Transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary
Stephen Adam, 21 January 2018
Revelation 19: 6–10; John 2: 1–11
We are midway through this Epiphany season, so rich in theological depth and meaning. Each week, like the layers of an onion being peeled, we are drawn deeper into understanding the nature of Christ with the progressive revelation of his divinity. Our pre-Lenten season will culminate before Ash Wednesday with the revelation of Christ’s glory in that mountain-top encounter we call the Transfiguration.
St John gives particular prominence to the wedding at Cana. It marks the start of Jesus’ public ministry and St John stresses how it is the first sign in which he reveals his glory. For St John every word, every detail counts – have you noticed, for instance, the prominence he gives to Mary’s role, bookending Jesus’ earthly ministry, as she appears here and then right at the end, at the foot of the cross? All these little touches tell us that a master wordsmith is at work in writing this gospel.
St John’s approach is to take ordinary, everyday events and then describe them at two levels. So we find Jesus at a wedding party with the wine running out; we overhear his encounter with a thirsty Samaritan woman at a well; we picture him being with a hungry crowd; and so on.
At a deeper level, what happens in these encounters are signs pointing beyond themselves to something much more profound … if only we have eyes to perceive this! The word ‘sign’ is, I think, a more helpful word than ‘miracle’, because a sign invites us to question what is going on and to probe more deeply.
So this story of what happened at Cana is much more than Jesus enjoying a party and, out of the goodness of his heart, coming to the aid of an embarrassed host. And we don’t need to be preoccupied by the mechanics of how the vast quantities of water were turned into wine – though I have heard sermons trying to explain this in great detail. No, all this is symbolic of something much deeper.
We’re immediately alerted by the very first words of our reading, ‘On the third day’. Here’s an echo of the Passion narrative – this story is, at its heart, about transformation and the new life promised through the resurrection of Jesus.
Today we’re not immersed in the Jewish mindset of Jesus’ first-century listeners. But the Jews of the day would immediately have connected this wedding banquet with the anticipated messianic banquet promised by the prophets of the Hebrew Bible – our Old Testament – which would herald the long awaited Messiah.
Marriage is an image often used to express the relationship of God to his people. So Isaiah (61: 10) looks to that day of rejoicing when the people of Israel will be God’s bride:
He has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
And when the people of Israel fall away from God, the imagery used by the prophet Hosea is that of an unfaithful wife.
No wedding would be complete without wine, and so, looking to the time when God will act to deliver all peoples, Isaiah (25: 6) promises:
A feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
All this back history, if you like, lies behind our gospel reading this morning. And the imagery is taken further in our other reading, from Revelation, which looks to the triumphant consummation of history, with the holy city, the new Jerusalem, ‘coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’ (21: 2), culminating with this hymn of praise to God, and Christ presented as the Lamb with his church, as a bridegroom with his bride.
John is alone among the gospel writers in not including an account of the Last Supper, but in a sense this account of the wedding at Cana functions as his equivalent Eucharist story. It’s about the transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary: of how God saves the finest wine, the best gift of all, until the end, when that wine will flow as blood from the cross. ‘I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10: 10).
When Jesus did this sign at Cana ‘and revealed his glory’, these words immediately take us back to the opening verses of the prologue to the gospel: ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1: 14).
‘Glory’ means the very being, the very essence of something: the deep communion of love between Jesus and the God whom he has named as father – the communion of love lived out in this single human life, a life which will be emptied for us as pure gift, in the self-giving love of the cross.
‘Glory’ means the very being, the very essence of something.
The poet and priest Malcolm Guite, of Girton College, Cambridge, has written of the extraordinarily profound and liberating things about God that this sign at Cana points us to:
- his delight and concern for our lives and loves, attested by Jesus’ presence at the wedding feast
- his abundant, overflowing generosity in more than meeting our needs in the midst of everyday life
- his call for us to move from mere outward purity (symbolised by the water for ritual washing) to a transformation of inward joy (symbolised by the wine)
- and the gift of his very self – his blood on the cross – through which we are constantly fed and renewed in the Eucharist.
All these strands find expression in his sonnet ‘Epiphany at Cana’, which I’d like to share with you.
Here’s an epiphany to have and hold,
A truth that you can taste upon the tongue,
No distant shrines and canopies of gold
Or ladders to be clambered rung by rung,
But here and now, amidst your daily living,
Where you can taste and touch and feel and see,
The spring of love, the fount of all forgiving,
Flows when you need it, rich, abundant, free.
Better than waters of some outer weeping,
That leave you still with all your hidden sin,
Here is a vintage richer for the keeping
That works its transformation from within.
‘What price?’ you ask me, as we raise the glass,
‘It cost our Saviour everything he has’.
In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we are pulled up short and reminded of our divisions and our lack of unity; and yet at the deepest level we are held together in Christ. Those great ‘I am’ sayings in St John’s gospel – ‘I am the living water’, ‘I am the new wine’, ‘I am the bread of life’ – all these are reminders that what unites us is far greater than what divides us.
Our transformation is not a one-off but an ongoing, continuing reality as we pray for Jesus to continue his life-changing work within us, and as we seek all those things that lead to our human flourishing at its deepest level.
So may our prayer today be for God, who turned the water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana, to work his transformation in our lives and to gladden our hearts with joy, knowing that we are held in his love. Amen.