Epiphany 2 – The wine of joy

Todays’ readings mark the second Sunday of Epiphany. During this Epiphany season, we celebrate the moments that mark who Jesus truly is. On the first Sunday in January, we celebrated the Magi worshipping Christ, which signifies how he is the saviour of the whole world. Today’s reading, taken from John, zooms in on how Jesus “reveals his glory” by showing a sign of who he truly is. The first ‘sign’ that John recounts is Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana. 

John’s Gospel tells us of many “signs” that reveal Jesus’ glory. This miracle at the wedding at Cana is in fact a sign that Jesus displays God’s glory on earth. The line of the story is well known. At a wedding, the hosting couple run out of wine, which was a matter of shame in those days. John tells us how Jesus provides wine by turning into wine the water in six huge stone jars which were used for ritual purification. This wine tastes better than any wine they had been served before. 

John describes this sign as a revelation of his ‘glory.’  This ‘glory’ is a keyword in the Gospel of John. John confesses that Jesus is the word of God, through whom all things came into being. And he is the one who came down to earth, thereby showing God’s glory, as John 1, 14 says: 

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the father’s only son.

We may ask the question: “why does Jesus choose the change of water into wine as his first miracle?”  After all, he changes about 520 litre of water into wine. This is more than abundance! And what is the meaning of this action, of changing water into wine? 

Let me point to a few things that shed some more light on this story. John’s message is deeply theological. The first sentence of this section, in verse 1, begins with On the third day.[1] It is not immediately clear, what this refers to. In John chapter 1, he has already referred three times to ‘on the next day’. So this is not so much a note from a diary. Rather, this is language of God appearing on the third day. In the Old Testament, there are several readings describing how God appears on the third day. One example is found in Exodus 19, where the people of Israel are waiting at the foot of the Mount Sinai. Moses instructs them to “prepare for the third day, because on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people” 

 And later in the Gospel, John narrates how Christ rises from the dead on the third day. So this phrase “on the third day” has a deep meaning. It is meant to tell us that in Jesus God is coming on earth to make all things new with his resurrection. So this very first miracle is linked to Christ’s suffering and resurrection. It is not just a story about how Christ is changing wine. This is a story about Christ himself who changes everything. He will take on the cross and the sins of the world in order to give life and abundance to all. 

So we need to read the miracle at the wedding in Cana as a sign of his true glory: He is giving not just abundance of food, but He himself is the food for the world. He is not just multiplying bread and providing wine, but he himself is the Bread of Life and the True Vine.  He is the glory of God, willing to share his glory with us. He came to enable us to participate in his divine glory, by bringing us back to the Father. 

This is also clear from what exactly Jesus changes. He changes water that is used for ritual cleansing. The waters thus represent the Law, of becoming righteous before God through following the Law. They are now substituted by the wine of joy that Christ brings as he fulfils the Law of God for all humans. 

The Church has often made a connection between the wedding at Cana and the celebration of communion. In the catacombs used by Christians in Rome in the first few centuries, the wedding at Cana is already depicted next to the celebration of Christ’s sacrifice in Holy Communion. 

This deep layer of death and resurrection is also reflected in the window of the miracle at Cana, on the right side of the church, close to the door (see below). The scene for the wedding is not a house, but a cathedral church. Below is the nave, then there are steps to the choir, and then again steps to the sanctuary with the altar. The banquet table, where the bridegroom and bride are, looks very much like an altar. The bride and bridegroom are adorned with a crown of flowers, but they are not looking at each other. The bride adores a ciborium on the altar, adorned with red roses, a symbol of the Eucharist. Next to this is the paten (with the host). The bridegroom seems to symbolise Christ as a priest, wearing a traditional vestment. The bridegroom points to the cup with two fingers downwards, which resembles the priest blessing the cup with wine on the altar. With the bridegroom symbolising a priest and the bride adoring the sacrament, the couple symbolises the marriage between Christ and the Church. Note that the altar cloth is very similar to Jesus’ robe which also signals a deep connection. Christ also wears a red tunic, signalling his power with which he conquers death, often used in Easter depictions. Also, the servants are carrying peacocks on the plates. This peacock is used as a symbol of immortality and resurrection, for example in the catacombs. It seems safe to say that this window also links the miracle of wine at Cana to Christ who gives his body and blood to us in the Church, in which we participate during communion. The wedding at Cana and the wedding gift of wine symbolise the spiritual marriage between Christ and the Church. 

Marriage at Cana, Window at Holy Trinity Utrecht, c 1914

If Christ gives himself for us, how does it change us? Already Ambrose remarked that in the same way as Christ changed water into wine, so he is able to transform us. This is the point that the letter of Romans works out: in Christ, we have a new identity. It means that we are no longer slaves to a law we can never fulfil, but in Christ we are made righteous and justified. And with that, he is also able to change us and transform us as we go through life, even if we journey by stumbling and falling over. 

The apostle exhorts us to live out that new identity. Romans 12, our Epistle reading for today, makes a direct connection between how Christ lived and our calling in verse 1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” 

The letter to the Romans also makes clear that with that new identity in Christ, we are all given gifts of the Spirit to build up one another. Christ is no longer present on earth in the same way as he was then. But we do have the Spirit, and we have the community of the Church. Through his Spirit, God freely gives his gifts to us. It does not mean we are all doing exactly the same thing. No one has every gift, and there is nobody who has no gift. We all have gifts to serve one another and to minister to one another. The Spirit gives us gifts to build up the Church.  It fulfils the longing already expressed in Joel 2, “That all sons and daughters would prophecy!”  

Though our gifts may differ, we are all called to love one another, which underpins all the gifts. That love itself is healing balm.

The list of gifts in Romans 12 given here is not exhaustive; in other letters, Paul also explicitly mentions the gift of praying for the sick. Today’s service also provides the opportunity to pray for the sick, which is a gift of the Spirit. Healing is a gift from God as well, but often given in the community when others are present

We know that healing can occur in a very sudden moment. But even then, it is often in response to the prayer and care of sisters and brothers in the Church. Healing also often happens thanks to the excellent medical care we have in our country. But it is also our experience that we still live in a broken world. God does not heal everybody we pray for in the way we think is best, as hard as that can be and as much as we would like that. This is what Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 12. He prayed for some sort of healing or deliverance, but it was not given to him in the way he prayed for. This is a complex topic, and today I only want to say some words about our role in this as a church.

Romans 12 tells us that in both healing and sickness, we are called to carry each other’s burdens. We are called to persevere in prayer (v 11) and “to rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep.” (v 15).  

As we come forward to receive the sacrament, we are reminded that Christ is with us, who has the power to change us so that we may be more like Him. And as we come forward, may we present also ourselves as a living sacrifice to God, making ourselves available for serving others, as Christ did.

The sign of the change of water into wine at the wedding in Cana points to Jesus’ glory. May we look forward to the day when Jesus’ full glory will break through in us and God shall wipe away all the waters of tears and invite us to the eternal feast.  Amen.  

[1] This explanation of “the third day” is based on Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth.