John 2:1-12, Water Becomes Nuptial Wine

[January 23, 2011] Two weeks ago we saw how the Spirit of God, who brooded over the surface of the waters of creation and found no resting place, came at last to abide on Jesus, the beloved One with whom the Father was well-pleased. And last week we saw how Jesus invited men to abide with Him, and told them that in Him they would find their resting place like Jacob did in Haran (Genesis 28:10-22), the place on earth where heaven and earth met (the “gate of heaven”). Like that rock on which Jacob laid his head, He was the house of God into which He invites His disciples to abide. The atmosphere corresponds to the seventh day of the creation, when God rested from all His work which He had done (Genesis 2:2), satisfied at last with all that He had made—only here, the Gospel according to John speaks of the new creation.

In chapter 1, however, we find the new creation only in Jesus. This passage (John 1:19-51) finds a fulfillment in 20:19-31, when Jesus grants peace to His disciples and breathes into them the same Holy Spirit that abided on Him, through which Spirit He abides in us and we in Him. We become the house of God in Him. In the beginning Jesus said to His first disciples, “Come and see,” and now they are saying, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas too is invited to “bring your finger here and see My hands, and bring your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing,” and he too sees and—similar to Nathaniel in 1:49—exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

Between these two passages, one at the beginning and one at the end (one preceded by a prelude and the other followed by a postlude), stretches the entire Gospel according to John. They stand at two ends of a ladder that stretches from earth to heaven. Or the two ends of a vertical beam of wood, like that on which the Son of Man was lifted. He stretched out His arms on a horizontal beam, and like that awe-full sign of passage from the old to the new, the Gospel according to John begins now to take on a similar fourfold shape as we find the episodes of its story laid out in concentric patterns of four around the center, a center where Jesus—like on the first day of creation—speaks forth light from the darkness, saying, “I AM” (John 6:20).

On the lower vertical beam is the story of the wedding of Cana, the coming together of a man and a woman in marriage, where Jesus is with Mary (His mother) and where water is turned to wine (2:1-11). On the upper vertical beam is the story of Jesus finding Mary (of Magdala) at the tomb, where love meets in His resurrection (20:1-18). Then at the ends of the horizontal beam of wood are two other stories of women and Jesus: the story of the Samaritan woman in 4:4-42 and the story of Mary (of Bethany) anointing the feet of Jesus in 12:1-11. On the sixth day of creation God created the man and the woman in His own image and likeness. When the man saw the woman he exclaimed, “This is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” and they became one flesh, and “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:24-31; 2:18-25). The correspondence of all this—in John and in Genesis—is intuitive, but unmistakable.

The Wedding in Cana

John the Baptist had said that he only baptized in water but the One coming after Him will baptize in the Holy Spirit. On the “third day,” reminding us of our Lord’s resurrection which was also on the third day, Jesus turned water from six stone waterpots, according to the Jews’ rite of purification, into nuptial wine, better than the first that had been served.

Jesus also commanded us to baptize in water, but with the laying on of hands by which the neophyte enters the church, this baptism becomes a baptism in the Holy Spirit. (The convert receives the Holy Spirit that fell upon the church in the beginning.) Joined to the Bride, the believers are in Christ, who is the House of God where they now have an abiding place (14:2).

On the “third day” (reminding us of the Lord’s resurrection) is a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It is as if the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb brings us immediately into a wedding scene. On Easter, Mary (of Magdala) will be waiting at the tomb in a garden, a garden that has reminiscences of the scene in Eden where the first wedding took place. There Mary would meet the One whom she loved. There, in her, the people of Israel will meet the One whom they loves, reminding us of the language of the prophets who spoke of God’s marriage to Israel. And of course, the scene speaks of every believer, and, by anticipation, of the church, who meets the Lover of our soul. Like in the Garden of Eden, however, we who meet our Lord and Lover are in fact a new creation, issuing from the water and blood that flowed from His wounded side (of which the new wine of the wedding seems to allude).

But first, the scene takes us to the old creation. The marriage of God and Israel, to which God is irrevocably committed, had not gone well—the wine had run out. When we hear these words, “the wine ran out,” we think of the embarrassment to the groom and bride. There was so much joy in the wedding feast but the resources of the two families could not sustain the celebration. Cana means reed, as in a “cane,” and speaks of weakness and fragility (Isaiah 42:3). This tragedy resonates on the level of our humanity. It speaks of all the sorrow of our human condition. As the feast of life wears on, we do not have the resources to sustain it. We run out of the wine of joy. We stare at the great disappointment of life. Like the empty jugs of wine, we are empty, and that emptiness gnaws at us. We either seek to fill it with substitutes or we resign ourselves to the sadness. Only one thing fills our emptiness, God Himself. The substitutes that we seek in human love, in wealth, in pleasure, in achievement, in imitation—these are all substitutes for God. As we wreck ourselves on one of these after another—or we give up—we are never satisfied, for nothing can take the place of God.

Mary the Mother of Jesus

We do not see the actual bride and groom in this story, but we see Mary and Jesus, in that order. Mary is there at the entrance to the story, already there and singled out among the guests before Jesus and His disciples arrive. Like in the Gospel according to Luke, Mary is there in the beginning and represents the epitome of the work of God’s grace among the people of Israel. It is she to whom the angel Gabriel appears with the Word of God and who offers herself to be a Temple of God, indeed, who offers her humanity to be the material of which the Son of God becomes incarnate. In her own person she represents Israel particularly and all humanity in general—she represents the work of God’s redeeming grace among them—when she says, “Behold, the slave of the Lord. May it happen to me according to your Word” (Luke 1:38). Those words were the hinge on which the ages turned.

Likewise here when the wine runs out, it is she who turns to Jesus and says, “They have no wine.” Her words are simple and express her compassion, but she receives what seems like a rebuke from Jesus, “Woman, what do I have in this that concerns you? My hour has not yet come.” His “hour” will not find its fulfillment until His death and resurrection (see John 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 16:25, 32; 17:1). This distancing of Jesus indicates that that which is about to happen, the turning of the water into wine, will only be symbolic of the actual fulfillment—of wedding and wine—that waits for “His hour.” It is the actual fulfillment with which Jesus has to do and which is the concern of both mother and Son. “What I have in this” will merely be a sign of that. Hopefully this alerts the one who hears the Gospel according to John to recognize the miracle as only a sign, but nevertheless as a sign, of His hour which is yet to come.

Mary continues to carry out the role of the one who brings Jesus into the world and says to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do.” In this she does not bring anything of her own, nor does she introduce anything. There is nothing new in what she says. She simply indicates Jesus and calls people’s attention to Him. Her role is to bring the Son of God into the world and to direct the world to Him, “Do whatever He says to you.” Her role models our own and the church’s.

 Waterpots Filled to the Brim

“Now there were six stone waterpots lying there, according to the Jews’ rite of purification, holding two or three measures each. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the waterpots with water.’ And they filled them to the brim.”

Six without the seventh (which speaks of the completion of work and the rest of satisfaction), indicates our human limitations, and thus the oldness of our human enterprise. The Sabbath never came and Israel—and certainly humanity—never entered the Promised Land of God’s rest (Psalm 95). And indeed Israel’s marriage to YHWH, disrupted by Israel’s unfaithfulness, still awaits its nuptial bliss (so speak all the prophets). The water in the six waterpots, then, also signifies the ages of labor, of purification and repentance, and humility under the judgment of God. Jesus’ death brings this to completion. He thus brings the Sabbath rest and Himself becomes our resting place, the abode of God and humanity as one.

The Water Becomes Wine

“Draw some out now,” Jesus tells the servants, and they see that the water has become wine. The master of the feast notes that the order of things has been inverted. “Everyone sets out the good wine first … you have kept the good wine until now.” John the Baptist already called our attention to the fact that Jesus came after him. The first wine is like that of Moses and the Torah and the religion of Israel and the Baptist himself. Jesus comes to the wedding late and yet He has hidden within Him the fullness of the wedding, “the good wine.” The creation of the man and the woman takes place at the end, on the sixth day. The steward does not witness the miracle; it is hidden from his eyes, the servants simply bring him the new wine. So the “fullness” is hidden within Israel, as the Baptist said, “Among you stands One whom you do not know” (1:26). Jesus is still hidden from the eyes of Israel, yet “all Israel” (Romans 11:26) will share in the renewed marriage celebration that He brings. The joy of the wedding is restored and it is better than at first as the new wine is better than the old.

He Manifested His Glory

This sign, the first of Jesus’ signs, manifests His glory, as will the last of the signs in this gospel, the manifestation of His resurrection on Easter Sunday. The fulfillment of the wedding celebration between the man and the woman in Cana, accomplished by the supply of “the good wine,” manifested the glory of Jesus as a sign.  The appearance of Jesus to Mary at the tomb was a sign even closer to the reality. The reality of the resurrection was more than the manifestation of it. Through His death and resurrection His humanity was divinized and became omnipresent. He Himself entered His disciples—and enters us—through the Holy Spirit, and through that indwelling we enter Him in a timeless—eternal—way (so that we were already in Him before, on the cross, in His earthly life).

We, seeing literally, think of Him as having met the need of the wedding party. He did indeed meet their need; that was the miracle. The manifestation of His glory was hidden in this—available for those who have eyes to see it. The manifestation of His glory was in the sign, in that which the miracle signified, even more than the miracle itself. That which the miracle signified points forward to the meaning of “the good wine,” which is related to the significance of the wedding, the union of the man and the woman. Wine obviously speaks of pleasure, which leads us to the hidden intimacy of the man and woman where their love is fulfilled. And the woman: the good wine speaks of our participation in the resurrection of Jesus. What took place in the resurrection included us. The “good wine” is about the gift of the Holy Spirit by which what Jesus brought forth in resurrection becomes our own—with Him.

Sexuality fulfilled thus becomes the sign of Christian spirituality, of our life in the Holy Spirit by which we participate in the divine nature through its hypostatic union with human nature in Jesus. Not only is there this union between the divine and the human, a union of natures in which they are inseparable, there is also the personal union—as in marriage—between Christ and the church, between Christ and the believer. We are “in love” with Jesus as He is with us. In this union, we do not lose ourselves, yet we are not the same: we are the biological woman in the relationship, receiving from Christ the gift of Himself which we nurture inside us with our own substance and offer back to Him.

As our love for Jesus grows in our nuptial bond with Him—in the depths of our love-dazed contemplation and communion—so does our participation in all that He is, His humanity and divinity, His temporality and His eternity. This participation and “becoming” increases and grows from one degree of glory to the next, day by day without end, into the eternal day (2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:16).

The Hour of His Death

The wine, alas, also speaks of our Lord’s poured out blood mixed with the water of eternal life. In the Gospel according to John, as throughout the New Testament, the new life of resurrection is inseparable from our Lord’s death. The “hour” of His resurrection is inseparable from the hour of His death. His radiance of His glorification, associated with His resurrection, is inseparable from the darkness of His death.

We do not greedily grasp at the gift of new life as if it cost nothing. We cannot be mere consumers here, treating this gift as a commodity. The “good wine,” the new life that He won for us, the eternal life represented by the living water, He possessed within Himself as the life within a grain of wheat. This eternal life is His own divine life as the Son of God. But for that life to be shared with us, that grain of wheat had to fall into the ground and die. That eternal life is mixed with His own poured blood. He spilt His own soul in death for us. Not only did He die, as others die, but His death bore the whole weight of the curse, of the judgment of God, of the divine abandonment. He offered up His life, His soul, freely and boldly, for love’s sake, in His “mad” (extravagant) divine love for us. But it cost Him: it cost Him infinitely (“unto the end”), if that can bear any meaning for us.

So we do not greedily grasp at the gift. We receive the gift with pain, pain for His pain, and we fall in love with the Giver. There can be no other way, if we have indeed received this gift with any awareness, with any appreciation at all. The wine of joy is not just “wine.” It is the wine of love that knows no end to its debt. 

Eucharistic Wine

When we share in the Lord’s Supper we drink this “good wine.” The cup of the new covenant is this very same wine, the wine of blood. We drink it in our participation of His resurrection, after we eat the bread, and therefore we drink it in deep appreciation of what it cost. The wine that we drink is the wine of our union in marriage, of a marriage that waits to be fulfilled when He comes again to receive us to Himself. It is wedding wine. We drink now of what is yet future, participating in faith what we wait for in hope. Yet our participation is nonetheless real.

We are in the world we are a widow (the world has rejected our Husband); but inwardly we are the bride anticipating the consummation of our marriage. Yet, as our drinking the wine at the Supper attests, we already enjoy a foretaste of marriage in our communion with Him. The bridal chamber awaits our own resurrection, but even now we enjoy the kisses and caresses that anticipate it. In a sense, we are already wedded.

The Bride of Christ

We know from the Old Testament Scriptures that the bride of YHWH is Israel. Israel married, was sent off because of her unfaithfulness (though YHWH never forsakes her), and in the days of the Messiah becomes a fresh bride again. The Messiah’s church is also spoken of as the bride of Christ. In the Book of the Revelation, the wife of the Lamb includes Israel and the church, and the gates of the City (the Wife) are open to the nations as well. The circle grows: perhaps, in eternity, the creation itself becomes the Lambs wife. The church also knows the individual believer to be the bride of Christ. The Song of Songs lends itself to all these interpretations, the last one being the easiest. The bride is the soul of the believer, and the Song relates the joyous yet difficult process it has to undergo before it overcomes its own immaturity and becomes the Queen.

In the Old Testament there is another Woman, a divine Consort, namely the Wisdom of God, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). The wisdom of God is that by which creation participates in God and knows God. Probably the Wisdom of God is the Spirit of God; not the Second Person of the Trinity but the Third. The Holy Spirit did not abide in the old creation but was nevertheless constantly at work upon it. Now through the death and resurrection of Christ, the Holy Spirit begins its indwelling and coinherence in the creation.

That in us which loves Christ is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit causes our “face,” our “personhood,” to respond to the personhood of Christ. In a way, when Christ loves the church as His own Body, it is the Holy Spirit whom He is loving. How else can the church be without spot or wrinkle (Ephesians 5:27)? The church is the church by the Holy Spirit dwelling in it. The wonderful thing is that we are being divinized in the process so that when Christ enters into intimate marital union with the Holy Spirit, it includes us—more and more. We love the Lord, but the love with which we love the Lord is the Holy Spirit within us loving Christ, and yet that love with which we love Him is our own. This is what happens in the process of sanctification. The Holy Spirit who mingles with our spirit begins to penetrate and divinize our souls—as they die day by day—and when we are resurrected from the dead, even our bodies participate in eternal life, being divinized by the Holy Spirit.

So the wedding in Cana has a great deal of significance. As the first sign of Jesus and the first sign in this gospel, it encapsulates the significance of the entire gospel story that follows. Let us enjoy this wine of Jesus and fall deeply in love with our Groom.

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