- Isaiah 62:1-5 & Psalm 36:5-10
- 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
- John 2:1-11
This week many faith communities will be settling into the EPIPHANY season, even if they do not use that language in naming the Sundays between now and Lent. The major Western lectionaries will show little variation through this period.
The ecumenical significance of this convergence in lectionaries often passes unremarked, but may be worth some reflection this week.
The following statement affirming the significance of the lectionary in shaping and sustaining a living faith comes from the Theological and Educational Foundations of the Seasons of the Spirit congregational resources:
The Bible contains meaning and mystery beyond the printed words. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to engage continually in biblical exploration in community. We learn from biblical scholarship and value the insights and experiences of people of diverse cultures and life situations and all ages and eras.
The lectionary provides an organized, holistic exploration of Scripture, linking education and worship and calling us to service. Through the yearly cycle of readings, we are drawn into the story of God’s creation of all things; God’s calling and forming a people; the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and the witness of the early church in the world.
Jesus in the Epiphany Cycle, Year C
During the course of Epiphany, the lectionary invites us to reflect on a selection of Gospel “snapshots” of Jesus. These particular episodes are mostly chosen from the opening chapters of Luke, although this week’s passage will be from John:
- 1st Sunday after Epiphany: Jesus is Baptized [Luke 3:15-17,21-22]
- 2nd Sunday after Epiphany: Miraculous Wine at a Wedding in Cana [John 2:1-11]
- 3rd Sunday after Epiphany: In the Synagogue at Nazareth [Luke 4:14-21]
- 4th Sunday after Epiphany: Jesus rejected at Nazareth [Luke 4:21-30]
- 5th Sunday after Epiphany: The Great Catch of Fish [Luke 5:1-11]
- 6th Sunday after Epiphany: Beatitudes [Luke 6:17-26]
- 7th Sunday after Epiphany: Love of Enemies [Luke 6:27-38], or
- Last Sunday after Epiphany: Transfiguration [Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)]
Taken as a set of texts, this makes an interesting bundle of epiphany passages:
- In what ways are these episodes epiphanic, or revelatory?
- What do they reveal to us about the meaning of Jesus, at least within the faith of the Gospel writers if not in his own lifetime?
- And what do these passages reveal about ourselves, and our own capacity to be epiphanies?
Miraculous wine at a wedding in Cana
It is fairly easy to see that this miracle story is intended to be understood as an epiphany or revelation of the divine glory of Jesus:
Jesus attends a wedding in a Galilean village, along with his mother (never called “Mary” in this Gospel although his father is named as “Joseph”) and his disciples.
- This event is set “on the third day”–a significant pointer to the symbolic nature of the story.
- Jesus’ mother mentions to him that the wine has run out and, after initially declining to get involved, Jesus issues instructions that solve the dilemma.
- As the servants pour water into six large stone ritual jars it is miraculously transformed into wine of the highest quality!
- Everyone is amazed, Jesus’ glory is revealed, and his disciples believed in him.
John P. Meier devotes 16 pages to this particular miracle story, taking particular care to isolate the Johannine traits to see whether any kernel of historical memory can be identified. According to Meier, the elements in the story that presuppose the larger literary and theological context of John’s Gospel, and therefore suggest the hand of the author rather than some historical memory of an event in the life of Jesus, are as follows:
(1) The opening phrase, “And on the third day …” makes sense only within the larger context of the preceding events in chapter 1 with its clearly marked out days:
- 1:29 – On the next day …
- 1:35 – On the next day …
- 1:43 – On the next day …
The third of these days included the encounter with Nathanael, during which Jesus promises Nathanael that he will see even greater things including the glorification of the Son of Man. The Cana miracle is then immediately set “also on the third day” (translating kai – “and” – as “also”) and begins the process of revealing the glory of Jesus.
(2) The references to “the mother of Jesus” reflect both the style and theology of the Gospel'”
(a) John never refers to Mary by name, even when naming Joseph as Jesus’ father and naming various other women associated with Jesus:
Indeed, the fact that “his mother” can occur in the same verses in which “his father” and all the other women at the cross are mentioned by name (6:42; 19:25) makes it all but certain that, for whatever theological or symbolic reason, the Fourth Evangelist purposely suppresses the name of Jesus’ mother and refers to her only by a phrase that begins to look like some sort of formula or title. (Marginal Jew, II,938)
(b) The manner in which Jesus addresses his mother appears to be a literary device:
… outside of John’s Gospel, it is unheard of in either the OT or the NT that a son should address his biological mother with the unadorned title “woman.” When we put this strange mode of address together with the Evangelist’s avoidance of Mary’s proper name in favor of the formal phrase “the mother of Jesus,” the natural conclusion is that the Evangelist intends to convey some sort of symbolic relationship between Jesus and his mother. (II,938)
(c) Within GJohn, this combination of “the mother of Jesus” and the address “woman” occur only in this miracle story and at the cross:
In other words, the Fourth Evangelist has carefully introduced and limited “the mother of Jesus” to two pericopes at the beginning and at the end of Jesus’ public life: the “sign” at Cana marking the beginning of his public ministry and a scene at the cross just before his death. That this positioning seeks more than just literary balance is clear from the theological correspondence between the two scenes. At Cana, the reason why Jesus distances himself and his intention from his mother’s implied request is that “my hour has not yet come.” In John’s Gospel, … “my hour,” “his hour,” “the hour” and “this hour” … regularly refer to Jesus’ “glorification” by his death on the cross (7:30; 8:20; 12:23; 13:1; 17;1). (II,939)
(3) Consistency with a trait seen in the stories of the miraculous wine at Cana (2:1-11) , the healing of the official’s son (4:46-54) and the raising of Lazarus (11:1-57). Typically GJohn portrays Jesus as possessed of divine omniscience, and able to perform a miracle even before it is requested, However, in these three stories there is at least an implicit request for intervention as the need is brought to the attention of Jesus. Meier continues:
It is hardly by accident that it is in these three miracle stories that we notice a particular Johannine pattern that safeguards the sovereign initiative and control of Jesus. In each of these three stories:
- A petitioner makes an implied or explicit request for a miracle.
- Jesus at first seems to refuse the request .. abruptly and unfeelingly … keeps control of the flow of events and shows that whatever he will do he will do in accordance with the “timetable” and purpose of his mission …
- The petitioner, being a person who is basically well-disposed to Jesus and open to his challenge of faith, is not put off by the apparent refusal but in one way or another persists in his or her request, thereby implicitly affirming faith in the Jesus who appears to be disappointing the petitioner.
- In the end, in response to this persistent faith, Jesus does accede to the request, but each time in a more spectacular and amazing way than the petitioner could possibly have imagined. Jesus thus makes it clear that, when he does grant the miraculous favor, he does so on his own terms, at his own time, with a superabundant generosity the petitioner could not have expected, and with a special theological symbolism that far transcends the original intention of the petitioner. (II,940)
(4) Meier identifies two further aspects of John 2:1-11 that seem “very typical” of the author’s theology, namely the spectacular character (and massive scale) of the miracle, and its highly spiritualized symbolic interpretation:
- The miracle is spectacular and massive, as are many of Jesus’ miracles in John. They often surpass in sheer quantity and quality equivalent stories in the Synoptics.
- As usual in John, the physical reality portrayed (in this case, the over-abundant supply of fine wine at a wedding feast) symbolizes a higher, spiritual, eschatological reality.
- … we also find the related OT image of Yahweh, the true husband of Israel, rejoicing with his bride at the wedding banquet of the end time … conjure up the idea of Jesus the bridegroom coming to claim his bride Israel at a wedding feast. The messianic wedding feast which both Matthew and the Book of Revelation place at the parousia, John sees being realized from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry; this is typical of John’s realized eschatology.
- The description of the happy but ignorant headwaiter betrays the Evangelist’s hand in another way as well. We are told in v 9 that the headwaiter “did not know whence the water-become wine was” … In John’s theology, Jesus has come down from heaven … (his “whence”) … To know Jesus’ true origins (his “whence”), and hence his divine nature and gift, is equivalent to believing and to having eternal life …
(5) Finally, Meier notes the significance of the summary statement in v. 11 that identifies this miracle as the “beginning” [arche] of the signs performed by Jesus:
… this sign is not just the “first” in a purely numerical sense. It is also the beginning–not just in the sense of the culmination of the beginning seen in the gathering of the community of disciples narrated in chap. 1 but also in the sense of the beginning of a series of signs that will spell out in ever greater detail the abundant, overflowing gift of divine life succinctly summarized in this first sign. The first sign is the arche almost in the sense of the archetype of all the signs to come. All those signs will progressively reveal the glory that the Word had with the Father before the world existed (17:5; cf. 12:41), the glory that begins to shine forth in Jesus from the incarnation onward (1:14), the glory that is first revealed to the disciples at Cana (2:11), the glory that shines ever brighter throughout the public ministry with its various signs (e.g., 11:40, in the raising of Lazarus), the glory that leaves behind all signs as it blazes forth in the reality of Jesus’ definitive glorification, his death on the cross (12:23,27-33; 17:1-5), the glory that penetrates the believing community and so makes it one even as the Father and the Son are one (17:22), the glory that the disciples will see fully when they are reunited with Jesus in heaven (17:24).
Meier wraps up his assessment of the Cana story as follows:
In short, from start to finish, John 2:1-11 is pervaded with Johannine theological concepts and literary patterns. It fits snugly and functions smoothly within the overarching literary and theological structure of the Gospel. Certainly, the impression one gets is that the pericope seems to be for the most part, if not entirely, the creation of the Evangelist–or, as some would claim, of the Johannine “circle” or “school” whose work he inherited. (II,947)
In sum, when one adds these historical difficulties to the massive amount of Johannine literary and theological traits permeating the whole story, it is difficult to identify any “historical kernel” or “core event” that might have a claim to go back to the historical Jesus. Put another way: if we subtract from the eleven verses of the first Cana miracle every element that is likely to have come from the creative mind of John or his Johannine “school” and every element that raises historical problems, the entire pericope vanishes before our eyes. Many critics would assign the origin of the story to the Johannine “school” or “circle” lying behind the Gospel. I prefer the view that the story is a creation of the Evangelist himself, using a number of traditional themes. (II,949)
Metaphor and Truth
As a story about Jesus that seems to have no basis in history, the miracle at Cana raises the question of history and metaphor as ways to communicate truth. This is an issue that Marcus Borg has addressed in his book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time:
A metaphorical approach to the Bible … emphasizes seeing, not believing. The point is not believe in a metaphor, but to see in light of it. (Reading the Bible Again, 41)
Borg distinguishes between narratives that metaphorize history, and purely metaphorical narratives. The former combine both history and metaphor:
A historical event lies behind the story, but the way the story is told gives the narrative a metaphorical meaning. (45)
However, a purely metaphorical narrative has no basis in history:
No particular event lies behind them. Rather, the stories as a whole are metaphorical or symbolic. (46)
Borg identifies two factors that affect the decision to see a story as purely metaphorical:
The first centers on elements within the story itself. Does the story look as if it is reporting something that happened, or are there signs within the story suggesting that it is to be read symbolically? … The second factor involves a judgment about what I call “the limits of the spectacular.”
Borg expands on the question of the miraculous in biblical stories:
… the question whether there are “limits to the spectacular” asks, “Are there some things that never happen anywhere?” As we think about that question, it is important not to draw the limits too narrowly, as the worldview of modernity does. More things are possible, and more things happen, than the modern worldview allows. For example, I think that Jesus really did perform paranormal healings and that they cannot simply be explained in psychosomatic terms. I am even willing to consider that spectacular phenomena such as levitation perhaps happen. But do virgin births, multiplying loaves and fish, and changing water into wine ever happen anywhere? If I became persuaded that they do, then I would entertain the possibility that the stories about Jesus reporting such events also contain history remembered. But what I cannot do as a historian is to say that Jesus could do such things even though nobody else has ever been able to. Thus I regard these as purely metaphorical stories. (47)
Borg directly addresses the Cana miracle, treating it as “Jesus’ inaugural scene” in GJohn:
The text reports a miracle, of course: the transformation of a large quantity of water (122 to 180 gallons) into wine. But if we focus on the event’s “happenedness,” we easily become distracted and miss the point. We then wonder if such a thing could really happen; and if we think it could and did, we may then marvel about what Jesus did on a particular day in the past. But the meaning of this story does not depend on its “happenedness.” Instead, it is a “sign,” as John puts it. Signs point beyond themselves; to use a play on words, they sign-ify something, and what they signify is their significance.
So what is the meaning of this story as a “sign”? What is its significance? A number of its details have caught the attention of scholars: the odd exchange between Jesus and his mother; the detail that the water was “for the Jewish rites of purification”; the anticipation of Jesus’ death. Though these details matter, they should not divert attention from the primary symbolic feature of the text: a wedding banquet.
Wedding banquets were the most festive occasions in the world of first-century Palestine, especially in the peasant class (and Cana was a peasant village). Wedding banquets commonly lasted seven days. They featured dancing, wine, and vast quantities of food. The normal peasant diet was meager: grains, vegetables, fruit, olives, eggs, and an occasional fish. Meat and poultry were infrequently eaten, since people were reluctant to kill the few animals they had. But at a wedding banquet, there were copious amounts of food of all kinds.
Given the above, what is this text–which John places as the inaugural scene of Jesus’ public activity –saying? What is Jesus about? What is the gospel–the good news–of Jesus about? John’s answer: it is about a wedding banquet at which the wine never runs out and the best is saved for last.
To this metaphorical meaning of a wedding banquet can be added historical associations of banquet and wedding imagery in Jewish and early Christian traditions. In Judaism, a banquet was a frequent symbol for the messianic age. Marriage was also used as a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus is sometimes spoken of as the bridegroom and the community of his followers as the bride. The book of Revelation refers to “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Jesus) and ends with a vision of the New Jerusalem descending from the sky “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” A wedding could thus symbolize the intimacy of the divine-human relationship and the marriage between heaven and earth. It is a common mystical symbol, and John is the most mystical gospel.
Did John intend to build all of these meanings into his inaugural scene? There is no way of knowing. But it is the nature of metaphorical language to convey more meanings than the author intended. In any case, it is clear what John is saying: the story of Jesus is about a wedding banquet at which the wine never runs out. (204f)
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.