The Senior Tutor, Ian Boxall, preached at the Mass on 30th January 2011, Epiphany 4.
It is an awful lot of wine. Two or three measures per water jar, is what St John tells us about the wine produced by the Lord at the wedding at Cana. Which doesn’t sound a great deal, until one calculates that one measure was approximately 40 litres, or 9 gallons; meaning that each water jar could contain 18 to 27 gallons, or 80 to 120 litres; leaving us with a supply of wine of between 108 and 162 gallons, or between 480 and 720 litres, or up to one thousand and twenty-eight bottles of wine. That would go some way towards clearing the shelves in Tesco’s. So the sign of Cana seems to be pointing beyond the unbelievable amount of wine to the sheer liberality of God’s gift, a sign of what was promised at the end of John’s Prologue: ‘From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace’ (Jn 1:16). This sheer abundance of grace is accentuated by the fact that the servants of the feast, at Jesus’ behest, fill the water jars right up to the brim, in danger of flowing over and being wasted. When one considers how precious water is in such a dry climate, this becomes a foolishly extravagant action.
But it is not only the lavish amount which John emphasizes. It is also the quality of the wine. Now this is not perhaps something that modern pilgrims to the Holy Land appreciate. If you visit the traditional site of Cana of Galilee, then after visiting one of the two ‘wedding churches’, your tour guide will invariably take you to one of Cana’s souvenir shops, in order for you to stock up on bottles of ‘genuine Cana wine’. Yes, it’s still freely available. But the thick, sickly sweet liquid on sale has more of the consistency of Sanatogen, or Buckfast tonic wine, than the Château Lafite, or Petit Chablis, of the Cana miracle. The wine of Cana is truly excellent wine, the very best which has been kept until last. So perhaps the heart of the sign is the quality, the sheer goodness of the gift Christ offers. The disciples not only see the water flowing over the brim of these vast water jars. They taste the excellence of the resulting wine, see Christ’s glory revealed, and believe in him.
Except that John never tells us either that the disciples saw the servants filling the water jars, or that they knew what had happened to the water. The servants who had drawn the water knew. Perhaps (although not even this is stated) his mother knew. The steward tasted the final product, but not even he knew where it had come from. The bridegroom was blissfully unaware of anything that had happened. The transformation of the water into wine happens off stage, in the background, without Jesus leaving the table. Indeed, it is only because the evangelist tells us that the steward tasted the ‘having-become-wine-water’, that we the readers are let into the secret of what had happened.
So when John tells us that Jesus revealed his glory, and that his disciples believed in him, we still might ask: how exactly did he reveal his glory? What did the disciples see or know? Did they slip backstage after overhearing Mary’s words, and catch a glimpse of the water being poured? Did they taste the excellent wine and then rely on the waiters’ gossip to fill in the gaps? Whatever they saw or knew, it seems to be their abiding with Jesus, the days they had now spent in his company, which enabled them to glimpse what not even the wine waiters seem able to have glimpsed: that in these ambiguous, partly off-stage events, the glory of God was being revealed.
The miracle at Cana, John tells us, is a sign. But it is not an unambiguous sign. It is not something that one can straightforwardly point to as unambiguous evidence. As St Paul tells the Corinthians in our second reading, ‘Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor. 1:22-24). For John, as for Paul, if we are looking for unambiguous signs, if we are looking for spectacular signs and wonders, then we will always be disappointed. Even in this great Epiphany at Cana in Galilee, Christ’s glory is not visible to all who see him, even those closest to the action. It can only be seen by the eye of faith.
It we are honest, we would probably prefer it to be otherwise. We would prefer the dazzling clarity of unambiguous glory, lighting our way as we follow him, and especially those among us who have committed not only their lives but their livelihoods to following him in the ordained ministry. Yet Christ’s glory is revealed at Cana only for those with eyes to see, for those who have spent time with him, abiding with him, praying with him. It is this which will enable us, with John, to see Christ’s glory revealed in a dying man lifted up on the Cross, a stumbling-block to those who seek signs and foolishness to those who desire wisdom. To spend time with him, so as see the glory, and to follow where he calls, requires a certain kind of God-given foolishness, like the foolishness of servants filling water jars to overflowing with precious water, at the risk of losing that which is precious; like the foolishness of the Cross, which is wiser than human wisdom.