John 2:1-12, The Beginning of Signs

[January 20, 2013] Epiphanytide is the season of Jesus’ manifestation. John the Baptist had said, “I came baptizing in water so that [Jesus] might be manifested to Israel … He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:31-34). Last Sunday we celebrated the manifestation of Jesus at His baptism. “Heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “You are My Son, the Beloved; in You I have found My delight.” Today we recall “the beginning of His signs” which “Jesus did in Cana of Galilee,” when He “manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him (2:11).

Before we approach this story, it might be well to orient ourselves to the peculiarities of the Gospel according to John. While it is an historical account by an eyewitness, the witness was not a member of the Twelve but a disciple from Jerusalem. The gospel is carefully arranged around a small number of events in which figures, metaphors and symbols are highly significant. These events are meticulously structured in a pattern of six concentric squares, oriented along a vertical and horizontal axis, as if in a cruciform, a seventh layer along with a prelude and postlude extending the vertical beam. The seven layers correspond to the days of creation, moving outward from the appearance of light (“I am”) in the midst of chaos (6:16-21) to the abiding rest of the Sabbath (1:19-51 and 20:19-31).

On the sixth day of creation, God made the animals of the land, and lastly humans among them to represent His image and to be the guardians and protectors of His creation. God made them in His image as male and female, and blessed them to be fruitful and multiply. It is not surprising then that there are four scenes that correspond to this, each involving a woman (thrice her name is Mary), and each carrying at least an allusion to nuptial union, pointing to the sacred marriage of God and humanity, of Christ and His beloved, the church, or the individual believer: the wedding of Cana, the woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria, Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’s feet with her tears, and Mary of Magdala at the tomb on Easter morning. From these four points, the Gospel according to John moves visually inward toward the central “I am” or outward from the same. Narratively, the first moves upward through the center toward the last; the second moves horizontally through the center to the third.

Yet, this theme of the sacred marriage is not peculiar to these four stories but permeates the whole of the gospel. For example, see 3:29; but ardent love and union, eating, immersion and wetness and fountains, indwelling and birthing are the symbols or suggested in symbols and symbolism throughout the gospel. Indeed, each part of the gospel imbibes the whole, and this most natural and earthy of realities is prominent in the gospel suggestive of its heavenly ground. The gospel, of course, is more interested in the interior reality, but let it be noted that it is so without disparaging the earthiness of the conduits that guide us there. There is no conflict; but the inner is grateful to (and sanctifies) the outer when the outward can be translucent to its secrets.

“On the third day”: The third day is suggestive of the resurrection, when Jesus emerged from the womb of the earth and found Mary of Magdala weeping for love of Him. As we suggested above, these two stories correspond to each other. Three is the first number that can enclose, and so is associated with holiness and the sanctuary, marriage and the home, and the three hypostases of God.

“There was a wedding”: Though we do not see the ceremony of the wedding, only the feast, and we never get to meet the couple, the central symbol of this scene is the union of this unseen couple. A wedding is where the two become one in a union of love, a union that is expected to be fruitful, expected to add value to the community, first in terms of the happiness of the couple, and hopefully in terms of children, and hence the celebration. The wedding is suggestive of the sacred marriage, the union of God with His people, of Christ’s marriage to His own, not only collectively but personally. Behind this is our intimate involvement and participation in the ecstatic union within God of the Son and the Holy Spirit, the real Bride of Christ. Our new birth, the other motif of the gospel, initiates our divinization, which is an initiation not into monism but into the play of love (between One and Another—Christ and the Spirit—yet Who are not simply Two but co-inhere as One).

“In Cana of Galilee”: Cana, which means “reed” (hence the word, cane), speaks of weakness. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” “A battered reed He will not break off” (Matthew 11:7; 12:20). It is suggestive of the condition of our humanity.

“And the mother of Jesus was there,” there in Cana: she who gave Him birth. The Gospel according to John records no stories of Jesus’ nativity, yet here when Mary first comes on the stage and says to her Son, “They have no wine,” she initiates the manifestation of His glory. She said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.” In this way she gives birth to Him in the sphere of humanity: He “manifested His glory” for the first time and “His disciples believed in Him.” Mary is not named in this gospel—she is “the mother of Jesus,” she functions as such—but her name is no secret. Allusions to the Torah are rife in this gospel; more so than in the others which focus more on the prophetic tradition. Miriam was the sister of Moses who guarded over his ark and spoke to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call a nurse for you from the Hebrew women that she may nurse the child for you?” and called her own (and his) mother. She was the prophetess who took the timbrel in her hand and heading a dance with all the women led Israel in the song of triumph when they “walked on dry land through the midst of the sea,” the symbol of Israel’s birth from its womb in Egypt. Miriam is a symbol of the female.

The meaning of her name, Miriam in the Old Testament, is not certain. Many Levite names are Egyptian, in which case it might be related to the Egyptian word for “beloved” (as in the name Merari). If it is Hebrew, some scholars relate it to the word for rebellion (mara), as in the name Meribah. Another possibility is that it comes from a combination of two words, mar and yam. Mar can mean bitter or myrrh from the root marar, which means bitter or strong. Yam means sea. So Miriam could also mean Strong Waters, or Waters of Strength (source). All of these hints are suggestive when it comes to the Gospel according to John, for Mary is not only the name of Jesus’ mother but also of Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala. We probably also cannot dissociate the sense of the name from the bitterness of suffering, for those women who loved Jesus suffered with Him, as Simeon said: “A sword will pierce even your own soul” (Luke 2:35). Both bitterness and myrrh evoke the sense of grief, the feeling of loss and death. Yet water is also a symbol that is woven throughout the Gospel according to John, and it is interesting that it might be part of Mary’s name. On the positive side water (and wetness) is associated with the satisfaction of thirst, conception, birth, baptism, life and anointing. On the negative side it is associated with the chaos of the sea, the living death of being in the world. In our present story, “there were six stone waterpots set there for the Jewish custom of purification.” They were empty and Jesus told the servants to fill them with water, and it is this water that became wine.

But before that happened, “The wine ran out.” Wine is associated with rejoicing and celebration. Yet here it has run out. Is this a description of Israel, Israel since the days that the prophets awakened them to their true condition? God called Israel to be His wife and she has been unfaithful. The language is always patriarchal (and therefore with our awakened sensitivities, it is often painful to read), yet it is symbolic language meant to describe a condition of sin, of radical alienation. If it is a description of Israel, it describes the church no less, the Messiah’s qahal. Israel had its honeymoon days, and so did the church, but then the reality set in that we are still here in this abysmally empty world, a world depleted of meaning and hell-bent on making itself miserable with its obsessive grasping. The euphoric wine has run out and now we are sober. Our eyes are open. The waterpots, meant for purification, are empty.

The marriage feast is not over, though, and neither symbolically is the marriage (in spite of the language of divorce). Jesus says, “Fill the waterpots with water,” and they filled them to the brim. Suddenly this newly poured fresh water becomes wine, better wine than before, and the celebration can begin again. Water speaks of the satisfaction of thirst and gives life; wine adds to this the element of joy and, when enough is drunk as on such an occasion, of euphoria and elation. The couple have their ecstasy alone, but the friends of the bride and groom have a share in their joy; indeed, their joy is made full (John 3:29). The joy of the wedding party reflects and therefore outwardly symbolizes the couple’s own joy. When the wine is replenished, it is the marriage that is symbolically restored and renewed so that its joy is lifted to another level.

“My hour has not yet come,” Jesus tells His mother. Yet the water became wine. This miracle is but a sign of the reality that is to come. It is not simply a material miracle to impress on the crowds that Jesus possesses remarkable, even magical, powers. No one except the servants and Jesus’ mother and disciples apparently know that a miracle has taken place. The miracle is a sign only. It signifies something infinitely greater than the miracle itself. His “hour” in this gospel refers to the event of His death and resurrection or glorification (see 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 16:25, 32; 17:1). In the Gospel according to John this event brings about the “birth” of the Holy Spirit within His believers; the Holy Spirit as the divinizing Spirit of God comes into being in such a way that the Spirit of God can dwell in human beings—in a way that imparts the divinization of Jesus’ own humanity to them. It is not that the Spirit of God was not always here before. It is that the divinization of Jesus’ humanity in His resurrection and its communicability by His death—as something new—co-inhere in the Holy Spirit from that moment on in time. (Time here is moving towards eternity, towards that place from which it began and in a mysterious way never left; eternity unfolded in time and is now refolding.) Time is a relative thing with respect to revelation. The sign signifies this “hour,” but it is not the hour.

The wedding in Cana running out of wine and the six empty waterpots sitting there speaks of our lives, regardless of who we are. The wedding feast has lost its savor. Jesus has those waterpots filled to the brim—the water represents the reality that He embodies—and that water becomes the wine that revives the wedding, symbolizing the fulfillment of the sacred marriage, the union of the divine and the creature as Lovers in the love between the Word (the Son) and the Wisdom (the Spirit) of God.

Leave a Reply