“The mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’” St. John 2:3
A friend of mine made her debut on reality TV a few years ago. Now, this was in England, where they spend even less on broadcast production than here, and where they seem to find the clergy endlessly fascinating. She was part of a series that followed newly ordained clergy in her rural diocese in the West Country.
And when the time came for her to officiate at her first wedding, the BBC camera crews were on hand. She was nervous, of course, and I guess her hands shook a bit, and she would be the first one to say that she’s always been a little clumsy. She took the rings, as she practiced many times before, and laid them on her open prayer book for the blessing. And then she dropped them—right through enormous cast iron grate on the chancel floor, down into the belly of a Victorian coal furnace. I think they ended up calling the local fire department to get them out. Of the hundreds of hours of film they shot that summer, well you can guess which scene got top billing in that episode.
There’s just something about weddings. They seem to court disaster. Take any priest out for a beer and ask him about wedding stories and you’re bound to hear a few stories that will leave you in stitches—the best man who left the ring in the glovebox, the bridesmaid’s wardrobe malfunction, the unexpected but highly entertaining guests, dueling mothers of the bride. Just go home and youtube it. You’ll see what I mean.
We want weddings to be perfect. We spend far too much money on them, and invest every piece of them with emotional drama. There’s a great deal of beauty, but a terrible amount of pressure. You get that many rented suits, pinned tea roses and fondant icing in one place and something is bound to bust loose.
Things had gone awry at the marriage feast at Cana. They’d run out of wine. Ancient Palestinian weddings were multi-day affairs, and all guests were expected to furnish a flask or two for the festivities. And somehow, for this crowd, it wasn’t enough. Maybe the guests were a bit cheap. Maybe they were particularly thirsty. Some scholars even suggest that Jesus and His disciples may have arrived uninvited and drained the last of the wine. It was embarrassing. People always read symbolism into wedding mishaps, and this one augured a shortage of joy, a failure to thrive.
There was plenty of water on hand, though, over a hundred gallons in big stone jars for the ceremonial washings of hands and dishes that began and ended the meals. It suggests earnest intentions, a desire to do right by God and the requirements of the law. But the planning hadn’t extended far enough. We intend the best: in religion, in creating a just society, in reconciling people, in creating things of beauty and power. We plan. We work hard. We expect so much. It’s duty that outlasts joy. We keep the form of the thing long after the life within it has spent itself out. Lakes of cold water, and not a drop of wine.
But there was a guest at that wedding. There was One who had come bring abundant life to the world. He was the source of light, the One who blazed forth the Father’s eternal joy. There was a legend that when the Messiah came, he would work miracles—like Moses, who had struck the rock and water poured out, like Elijjah who blessed a barrel of flour and a cruse of oil that never ran out. The Messiah would bring wine, the rabbis said, and plenty of it. A Jewish text written at just about the same time as Saint John’s Gospel prophesied that in the Messiah’s day, each vine would have a thousand branches, and each branch a thousand clusters, each cluster a thousand grapes, and each grape would yield 120 gallons of wine.
Unlike the Prayer Book’s marriage rite, Saint John doesn’t describe this event as Jesus’ first miracle. Instead, he calls it, like the rest of the wonders Jesus worked, “a sign.” And, he adds, “he manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.” God had raised up miracle-workers before, and there were tricksters and conjurers then as there have always been. But there is only One Redeemer. Only one was sent by the Father, “full of grace and truth.” This is no ordinary wedding mishap, this event at Cana. This sign—the cold barrels of water turned to rich wine—that was a sign of His own purpose and mission. It marked Him out as the Promised One and it revealed what He had come to do.
Jesus said to His mother, you might remember, that His hour had not yet come. Just as when Saint John talks of a sign instead of a miracle, that is no mistake. Jesus doesn’t just mean that He isn’t ready to have His talents revealed. His hour is that crowning purpose of His life, that painful duty for which, He would tell these same disciples, the Father had sent Him into the world. He would also be completely spent, you could say, like those flasks that had run out at the feasts. He would be regarded as a failure by the world, and a threat. He would go down into the depths, emptied of all but love: condemned, stripped, beaten, crucified.
But then, He would rise in glory. Throwing open the cold stone door of the tomb, He would pour life and joy into this tired world. He would bring hope to troubled people, and awaken courage of the face of despair. He would reconcile enemies, and make saints of the wicked.
He is the new wine of the everlasting Kingdom. He is the very best, saved for these last days, when God is making all things new. He manifests His glory, and we too, like those ancient disciples, can believe in Him and find what we have long sought. He invites us to drink of Him, and today again we approach His Altar. There He fills us with life no one else can give.