|“The Wedding Feast at Cana”
Julius S. von Carosfeld, 1819
Following his baptism in the Jordan River and his 40-day-and night struggle with Satan in the wilderness, the 30-year-old Jesus is now ready to begin his public ministry. But what a way to begin! Jesus surely did not consult with marketing experts on how to launch a campaign. This is not the kind of publicity blitz we are used to in the Nation’s Capital.
In John’s Gospel (2:1-11) we read about Jesus’ first miracle in the town of Cana, a city only mentioned in this story in the New Testament. Biblical scholars believe this small village was about nine miles north of Nazareth, so it was clearly not a major urban center. Why does Jesus perform his first miracle here? Once again it is clear that God’s ways are not our ways.
We know from historical studies of this time period that wedding feasts in the first century ordinarily lasted seven days. To help you imagine what the context was like, think of the wedding feast in “Fiddler on the Roof,” where the bridegroom and his wedding party make a gala procession to get the bride and her friends and then return with them to the house of the groom for a feast that could last for a full week with wine and food and lots of dancing. Weddings in small villages in Galilee brought lots of life to an otherwise drab existence for poor peasants.
|“Fiddler on the Roof”
movie wedding, 1971
It is reasonable to assume that Jesus’ family knows the groom or bride since his mother is invited as well as Jesus and his disciples. The disciples would not be a part of this celebration if there were not some personal connection to the wedding party. The fact that Joseph is not mentioned after the family’s return from Egypt leads most Biblical scholars to believe he died earlier and Jesus may have been acting as the head of the family at this event.
It also occurred to me that for those disciples of Jesus who had previously been followers of John the Baptist, the contrast between John the Baptist and his desert diet and animal-skin clothes and this celebration would have been a remarkable change-of-pace.
As the wedding celebration continued, Jesus’ mother – who is not identified by name in this story, but neither is the bride or groom – informs him, “They have no wine” (v. 3). Why does Mary tell Jesus this? What does she expect him to do? It is hard to imagine what Jesus thinks after his mother tells him this. What if he choose not to respond? These are some of the many questions for which there are simply no answers.
What we do know is that Jesus decides to respond. Although he refused to turn stones into bread in the wilderness, as Satan requested, this time he orders the servants to fill the jars with water and this water turns into high-quality wine. This is not the last time that Jesus changed his plans to accommodate the wishes of someone else.
John makes clear in his Gospel that the wine comes from huge jugs, normally approximately 20-30 gallons in size, that are located near the front of the house and are used by observant Jews for ceremonial washing before they enter a home and eat a meal. Philip Yancey suggests that “Jesus, perhaps with a twinkle in his eye, transformed those jugs, ponderous symbols of the old way, into wineskins, harbingers of the new.” Jesus’ miraculous action is a powerful sign that the old religious practices are coming to an end and new Kingdom values are being revealed in Jesus. By the way, the wine Jesus made was excellent and the hosts and guests know it, although they do not know where it came from. It’s a great wedding present!
During the next year of his life, word will spread across the country about this new rabbi, this miracle-worker, and crowds will flock to him, but Jesus knows right from the start, witnessing miracles does not always result in faith. This miracle is a sign for his new disciples that Jesus has extraordinary power and John notes that “His disciples believed in him” (v. 11).
God is a “God of surprises” and we see this right from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. This miracle of turning water into wine occurs in an obscure out-of-the-way town, not in Jerusalem where the powerbrokers could see his power and be impressed. This first miracle appears to be an act of mercy and the disciples are there to witness it. It will be the first of many.
- It is so striking to me that Jesus begins his ministry with such a humble act of mercy, without drawing attention to himself and what he has done. Only a few know who brought – or made – the new wine; not the host or the bride and bridegroom. Just the servants, his mother Mary and his new disciples. He is the promised Messiah, but one who is humble, compassionate, and merciful. There is no other religion that believes in a God like this!
- It takes imagination to be able to put yourself into this first century Palestinian context, but if you can envision this scene, it helps you understand the radical character of what Jesus did and how he did it. Can you picture a scene like this in our time? What would it be like?