The account of the wedding at Cana is a fascinating look into everyday life in the days of Jesus, and it sounds in some ways very similar to our own experience.
Weddings were a very important part of social life in the first century, as they are now. Can we imagine a village where everyone know everyone, and where everyone is probably closely or distantly related to everyone? Then take away all modern forms of entertainment: no tv, no cinema, no internet or smartphones. For this reason alone a wedding was a great event. And the couple getting married was expected to provide a great celebration for the whole village, and likely also people from neighbouring villages. The celebration could last a week.
This event was so significant for the life of the new couple that if it went off badly, such as running out of food or drink, the new couple could even be sued. Which would be a tragedy for them, to begin their life together in disgrace and in debt.
What would you be doing when the worst happens, and the wine actually runs out? You would probably send up a few arrow prayers for help. It just so happened that Mary the mother of Jesus was there, and Jesus had also been invited with his mates. Cana was only 8 kilometres from Nazareth, so it could be reached in under 2 hours on foot. Possibly even Jesus’ family was related to the bride or groom.
Mary somehow noticed that the wine had run out, and she tells Jesus. Clearly already she knew how special her son was. She had the faith to believe that he could do something to help the young couple.
Mary’s intervention has always been seen as very significant. For many Christians it has become the basis for praying to Mary, and asking her to pray for us to her Son. I think for us Anglicans, Mary shows us how we can approach Jesus ourselves for what we need. And we can bring to Jesus even something that otherwise might seem trivial and a waste God’s time, like not having enough wine for a wedding.
Mary became the channel for God’s grace at the wedding. In doing so she shows that any of us can be channels of grace for someone else. She believed in her Son. She wanted to help those who were dear to her. She knew where to turn. She opened a path of blessing from God for her neighbours.
I expect most of us though have had those days when we would like to get away from it all, especially from other people. In the early centuries of the church, around the years AD350 to 400, some Christians felt they could get closer to God if they just got away from everybody. So they went into the desert to live alone in caves and huts. Today we call them the desert fathers and mothers. They left behind stories and writings about what they learned in the desert.
The first thing they learned in the silence of the desert was that by leaving society they had been judging everyone. Had not Jesus said, judge not, and you will not be judged.
The second thing they learned was that the only way to get away from the habit of judging everyone else was to be more aware of their own faults. This highlights how important is our tradition of having a confession in our worship, a time for being honest with God. The gospel delivers us from the need to pretend we are all right and good.
The third thing they learned in the desert was that through their neighbour they would connect with God. It was only as they helped their neighbour to receive the grace of God that they found God themselves.
This is really like the commandment to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. It means that a healthy church is where we seek to stay connected with God by seeking to help others connect with God. We ‘win’ God by converting one another. And we convert one another by our own truthful awareness of our own frailty and weaknesses.
So Mary, when she in effect prays for the wedding couple by approaching her Son, she is herself acting as we should when we do church. In doing this, she made the God connection that she desired, that we all desire. In helping each other to connect with God we will find him for ourselves.
And of course Jesus demonstrates this for us on the cross. Without counting the cost to himself, he went to the cross and died for us. In doing so, in recognising his complete self-offering for the world, God raised him from the dead and gave him the place of honour over everything.
All of this comes together in the deeper symbolism that John gives us in the account of the wedding in Cana. The six water jars were, as John tells us, for the purpose of obtaining ritual purity according the law of the old testament. But that was all the water in the jars could do: it could only provide ritual, outward cleansing. What is needed is cleansing of the heart. And Jesus provided that by demonstration when he changed the water into wine. He transforms lives with his new life. It looks forward to the wine of the new covenant, the wine of the last supper, and the fact that wine then and now is seen as a source of joy and celebration, as in a wedding feast.
The whole event of the wedding at Cana is summed up by John as a sign, not a miracle. John says towards the end of his gospel that he has written what he has written so that the reader may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing we may have life in his name. If we follow the signs in John’s gospel, we will arrive at a destination, and that destination is life. When John speaks of ‘life’, he is talking about more than just being alive. He is meaning a higher quality of life, a spiritual order of being, something not subject to change or decay, like everything else we usually place our hopes in.
Wine is certainly not essential to life. We can do without it. Religion is also not essential for life, and many quite safely do without that. But there is another faith, with Christ in it.