Holy Wisdom Monastery
January 16, 2022
The Wedding Feast at Cana
Isaiah 62:1-5; I Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
Roberta M. Felker
In 1634, the wedding at Cana was the subject of a poetry contest at Cambridge University. Students were given three hours to compose a poem in Latin, based on the wedding story. At the end of the three hours, Richard Crashaw, known later as a metaphysical poet, handed in his paper. Upon it, he had written one line. Translated from the Latin, it read: “The shame-faced water saw its Lord, and blushed.” Crashaw won the prize.
This morning’s readings celebrate Jesus’ coming to transform our shame into the blush of love, to make all of life more joyous and more abundant. We begin with Isaiah’s announcement of transformation: “The nations shall see your vindication … you shall be called by a new name … you shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate … you shall be called My Delight….” Judah’s change of status is dramatic. God’s promise is firm: “… as one rejoices in marrying one’s beloved, so shall your God rejoice over you.”
We catch a hint of this delight again in our second reading as Paul tells the Corinthians that, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” This passage invites the question: Can you be a Christian all by yourself? Paul’s answer is a firm “no.” Not a single one of us has the corner on all the gifts. And every one of us has gifts to offer.
In our gospel reading, the writer of John extends the sweep of God’s joy and generosity to include how, with his mother Mary as partner in abundance, Jesus replaces water meant for ritual washing with wine meant for the community’s rejoicing.
Cana was a little one-camel, hilltop town about four miles northeast of Nazareth. The Cana wedding happens early in John’s narrative, after Jesus has been baptized and called his first disciples. Jesus’ mother, unnamed by John, appears only twice in John’s gospel, here at Cana and at Calvary, cameos connecting this, Jesus’ first sign, and his last breath. Today, we witness as Mary initiates the outbreak of delight and extravagance, a sign of the transformation of Jesus from a Galilean carpenter into the man who would be the Messiah. And we witness the working out of the truth of the Incarnation: it is through Mary that Jesus comes to us.
Mary’s role at Cana is significant; let’s pause for a minute to reflect on who she is. Mary of Nazareth, the unlettered teenager who gave her free assent to being God’s partner in the work of redemption. The young peasant woman who knew what it was like to be on the margins, pregnant and unmarried. The mother who experienced the unimaginable terror of losing her child for three days.
But as we begin today’s story, the terrible awareness that accompanied finding Jesus in the Temple had faded. We can imagine that the sense of chosen-ness had dimmed; life had become routine. They were, after all, an ordinary Jewish family in a small Jewish town, with ordinary routines and expectations. And weddings were one of the most ordinary of occurrences. Still, Mary must have sensed that change was coming. People were talking about Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer, and about Jesus. Mary would have been paying close attention. Did she have a premonition that this wedding would be anything but ordinary?
Mary arrived at Cana for the celebration; Jesus and his disciples “had also been invited.” She recognized the literal (and figurative) emptiness of the stone jars, and she turned to her son. She didn’t ask him to do anything, or plead with him. She didn’t need to. She simply stated the facts, and she trusted that all would be well. “The mother of Jesus told him, ‘They have no wine.’”
Mary was out in front of Jesus here; she recognized Jesus’ moment before he did. Her declarative statement indicated that she was not merely remarking on a potential social embarrassment; rather, she was directly suggesting that Jesus take action. Mary’s nudge invited Jesus to embrace his path; her words initiated Jesus’ sign.
And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour is not yet come.” In John’s text, Jesus addresses three other women as “woman” in moments of tenderness and consolation: the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, and most importantly, Mary Magdalene. Jesus uses this word when he gives his mother to the Beloved Disciple at the crucifixion. The feminist theologian, Elisabeth Fiorenza, asserts that this places Mary of Nazareth among the category of women considered both “apostolic witnesses and exemplary disciples.”
Other scholars suggest that this exchange indicates that Jesus and Mary shared a realization: they both knew Jesus’ hour was approaching, and they both faced the hour with trepidation. We can imagine Jesus asking himself the question that so often comes to mind when responsibility calls: “Do I have to do it now?” Maybe Mary, too. Those of us who have watched a child we love grow up have felt the tension between keeping the child close and letting our child go, between our dreams for the child (and for ourselves) and the child’s own life and dreams. Since the time Jesus was in her womb, Mary had been waiting and listening for God’s time. Now, Mary recognized the quickening in her body: the hour had come. For them both. Now, Jesus speaks to his mother as a believer, already aware of his mission; he addresses her, not as mother by virtue of her blood ties but as “woman,” faith-filled, representing all of Israel.
His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Whatever whirlwind of emotions was evoked by Jesus’ words, Mary seems totally assured that Jesus would take it from there. She addressed the servants directly; they, too – people on the margins, excluded from the celebration – they would witness and participate in bringing about this miracle! As soon as his mother speaks, Jesus acts. As Jesuit author, James Martin, observed, it is after his mother’s encouragement that “Jesus grasps what is required of him.” What pastoral theologian Carol Lakey Hess calls “the scandal of divine reluctance” that requires a woman’s prodding to bring about the kind of extravagant generosity for which God is known. Martin mused that, more confident now, Jesus orders the stone jars filled with water – and the six 30 gallon jars of ordinary water were transformed into around 2,400 glasses of phenomenal wine. The steward’s exclamation to the bridegroom: “You have kept the good wine until now….” affirmed his astonishment – and celebrated the quality and luxury of Jesus’ first miracle. The cautious vintage of the caterer was overtaken by the spontaneous appearance of grace: “Jesus did this … and revealed his glory. And his disciples believed in him.” This is the climax of the narrative and the key to the significance of Cana.
The Cana miracle is an outburst of delight that serves as a sign of the presence of the Messiah and the breaking out of the reign of God. And it is Mary who introduces us to what theologian Walter Brueggemann calls, “the lyric of abundance.” She throws open the doors to the proclamation of the gospel and the public life of Jesus – and she walks through the doors with him. She reminds us that all miracles need is willing participation in the unfolding of the mystery, an openness to the possibility that hospitality can supersede holiness and that vessels – that we – are better filled with the wine of wholehearted joy than with empty rituals. Through Mary’s intercession, her divinely inspired instruction, and her unwavering faith, the wedding feast – the ultimate symbol of our reconciliation with God and one another – resumes today in a superabundance of delight.