Grace Upon Grace: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week Two
Epiphany 2 (Year C): John 2:1-11
1) This week celebrates Jesus turning water into wine during the Wedding at Cana - one of three traditional focal points for Epiphany through which Jesus’ identity “shows forth” (the other two being the visit of the Magi and Jesus’ baptism, the Gospel readings for the last two weeks, respectively).
2) Next week, we’ll look at Luke’s story of how Jesus begins his public ministry - and so this week and next make for an intriguing comparison and contrast between two accounts of how Jesus “goes public.”
3) John organizes his Gospel around seven astounding “signs” that reveal Jesus’ identity and mission. The turning of water into wine is the first of these signs - and like many “firsts” in art and life, it sets the tone for what follows, introducing the major themes to come. John’s name for these events - “signs” - is a clue to their purpose: they’re supposed to catch our attention (even catch our breath!), drawing us toward what for John is the whole point: life with and in God. But amazement doesn’t always work that way. It’s only too easy to get caught up in the miraculous and miss the larger purpose - pulling the car over, so to speak, to ooh and ahh at a road sign pointing us toward our destination, instead of moving on to the destination itself!
4) And as it turns out, this tension is a running theme throughout John’s Gospel. Jesus repeatedly scolds the crowds (and his disciples) for focusing too much on signs, urging them to move on to higher, more important matters. Just a few pages later, in the scene featuring the second sign, Jesus is exasperated: “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe” (John 4:48). Later, he calls on those around him to take another step: Don’t fixate on how I fed five thousand with a few loaves, he says; shift your understanding into a higher gear, and see how I’m offering you the bread of life itself - indeed, see how I am that bread! (John 6:26-35). This tension between dazzling signs and genuine belief runs through the whole Gospel, culminating in the risen Jesus’ encounter with Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).
1) Still a relatively unknown rabbi, Jesus is invited to a wedding - along with his disciples and his mother. Mary appears exactly twice in John’s Gospel: in this scene at the outset of Jesus’ public ministry, and at the foot of the cross at the end of it (John 19:25-27). On both occasions, Jesus addresses her as “woman” - an ancient form of address roughly equivalent to “madam,” a relatively formal sign of respect.
2) The fact that Mary is concerned about the wine running low may mean the bride or groom is a close relative; in any case, in the ancient world, this kind of shortage was far more than mere inconvenience. Wedding celebrations would often last a week, and wine was considered an essential mark of hospitality, not to mention a key social lubricant for the joy of the occasion. Running out of wine would be a major embarrassment for the host family. What’s more, the shortage may also indicate that both the family and the attendees lacked resources, since wedding guests often brought wine as a contribution to the revelry. In other words, as John tells it, this is a relatively modest wedding of ordinary folk.
3) Jesus initially dismisses his mother’s suggestion (How is this our problem?) - but Mary dismisses his dismissal. The moment goes by in an instant, but it’s nonetheless striking (and funny!): Mary sees something Jesus doesn’t, and rather than argue with him, she simply presumes victory and turns to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). But what is it that Mary sees? Is she concerned about the host family’s reputation? Or does she see in this dilemma an opportunity for Jesus to inaugurate his ministry, a peculiar challenge the resolution of which would gracefully emphasize all the right themes in all the right ways? Jesus says, in effect, The time isn’t right - but Mary knows better: Ah, this is perfect - seize the day!
4) What themes might Mary have in mind? For the ancient Hebrew prophets, wine often functions as an ancient symbol for restoration, and in particular, for the ultimate restoration in the new era to come, the eschatological feast of joy and gladness (Amos 9:11-14; Isa 55:1-13). And so for Mary, perhaps, turning water into wine is the perfect sign for the arrival of that new era. Second, the overwhelming theme in this story is abundance: a wedding is already an archetype of joyous feasting, and the custom in those days was to serve the best wine first - but here, an overwhelming amount of the finest wine (six stone jars, 20-30 gallons each!), appears midway through the festivities, sloshing over the brims. It’s as vivid a picture of abundance-for-the-sake-of-joyful-community that one could hope for in the ancient world - and that picture, in turn, is also a window through which we can glimpse the abundant life at the heart of Jesus’ mission.
5) As anyone who’s been to a wedding knows, such celebrations are often status-driven affairs - but Jesus’ work is revealed not to the groom or the bride or the host family, but rather to the servants, the “nobodies” working behind the scenes. Yes, Jesus “goes public” here - but only to the lowly servants at the party, working away in the kitchen!
6) Finally, Jesus’ choice of vessel - water jars used for purification rites, such as washing hands and other containers - is surely no accident. Following the prophets, Jesus’ whole ministry will go on to emphasize joy and abundant life over against the common religious temptation (and please note, Christians are prime suspects here!) to over-focus on purity, whether physical or doctrinal. Not that purification is always a bad idea; the point is that abundant, joyful life is most important. These 25-gallon jars of fine wine are a sacramental glimpse of what Jesus later puts this way: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Or again, as John puts it in the prologue about the Word made flesh: “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16).
1) As the first of the seven public signs around which John organizes his account of Jesus’ ministry, the events of the Wedding at Cana are an opening answer to the question, What is Jesus’ mission all about?
2) First, it’s about declaring the dawn of a new era of restoration, long promised and now at hand, a day of abundance-for-the-sake-of-joyful-community. Copious fine wine, unexpectedly appearing in a context of apparent scarcity, is a foretaste of what this new era will be like. It will surprise and gladden. It will overflow expected limitations. And its upshot will be joy, celebration, community - in a word, a Great Feast. This banquet isn’t yet fully here for all, of course, but the day is dawning - and it’s so close, Jesus declares, that we can iconically see it, touch it, and taste it, even here, even now. For John, that’s the good news of the Gospel. Like a kind of early sacrament, Jesus’ inaugural sign at Cana shows all of this even more than it tells it. And accordingly, the best way to understand what Jesus is up to here is to revisit (or re-experience) the similar events - the potlucks, dinner parties, or other tangible moments of abundance-for-the-sake-of-joyful-community - we’ve had in our own lives along the way.
3) Second, this good news isn’t only or even primarily addressed to the rich and powerful, the well-to-do families with overflowing banquet tables. In fact, in the first place this news is for the vulnerable and the disinherited, the lowly servants at the modest weddings that run out of wine. Grace flows and fills not from the top down, but from the bottom up, grace upon grace upon grace.
4) Finally, it’s Mary who sees this opportunity first, urging her reluctant son to step forward into his destiny. Mary’s insight turns the key (Seize the day!) - and so it’s no wonder where Jesus learned his love of scripture, his ability to read the signs of the times, and his trust in the God of grace upon grace, joy upon joy, who even here, even now, is making all things new.