This is such a familiar story to us that we think we know what it’s about without even paying attention to it. We call it “The Wedding Feast in Cana”, and we note how Jesus attended a wedding and apparently liked to party like the rest of us. In the Eastern Churches, it’s part of Epiphany, or the “manifestation” of God’s presence in our ordinary world. They like to talk up the idea that Jesus can change ordinary things into extraordinary occasions of grace.
But the story really isn’t about the wedding, and it isn’t about how much Jesus liked to party. It’s not about Mary and her relationship with Jesus and it certainly isn’t about the disciples because they only became his followers in the paragraph preceding this one. And as much as I might enjoy making wine myself, it’s not about the miracle of the water being changed into a great vintage to replace the boxed wine the guests had apparently gotten used to drinking before Jesus changed it.
It is significant, I think, that John himself doesn’t refer to this as a “miracle”, he simply calls it a “sign.” In fact, throughout his Gospel, John always refers to the actions of Jesus as “signs” – even though some of which are clearly miraculous.
Sacraments themselves are called “signs” by the Church, and a sign always points to a reality that is quite beyond itself. A sign directs attention away from itself to that which is much more important. In this case, as in all John’s signs, the sign at Cana points to the glory of Christ himself. But here’s the rub: the sign is easy to overlook.
If you’ve ever seen an old movie, say from the 1930s or 1940s, you will notice that all the film credits come at the beginning of the film, and not at the end like they do now. I don’t know when that changed, but it has probably always been the case that most people don’t pay attention to them because they credit people we don’t know: the stagehands, the makeup artists, the costumers, etc… The opening credits are the ones that name the principal actors and actresses, and those are the ones we’re more interested in.
In John’s story of the wedding at Cana, Jesus is the hero of the story, but he doesn’t get lead billing in the opening credits because those are reserved for the groom’s banquet master—the dude who gets to taste the best darned wine he’d had in a long time, the wine that had unknowingly been saved for last. Jesus is treated more like a stage hand or a makeup artist than a hero, someone who works behind the scenes to provide for the needs of people who don’t even know what he did.
The sign points us beyond the physical event of the day, however, because the sign is reminding us of the larger story of God coming among us in the flesh in the humanity of Jesus. Remember, John’s Gospel opens with that amazing prologue (which used to be said at every single Mass at the close of the liturgy): “the Word became flesh and lived among us “(Jn. 1:14).
In other words, the One who created the heavens and the earth voluntarily gave up his starring role, taking upon himself the role of a stagehand or cameraman. And if we’re not paying attention, we might miss the signs pointing in his direction.
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs,” we read, “in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (v. 11).
He revealed his glory but the only people who seem to have noticed were the disciples. We know there were lots of people there, but they were unobservant. There were the families, guests and servants. We also know there were some large stone jars that held around 25 gallons each—not the sort of thing one person could lift.
So here’s the scene: Jesus is in the vicinity of the servants. Mary tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do – and they obey as if she is either the head caterer or the mistress of the house.
Jesus tells them to fill the water jars and they do. I suspect that they didn’t actually move the jars to fill them, so that means they had to make multiple trips with buckets of water from the well. People surely noticed the servants traipsing through the house with the buckets of water, right?? It was an absurd thing to do to resolve the crisis of running out of wine. Then Jesus tells them to do something even crazier: he tells them to serve the water to the chief steward. And, incredibly, the servants again follow his directions, even though it doesn’t make any sense.
As a result, the groom is praised for serving such a delightful vintage of wine, not like the cheap boxed wine he had apparently been serving earlier, and the disciples recognize the glory of God and put their trust where the servants did: in Jesus. None of the guests at the wedding know where the wine came from—not even the groom. But in this insignificant town, a place not even mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, this event serves as a sign pointing to Christ. And only those who trust him are able to see it.
So here’s the point: We are all guests at this same wedding feast, the wedding feast of life. Do we trust Jesus enough to recognize him in the signs of divine presence around us? Or are we like the vast majority of the guests at the wedding and happily receive the fruits of God’s miraculous grace without acknowledging their Source??
We say we are disciples of Jesus, and so we are, so we also need to ask ourselves when have we been content to serve in the background, without any ovations or opening credits? When was the last time we allowed ourselves to be used a “sign” that points to the glory of God? How often do we willingly surrender our need to be in control and allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the point of being invisible?
Unless we do these things, we will continue to miss the signs with which God is right now surrounding us. And we will never know the power that comes with trusting God.