Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Wedding and the Wine

The Wedding at Cana, Paolo Veronese
Here's how the story goes. 
     On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
     “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
     His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
     Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
     Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
     Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
     They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine.  He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew.
     Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
     What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:1-11)
What was going on at the wedding feast at Cana, and why is it in the Bible? Jesus said and did a lot of things; John 21:25 says if all of them were detailed the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. With so many stories to tell, why did this one make the cut? Just because it was the first public miracle?

Students and preachers throughout the years have drawn all kinds of principles from this story.
Sometimes it’s held up to defend wine. It’s perennially quoted at weddings to claim that by doing his first miracle at a wedding, Jesus was blessing the institution of marriage.  

Recently I heard this claim two times in one day. As I dozed off to sleep I re-read Jan Karon’s A Common Life (that's the one where Father Tim and Cynthia get married) and then a few hours later, when my attempts to fight jetlag flagged, I watched the royal wedding on TV. Yup, it’s right there in the words of the Anglican wedding service. I scratched my head and asked: Am I the only one that thinks maybe that’s not really the point?

To be fair, the Anglican service doesn’t go as far as many preachers do with this.
The version we heard at Westminster says: “holy matrimony… is an honourable estate, instituted of God himself, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee…”  

I decided it was time to dig a little deeper into this story. Is there some good reason people say Jesus likes weddings because he made water into wine at a wedding?

Wine for the Wedding

John says this miracle was “a sign.” A sign is given to point to or confirm something, e.g., to reveal his glory, to show that Jesus is the Messiah. Of course Mary pretty much knew he was, and the disciples suspected it. The servants and wedding guests didn’t see what was going on behind the scenes. The servants saw that something miraculous had happened, but didn’t know the reason. The guests just knew there was more wine.  

Is there something special about wine? Your oenophiles may say that’s obvious, but I had to study this a bit more. Looks like when the Bible talks about wine it usually represents delight – a holy joy. Oil is blessing, wine is joy. To run out of wine, to have no wine, means you are desolate (Isaiah 24:11). So maybe when Mary says there is no more wine it's like saying: these people need some joy; can you do something about it?

What's special about feasts? Maybe that's easier. I get it. And I read that the fulfillment of God’s kingdom is described as a lavish banquet prepared by God for all peoples and featuring choice meat and fine wine.
"The LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain;
A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow,
And refined, aged wine.
And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples,
Even the veil which is stretched over all nations." (Isaiah 25:6-7)
Then, weddings. Is Jesus one of those rare men who really digs weddings? Or does this point to something else as well? The image of God putting on a wedding banquet comes up several times. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a marriage banquet (Matthew 22:1-14)  and John, writing again at the end of his life, describes heaven as the wedding feast for Jesus and his bride - the bride being a holy city or congregation of people from every tribe and nation purchased and redeemed by God.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)
Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 9:7-9)
When you tie together the miracle the wedding feast in Cana with the wedding feast of heaven, I start to get it. Jesus is miraculously providing fine wine, or great joy, in the context of a wedding. It’s not just about that wedding, or weddings in general. It's more about celebrating the fulfillment of the long-held hopes and promises of scripture: that's right, everything is going to come together.

Marriage itself points to this bigger reality. It seems the Anglicans got it right: human marriage itself is designed not just to perpetuate the race and comfort and strengthen human beings and communities - all HUGE blessings - but is also a sign, “signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.”

Seem a tad esoteric? Would you prefer a great marriage than to be united with your Creator? I believe we're designed to want and have great marriages partly so we'll get what it's like to be united with our Creator. At least that's what the Bible seems to teach when it talks about marriage.

Isaiah prophesies a wedding, John opens his description of the ministry of Christ with a wedding, and the Bible concludes with a wedding. Feasting and fine wine – God’s blessing, great joy – is part of all of them. Jesus announces his kingdom in various ways, but here he does it by changing water into wine – miraculously making something holy and joyful where it was not deserved or expected. And pointing to something that will shake the universe.

The final wedding feast, the one described in Revelation, is made possible by a much greater sacrifice: he's not just the host and the groom, but also the wine.
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." (Luke 22:20)


Paul said...

Stated well, Marti. Thanks!

Dave Moody said...

Good insights Marti... John is such a richly layered witness. Not sure one can ever run out of connections he makes. Thanks!


Marti said...

Paul, thanks! It's fun to get back into blogging after flagging for a while because it helps me think things through better.

Dave, that's so true; everything John writes is rich in meaning. Well put.

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