such, it mediates the love of God and gives us both an experience and a language by which we make speak of God, God who is love itself.

Open our eyes to recognise you at the heart of the “everyday” love which sustains and inspires us: whoever lives in love, lives in God and God in them! Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Wedding at Cana

John 2:1   On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Initial observations
This is the opening act of the ministry in the Fourth Gospel. As such, it corresponds in some manner to accounts we find in Mark 1:14 or Luke 4:16-31. It is a foundational tableau, which sets the scene for the unfolding of Jesus’ identity in John’s gospel. In ancient tradition, the Epiphany, Baptism and Cana were all regarded as one combined revelatory event; hence John 2 is read today instead of Luke (the Gospel for the year).

Kind of writing
This story is the Johannine reception and interpretation of chiefly nuptial imagery, taken from the Hebrew Bible and the ministry and teaching of Jesus. There are historical and even theological problems with taking the story literally.
(i) It has no corresponding miracle in the Synoptic tradition. (ii) It does not follow the usual pattern of problem, encounter, request, word, healing, proof. (iii) The vocabulary is entirely Johannine. (iv) The theological “tone” is purely Johannine, with a link to the call stories, as well as a link with the Woman at the Well. (v) The role of the unnamed mother is entirely exceptional and invites reading at another level.

Old Testament background

The gospel passage uses three metaphors familiar from the Old Testament and the wider Jewish literature of the time: feast, wedding and wine.

i. Feast
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain. (Isaiah 25:6–10) Cf. Amos 9:13-14; Jer 31:12. Prov 9:1-6; Sir 24:19-21.
Also, some intertestamental literature is a help, such as:
And in those days the whole earth will be worked in righteousness, all of her planted with trees, and will find a blessing. And they shall plant pleasant trees upon her - vines. And he who plants vine upon here will produce wine for plenitude. And every seed that is sown on her, one measure will yield a thousand (measures) and one measure of olives will yield ten measures of presses of oil. (1 Enoch 10:18-19)
For at that time I shall only protect those found in this land at that time. And it will happen that when all that which should come to pass in these parts has been accomplished, the Anointed One will begin to be revealed. And Behemoth will reveal itself from its place, and leviathan will come from the sea, the two great monsters which I created on the fifth day of creation and which I shall have kept until that time. And they will be nourishment for all who are left. The earth will also yield fruits ten thousandfold. And on one vine will be a thousand branches, and one branch will produce a thousand clusters, and one cluster will produce a thousand grapes, and one grape will produce a cor of wine. (2 Baruch 29:2-5; 1 cor = 230 litres!)

ii. Wedding
Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed; do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the disgrace of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like the wife of a man’s youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:4–8; cf. Is 62:4-5; Jer 2:2. Hosea 1-2; Jer 3:1-12; Ezekiel 16 and 23; Song of Songs passim).

iii. Wine
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. (Amos 9:14; cf. Num 13:23; Is 16:10; 24:7-12; Jer 48:33; Joel 1:5, 7, 11-13; Psalm 4:7; 104:15; Amos 9:14; Is 25:6-8. Wine and love: Song 1:2,4; 2:4, 10; 5:1; 7:10; 8:2.

New Testament foreground

We recall the many parables which use the language of wedding, feast and vineyard.
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “The
wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wine-skins.” (Mark 2:18–22)
He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. (John 3:29) Cf. John 4 (a nuptial scene) plus the burial of Jesus, with echoes of the Song of Songs (19:38-42)
Marriage symbolism is taken up in John 2-4 with an important echo at the burial of Jesus.

St Paul
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:31–32)

Brief commentary

Verse 1 The time doesn’t quite link up with the other “days” and represents in some fashion the time of salvation (Ex 19:11; Gen 22:4; Hos 6:2). It may link to the “very soon” of the previous scene. The mother is present in this Gospel in symbolic role, that is, representing the mother religion (as also at the crucifixion in the Fourth Gospel only).
Verse 2 The disciples are important “witnesses” at the start and at the end. Their presence at the start and at the end also links this story to the previous call story in a significant way.
Verse 3 Lack of wine = lack of true joy. In the eyes of the writer and his community, the mother religion has run out of the source of true joy (a big theme in John and 1 John).
Verse 4 A hesitation (rejection?) is found also in the story of the royal official. Yet, the initial refusal is overcome. The hour is a strong Johannine theme and links immediately with the events of salvation. Cf. Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. (John 4:21) “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. (John 5:25) Then they tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come. (John 7:30) Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. (John 13:1)
Verse 5 Notice again that the principles (bride and groom) are not involved.
Verse 6 These enormous ritual containers stand for the Jewish faith as received and practiced. It matters that they are jars precisely for Jewish rites of purification.
Verse 7 To fill has a special use in this Gospel as well: So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. (John 6:13) This makes a link between the wine and the bread.
Verse 8 To draw (as in water) is a rare word in the NT: A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (John 4:7) The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:15) This make an important link with the other “meeting your future wife at a well” scene in this Gospel.
Verse 9 Where it came from (pothen, in Greek): this is a key word and topic across the Fourth Gospel regarding the apparent and real origins of Jesus: “Yet we know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.” (John 7:27–28) “We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” (John 9:29–30) Pilate entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” (John 19:9). The servants (= disciples) know the true origin of Jesus. It seems clear at this point Jesus himself is the real bridegroom.
Verse 10 The now is the now of salvation: But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. (John 4:23)
Verse 11 First (= archē, meaning source); sign (sēmeion, the word for miracle in the Fourth Gospel); glory (doxa, a huge theme in the Gospel. To believe is a vast theme too, occurring some 99 times: 98 times as a verb, never as a noun (interestingly) and only once as an adjective: Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” (John 20:27 lit. “be not unbelieving but believing”).

Pointers for prayer
1. The marriage imagery puts all the emphasis on love, an emphasis found richly in this Gospel, in St Paul and, of course, in Jesus’ own teaching. Go back to significant experiences of being loved and how these have opened your own heart to receive and to give in love.
2. The wine symbolises true joy in believing—a bit of a challenge these days, but central nevertheless and even life-giving. Where do you find your springs of joy?
3. “Do whatever he tells you” is a strong invitation to conformity to Christ on the path of discipleship. What have been the important points on that path? And where am I now?

God of wonders, at Cana in Galilee, you revealed your glory in Jesus Christ and summoned all humanity to life in him. Show to your people gathered on this day your transforming power and give us a foretaste of the wine you keep for the age to come.

We ask this through Jesus Christ, your Word made flesh, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, in the splendour of eternal light, God for ever and ever. Amen.