Cana, Signs, and Sacraments | Carl E. Olson | On the Readings for Sunday, January 17, 2016
• Is 62:1-5
• Ps 96:1-2, 2-3, 7-8, 9-10
• 1 Cor 12:4-11
• Jn 2:1-11
The Gospel of John contains some seventeen direct references to signs (semeia), which is St. John’s term for the miraculous deeds of Jesus. St. John is especially interested in how these various signs are manifestations of God’s new and transforming intervention in human history through the Word, the Logos. His Gospel is a profound reflection on the fact and mystery that God became man and dwelt among us, “full of grace and truth” (see Jn 1:1-14).
Chapters 2 through 12 of John’s Gospel are sometimes called collectively “The Book of Signs,” for they contain seven signs, or miracles, performed by Christ. These signs include the healing of the official’s son (Jn 4), the healing of the paralytic (Jn 5), the multiplication of the loaves (Jn 6), walking on water (Jn 6), the restoration of the blind man (Jn 9), and the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11).
The first sign, however, is the miracle at the wedding at Cana, proclaimed in today’s Gospel, which is found only in the Fourth Gospel. The exact location of Cana is unclear, but it was probably just a few miles north of Nazareth. The identity of the bride and groom are unknown, although a later tradition from about the third century states that Mary was the aunt of the bridegroom.
What is known, for it forms the crux of the story, is that something embarrassing had taken place: the wedding party ran out of wine. Mary, ever attentive to the needs of others, intercedes on behalf of the bride and groom, telling her son, “They have no wine.” She prays—that is, entreats—in faith, for the needs of those gathered for the feast. This foreshadows her prayers, as “Mother of all the living” and Mother of the Church, at the foot of the Cross, the saving way to the marriage feast of the Lamb (cf.Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2618, 1335, 963).
Jesus’ response is puzzling, perhaps even perplexing: “Woman, how does your concern affect me?” But the term “Woman” is not an insult, as some have argued incorrectly; it is actually a formal title of respect (cf. Matt 15:28). What is unusual is how Jesus, in speaking to his mother, uses the term without any qualifier. It indicates a changed relationship between son and mother (cf. Jn 19:26). Further, in using it, Jesus identifies Mary as the new Eve, whose obedience and faith will be an essential part of the new creation and a new family, the Church.
Jesus stated that his hour—the time of his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension (Jn 13:1)—had not yet arrived. Mary does not question him, or protest. Her words to the servers are words of invitation to all of us: “Do whatever he tells you.” She trusts her son, knowing he will do what is right and necessary. “The Mother of Christ presents herself as the spokeswoman of her Son's will,” observed Blessed John Paul II in Redemptoris Mater, “pointing out those things which must be done so that the salvific power of the Messiah may be manifested. At Cana, thanks to the intercession of Mary and the obedience of the servants, Jesus begins ‘his hour.’” (par 21).
The Church sees the miracle at Cana as a “confirmation of the goodness of marriage” (CCC 1613). But there is also a connection to baptism, for the jars used in the miracle were for ceremonial washings, for ritual purification from defilement. In the waters of baptism, we are cleansed by God’s grace and transformed by his power. Through baptism we become members of the Church, the bride of Christ, and are invited to partake of the blood of the bridegroom (CCC 1335).
“Now we all partake at the banquet in the church,” wrote the sixth-century saint, Romanus Melodus, “For Christ’s blood is changed into wine/And we drink it with holy joy/Praising the great bridegroom.”
First water, then wine; first baptism, then Eucharist. By these sacraments, perceptible signs, we are changed, cleansed, fed—and wed.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the January 17, 2010, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)