January 17, 2016: Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
Gospel: John 2: 1-11 Link to USCCB site for all three readings.
There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee,
and the mother of Jesus was there.
Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding.
When the wine ran short,
the mother of Jesus said to him,
“They have no wine.”
And Jesus said to her,
“Woman, how does your concern affect me?
My hour has not yet come.”
His mother said to the servers,
“Do whatever he tells you.”
Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings,
each holding twenty to thirty gallons.
Jesus told them,
“Fill the jars with water.”
So they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them,
“Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.”
So they took it.
And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine,
without knowing where it came from
— although the servers who had drawn the water knew —,
the headwaiter called the bridegroom and said to him,
“Everyone serves good wine first,
and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one;
but you have kept the good wine until now.”
Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs at Cana in Galilee
and so revealed his glory,
and his disciples began to believe in him.
Every day that I post is another learning adventure, and I certainly learned something today—that there is an insertion of the Gospel of John in the Year C narrative of St. Luke. This is one of those unusual occurrences where a Catholic Mass attendee would hear on successive Sundays Gospels derived from three different evangelists. On the Feast of the Epiphany the narrative from St. Matthew was proclaimed. On the following Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, St. Luke’s description was proclaimed. This Sunday next, we have St. John’s narrative of the Wedding Feast of Cana.
The Catholic Church—as well as many mainstream Christian Churches—has a set sequence of scripture texts for universal use. Catholic pastors, for example, cannot just sit back in their office chairs and think about what texts would be interesting to talk about…or which ones would require the least amount of research and desk sweat. There is logic to our Sunday worship (and certainly weekday as well); in the case of the Scriptures, the Church has gone to great pains to present the faithful with three sequential narratives of the life and meaning of Jesus of Nazareth. Our three-year cycle dedicates Year A to the Gospel of Matthew, Year B to St. Mark, and our current Year C to St. Luke.
Thus, when the Church deviates from this established pattern, there must be compelling reason to do so. Which brings us back to the surprise visit from St. John’s Gospel this coming weekend. What is happening here?
Right off the bat, the text from St. John was carefully chosen. It is the famous Wedding Feast of Cana narration, the changing of six storage tanks of plain water into an exceptionally fine wine, so good in fact that the wine steward raises the somewhat humorous point that such a good wine was too fine for a wedding party that was pretty far down the road alcoholically and ready for the “well brand.” (One of my favorite cartoons, from New Yorker Magazine, involves budget wine.)
John writes that this miracle of Jesus is the first of his signs, actions that would reveal his glory (in the divine sense) and draw his disciples toward faith in him. John’s Gospel contains only about half a dozen miracles—in contrast to the other three Gospels—and John depiction of these miracles, familiar to all of you even remotely involved in the RCIA, is an entrée into a dialogue of coming to faith. Another way to put this: each of John’s miracle narratives is an epiphany of sorts, and this weekend we have his first epiphany placed before us.
A few weeks ago, when writing about the history of the feast of the Epiphany, I noted that in many parts of the world, dating to ancient times, the Epiphany feast of January 6 was actually a three-part liturgical and cultural observance that embodied the revelation of Christ’s glory to the Magi, the manifestation of Jesus’ unique relationship to his Father at his baptism from John the Baptist, and the first miracle of Jesus at the wedding in Cana. January 6, then, has historically observed the emergence of the divine nature of the man Jesus by conflating three separate Gospel narrations.
The Year C Lectionary of Readings has recaptured our past by extending the one feast of “Epiphany” over three distinct Sundays, concluding with our Sunday observance next week. It is unfortunate that the title of this Sunday in the calendar is the somewhat pedestrian “Second Sunday in Ordinary Time,” and I fear that the reading of the Cana wedding narrative may be heard by many as a familiar vignette, just one of Jesus’ many miracles, without the fuller context of history and belief embedded in our tradition.
As for Sunday’s text as it stands, the wedding feast occurs after Jesus has been baptized by John the Baptist, though the actual act of baptizing is not reported in this Gospel. After Jesus’ encounter with the Baptist, he gathers disciples—this, on the other hand, is tended to in considerable detail. As we will see, the following events at the wedding take place precisely so that these men may come to believe. Whether the shortfall of wine at this week-long fest is due in part to the presence of the hard-drinking fishermen is something we will never know. It is known that failure to provide enough wine at a wedding was a major disgrace to a family, though Mary’s charitable intervention on behalf of the host is not the theological focus. (I have been to a few weddings in my lifetime where running out of alcohol might have saved the host a lot of money.)
Interestingly, John does not use the name “Mary” in this text, and I cannot recall any instance in the entire Gospel where John does identify her as anything but “the mother of Jesus,” a highly honorific title in its own right. I have seen a number of misinformed explanations and interpretations of the mildly distressed conversation between Jesus and his mother; the very simple explanation, of course, is the need of a literary set-up for the miracle or sign. The word “wine” has theological coinage in the New Testament; consider “new wine in old wineskins.” In fact, this is exactly what happens here, as the waiters are instructed to fill “six stone water jars [drums]…for Jewish ceremonial settings. The Jewish containers are indeed “old wineskins;” the fact that there are six jugs puts them numerically one jug short of “seven,” the numeric symbol of perfection.
There is another key point here involving Jesus’ words to his mother. He tells her, “My hour has not yet come.” Again, the brilliant John has created another set-up, for in Chapter 17, at the conclusion of the Last Supper discourse, Jesus prays to his Father in these words: “Father, the hour has come! Give glory to your Son that your Son may give glory to you.” At the risk of repeating myself, John’s Gospel is structured as the unveiling of the glory of the divine and human Jesus. This Gospel was written as late as 100 AD, when heresies about the nature of Jesus were well developed, on both extremes of the spectrum. Jesus was portrayed by some as a divine ghost or mirage (Docetism) or by others as merely human, a concept that would become Arianism.
Properly understood, John’s Cana episode rounds out the identity phase of Jesus: in the triptych of Epiphany, Baptism, and first miraculous sign, we—like the disciples—have an inkling of the one we are to follow into glory.