According to John’s Gospel, the first miracle Jesus performs in his public ministry is to turn water into wine at a wedding. John’s Gospel calls the miracles “signs” because through them we see the glory of God, a theme John introduces in the first chapter (John 1:14, 18) and carries through to the end (John 20:29). This sign meant seeing God’s glory at a feast – a wedding banquet. We have to admit, however, that this seems like a strange way for Jesus to start his ministry – and not only because we are currently in Lent, a season of fasting. This miracle seems to lack the drama and compassion of his other acts with which we are so familiar; no suffering person is healed, no demon exorcised, no tables overturned, no water walked on. Indeed, it seems the only result of this miracle is that a bunch of partiers get to keep drinking, not exactly something that immediately suggests God’s glory. John writes,
“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)
When we read this account in the context of the entire story of scripture, which John has urged his readers to do by starting his Gospel “in the beginning” at the creation of the world (John 1:1), we begin to see the significance of the sign. Of all the metaphors used to describe Israel’s relationship with God in the Old Testament, none is more significant than the wedding metaphor. This metaphor starts in the Old Testament when God calls Israel’s ancestor Abraham into a covenant—this is marriage imagery. The scriptures continue to describe God’s love of his people as a jealous love like that of a spouse. And in the ideal picture, the people say of their God, in the words of the Song of Songs, “My beloved is mine and I am his.” (Song of Songs 2:16). The nuptial metaphor is also used to explain sin; when the nation of Israel strays from the law it is described as unfaithful. When the people of Israel worship other gods they are said to be committing adultery.
From this perspective, Israel’s exile from God’s presence near the end of their story can be understood as a divorce, the sundering of that covenantal relationship, the ending of the happy marriage feast – instead of seeing God’s glory at a feast, everything has gone wrong. Isaiah draws on this image when he prophesies,
“The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth. . .the new wine dries up and the vine withers; all the merrymakers groan. The joyful timbrels are stilled, the noise of the revelers has stopped, the joyful harp is silent. No longer do they drink wine with a song.” (Isaiah 24:5-9)
Likewise, the prophesied restoration or return from exile often takes the image of a new wedding and new feasting. So the prophet Jeremiah says:
“‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them.’” (Jeremiah 31:31-32)
This new covenant will be marked, Isaiah prophesies, with “a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines.” (Isaiah 25:6)
The setting of Jesus’s first miracle as a wedding is not, therefore, insignificant to its meaning. It brings to the reader’s mind this familiar ancient metaphor. And what springs Jesus to action in this story is specifically the occasion of the wine running out, the wedding feast ending prematurely. If we understand that image as a reference to exile, then Jesus’ miracle of bringing new wine for the new feast signals in his ministry, beginning in this moment, the inauguration of the new wedding covenant that occurs through him. That this marital union is new and, in the words of Jeremiah, not like the old one, is suggested by the words of the host to the groom: “you have saved the best till now.”
But how is this union new? How is it not like the old one? Put another way, why will this new marriage not fail as the old one had? Again, the imagery in this story provides insight. Jesus made new wine not out of just any water, but specifically out of the water in the stone jars that Jews used to purify themselves in preparation for, among other things, offering the sacrifice in the Temple. The water in these jars is symbolic of the old Jewish religion focused on the cult of animal sacrifice, a religion predicated to some degree on our actions and our sacrifices, which could never fully deliver us from our sin. In turning this purifying water into new wine, Jesus demonstrates that the marriage between God and his people in Christ puts an end to the old way of doing things. No longer will our relationship with God be based on the things we do or the sacrifices we make. But now, the marriage relationship between God and his people in Christ is based not on our actions but on what Christ, who is God himself, has done.
The image of the new wine points forward to a second time that wine will be the center of the Gospel story: that moment on the night before his crucifixion, that Jesus will take a cup of wine and say, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:20) It is through the sacrifice of Jesus, then, that the new marriage with God will be inaugurated.
But the story of the first miracle also reminds us that the death of Christ, necessary for our salvation, is not the last word, but rather is ultimately defeated in resurrection. The image of the wine at last points to the wedding feast, the celebration that is eternal life in the presence of the risen bridegroom. It is the feast of reconciliation which Jesus taught about in various parables. It is the feast the Father throws when his prodigal son returns home, the feasting the angels experience in heaven when a lost sinner is found, the feast of the banquet where the host throws the doors open and invites everyone in, with the host himself providing the appropriate garments. Perhaps a feast can reveal God’s glory after all.
Jesus, like the prophets of old, refers to this feast of restoration at the Last Supper when he says, “I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29) When we celebrate communion, then, we are not only remembering what Christ did for us on the cross in the past, we are eating and drinking in anticipation of the great heavenly feast that awaits us. And God’s glory will be manifest at the heavenly banquet in our midst, just as it was seen in the wedding in Cana where Jesus’s ministry of reconciliation began.