Jesus’ first sign in the Gospel of John takes place at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Although the wedding occurs at the beginning at John’s gospel, it takes place “on the third day,” immediately putting us in mind of post-resurrection realities.
The wedding feast, then, is not just a wedding. As we find in the writings of the prophets and throughout New Testament, marriage is a symbol of Israel’s covenant relationship with God and the wedding banquet is a metaphor for the joy of the age to come. For John, the eschatological wedding feast has already begun when Jesus appears on the scene.
So how does one participate in the eschatological banquet with Jesus? As I have written previously, the Gospel of John is the most sacramental of the four gospels. The waters of baptism and the wine of holy communion are both prefigured here. The servants plunge their vessels into the waters of purification and withdraw vessels filled with wine to gladden the heart. Something similar happens to baptized Christians, whose lives are filled with the joy only Christ can give.
Like the wedding feast, the fruit of the vine is a stock image in the prophetic canon. Good wine is both God’s gift to his people and what he looks for from his people. God blesses the land of promise with the fruit of the vine. But Israel is also God’s vineyard; God looks for good wine but too often finds bloodshed. Just as the wine the servants found in their vessels was meant to be shared with all the guests, so the wine of Jesus is not for me alone; it, too, is to be poured out for others.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaims that he is the true vine; only those who abide in him bear fruit that glorifies God. And in John 6, we learn that abiding in Jesus is nothing less than eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
The wine that Jesus gives is something new and unexpected in a thousand-year old religion. One typically sees movements filled with inspiration and enthusiasm at their beginnings evolve into staid and stable institutions as they age. Could God have saved the best wine for Israel’s second millennium? Jesus says, “Yes.”
At one level, this is a wonderful story of Jesus’ power and his compassion for a newly married couple about to be greatly embarrassed by a social faux-pas, perhaps engendered by poverty. It’s also the story of Mary’s faith, even when she didn’t fully understand what Jesus was up to. “Do what he says” is good advice for all of us. For John, however, it is also a sign of another banquet, another cleansing and another kind of wine.