The wedding feast at Cana, an event that witnessed the first miracle of Jesus as recounted in the Gospel of John (Jn 2:1-11), provides many messages and insights that come to mind simply by intently reflecting on the gospel story.
For instance, by His presence in the wedding feast, it is clear that Jesus blessed marriage itself and confirmed its sanctity. Mary’s remark to Jesus: “They have no wine” shows Mary’s solicitude and compassion towards the newly-wed couple. Also, the fact that Jesus performed the miracle despite His obvious reluctance and seeming lack of concern clearly manifests the love and importance He accorded His mother. Mary’s instruction to the servants “Do whatever He tells you” shows Mary’s faith in her Son and her role as one leading people to her Son.
The miracle of changing ordinary water into the best-tasting wine of the marriage feast manifested Jesus’ power, “revealing His glory,” and making the disciples believe in Jesus as one coming from God.
These insights derived from the text, however, are like scratching at the surface. The miracle itself, also called “sign”, leads us to ask the question: What is the meaning of this sign? Is there something more in this story that meets the eye? Is this event, with the circumstances surrounding it, related to or linked somehow with other events or passages in the Johannine Gospel, and/or other passages in the Old and New Testaments? Or is this incident to be taken merely at its surface value, that is, as a manifestation of Jesus’ accommodation to His mother and of His divine power that made his disciples believe in Him?
The four Gospels, especially the Gospel of John, contain narratives of events that are rich in imagery and allusions to other events in other parts of Scripture. What happened at the wedding feast at Cana is an example of such event. Applying biblical methods of interpretation, we can find deeper meanings that are not immediately discernible by merely reading the text of the narrative.
This brief essay is an attempt to draw out the hidden meanings and messages in the narrative of the wedding feast at Cana, essentially that the event forms part of a wider scriptural framework understanding which reveals the fuller divine plan. Reading the entire Johannine Gospel carefully, we cannot but see the link between the Cana story and the institution of the Eucharist as the central act of worship of the New Covenant. The wedding feast at Cana and the Eucharistic Liturgy both provide similar imagery to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, which is the heavenly worship described by John in the Book of Revelation.
To find out such link and allusions, we begin by listing the main elements of the Cana story. First, it was a feast celebrating the marriage of a groom and His bride. Second, among the invited guests were Jesus, Mary and the disciples. Third, the focal object was wine, which the couple ran out of and which would have caused them embarrassment if its continued supply at the celebration was not forthcoming. Fourth, there was an initial apparent rejection of His mother’s request because, as Jesus said, “My hour has not yet come.” Fifth, Jesus nevertheless produced the much-needed drink by first instructing the servants to put water into six big empty jars and then changing that water into wine. Sixth, the wine that Jesus provided was the best quality wine at that wedding feast. Finally, witnessing this, the disciples believed in Jesus’ power and Jesus’ glory was revealed.
The Water and Wine. First, we look at the water that was changed to wine. Jesus told the servants to fill up six big jars with water. These jars contained water used for Jewish ceremonial washings to purify persons that were defiled or unclean (see Num 19). What is changed into wine is not simply water, but water for Old Testament purification rituals. Jesus had this water replaced and changed it not simply into wine, but wine of finest quality and of surprising quantity (six jars of about twenty to thirty gallons each).
Why did Christ choose to use this kind of water to change into wine? Why not simply make several jars of such wine suddenly appear somewhere or delivered to the house as coming from a generous relative or benefactor? It would not be farfetched to say that this changing of water to wine is a symbol wrought by Jesus to indicate the passing of the Old to the New and that the New Covenant he established excels and transcends the Old Covenant rituals and practices. The changing of water into wine in abundance heralded the arrival of the Messiah, who had been expected to come in power and glory. [Collegeville Bible Commentary, p. 984]
In the Old Testament, wine has various allusions or meanings. “Abundant wine is frequently a sign of the eschaton or a prophetic figure of speech for the dawning of the messianic age (see Amos 9:13; Hos 2:24; Joel 4:18) [The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p.954] A large quantity of wine was provided by Jesus at that wedding celebration. Previous to that wedding feast attended by Jesus, John the Baptist identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world “ (Jn 1:29, 35) and as the promised Messiah (Jn 1:20-34). Jesus, the Messiah, the Lamb of God was there. He provided wine in abundance. The messianic age had arrived!
The “hour.” The most significant part of the narrative arousing the curiosity of the gospel reader is the part where Jesus, responding to His mother’s observation that there was no wine, says, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” The hidden assumption of this statement is that if His hour had already come, then he would be able to provide the wine that was needed by the newly wed couple to entertain their guests. In other words, something had to happen at that appointed hour and then He would be able to provide the wine needed or to do something comparable to providing wine for that wedding feast.
What then is Jesus’ “hour”? The Gospel of John mentions the word “hour” seventeen times in his Gospel. The real meaning of “the hour” that Jesus is referring to is his passion and death on the cross. And so it is. In Jn 7:30 it is said that the Jews “tried to arrest him, but no one laid a hand upon him, because His hour had not yet come.” When he spoke in the temple area, no one arrested him because His hour had not yet come.” (Jn 8:20) And then “Behold, the hour is coming and has arrived when each of you will be scattered to His own home and you will leave me alone. But I am not alone, because the Father is with me.” (Jn 16:32). And in Jn 12:27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say ‘Father, save me from this hour? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour.” [Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, The Gospel of John, Commentary, p. John 4]
Based on this understanding of “the hour” in “My hour has not yet come,” the interpretation follows that once His passion and death is realized and fulfilled, then Christ would be able to provide the wine comparable to the wine that was needed for the wedding feast at Cana. But then at that time, the wedding feast would be a past event. Nevertheless, as the account goes, Jesus provided the wine and provided it in great abundance. He did not wait for His passion and death to occur before providing wine at that marriage feast.
Apart from “the hour” found in the verses cited above, there are other situations in the Gospel of John where “the hour” is mentioned. Examining these could shed further light on other meanings of “the hour” Jesus spoke of at Cana.
One of these occurred when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well. (Jn 4:21 ) Jesus said to her, "Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.” Thus, this “hour” referred to by Jesus is associated with the activity of worship. Here Jesus is saying that the hour would come when the Jews and the Samaritans would worship Yahweh no longer in the temple of Jerusalem nor in Mt. Garizim, and this worship would no longer involve the killing of cows, sheep, goat and pigeons as in the temple to worship God, but all worshipers would worship God in spirit and in truth.
Another mention of “the hour” is found in Jn 5:25-28, which says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” This “hour” that is coming involves hearing the voice of the Son of God, who has been identified in Ch. 1 by John as the Word. When that happens, those who are dead and hear him will live. It is emphasized that hearing the voice of the Son of God is efficacious, it causing those who are dead to live. In this context, the dead can be interpreted to include those who are spiritually dead and upon hearing the Word they become spiritually alive.
Another instance occurred when Jesus was preaching before the Jewish Passover. The narrative recounts: “Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn 12:20-23). Why is the coming of some Greeks wanting to see Jesus related to the hour when the Son of Man is to be glorified? Because now for the first time, Jews and Greeks are coming to the Son of Man and forming the people of the New Covenant, and their worship glorifies the Son of Man.
During that same scenario Jesus continues: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24) Here Jesus is referring to His death on the cross and his being buried. The grain of wheat buried on the ground and “dying” is transformed into a plant bearing sheaves of wheat, which is the material that is made into bread. As the grain of wheat “”dies” and then bears much fruit, so has Jesus’ death caused the fruit of redemption to be applied to His people. Here we can also find an allusion to the Bread of the Eucharist, which we celebrate in memory of Christ’s passion and death.
On this same occasion, Jesus continues: “Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself." He said this indicating the kind of death he would die. (Jn 31-33)
Finally, this is the hour associated with Jesus departing from this world to heaven. “Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that His hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved His own in the world and he loved them to the end. … so, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into His power and that he had come from God and was returning to God ….” (Jn 13:1) he instituted the Holy Eucharist where He blessed bread and wine and changed these two species in to His body and blood. When Jesus ordered His apostles: “Do This in memory of me.” (Lk 22:19) He meant that this would be the memorial of His passion and death and those who would eat His body and drink His blood would have eternal life. Could this be the hour?
It is worth mentioning that Christ’s passion and death on cross took more than an hour. But why does Jesus say “the hour”? What takes place in Jesus’ hour? Looking at the various instances Jesus used the word “hour,” we can see the following “actions” that take place in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which usually takes about an hour.
The celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is the hour when “wine” of the finest quality is provided for the people of God in attendance. This “new wine” is the Blood of Christ which God gives to us by transforming our gift of wine to the Blood of His Son. At the feast that is the Mass, Jesus also provides us nourishment, through His Body that He gives to us in the form of bread, the fruit of the grain of wheat that dies and bears much fruit. The Liturgy of the Eucharist is where the people of the new covenant are given the opportunity to hear the voice of the Son of God through His word in the Scriptures and to become spiritually alive. Like at the wedding feast of Cana, Mary, the disciples and the communion of saints are present at the Mass, where the people of the New Covenant are worshiping God in spirit and in truth. Like at the wedding feast at Cana, Christ, the Messiah and Lamb of God sacrificed for us, is present and is glorified (“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory…”) by the worship of the people of God.
Everything that happened in “the hour” of Jesus – his passion and death on the cross is made present to us and brought to our life’s experience in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Going back to the wedding feast in Cana, we now see what Jesus meant when He said, “My hour has not yet come.” That hour, which is my passion and death on the cross, must happen first. And then I will provide you the finest of “wine” that will cause you joy and delight. Like He said to the woman at the well, I will give you living water that will make you no longer thirst. The hour is coming when all people will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth in the sacrifice, not of animals but of myself, which I did for love of you. The hour is coming when I will give you my Body to eat, in the form of bread made from the fruit of the single grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies. This bread will give you eternal life, unlike the manna in the desert. The hour is coming when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God and they shall live. All of this happens when we celebrate the Eucharist, which Jesus instituted at the Last Supper as the Sacrifice of the New Covenant, where Jews and Gentiles are all welcome and where we, together with the communion of saints, glorify God.
The link between the wedding feast of Cana account and the Eucharistic Liturgy, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has been established (hopefully) through the above analysis. A further link, between the Mass and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb as appearing in the Book of Revelation written by John is worth exploring. As initial information, the presence of the Lamb of God, the Paschal mystery, the marriage imagery, and community worship all form part of the Cana event, the Eucharistic Liturgy and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in Revelation. In his book The Lamb’s Supper, Dr. Scott Hahn calls the Mass as Heaven on Earth. Explaining this link could be the subject of a separate study and paper.
Paper in John and Paul Course
Submitted to Dr. Joseph Atkinson
Permanent Diaconate Program
Archdiocese of Washington
May 17, 2006
Revised Standard Version - Catholic edition
The New American Bible
C.H. Dodd, the Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, Cambridge University Press, 1968
The Gospel of John, With Introduction, Commentary, and Notes, by Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2003
The New Jerome Bible Commentary, Edited by Raymond Brown, SS, Joseph a. Fitzmyer, S.J., Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., Prentice Hall, 1968
The Collegeville Bible Commentary, Robert J. Karris, O.F.M. (Gen. Editor), The Liturgical Press, 1992
R. E. Brown, S.S., An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, 1996
Scott Hahn, Encountering Christ in the Gospels, Saint Joseph Communications, Inc., West Covina, CA, 1993 (audiotape)
Scott Hahn, The Lamb’s Supper, The Mass as Heaven on Earth, Doubleday, 1999