This week the gospel reading was the story from John of Jesus providing lots of wine for a wedding reception. So much for cutting down our alcohol intake as one of our New Year resolutions!
It can’t have escaped your notice that the U.K. Chief Medical Officer has introduced new limits on the maximum amount of alcohol that it is recommended people drink. I’ve come up with a solution for those who find this a problem. The solution if you don’t want to cut down, is to change your nationality to Spanish if you’re a man, as their limit is two and a half times as much. And if you’re a woman? Adopt Japanese nationality where women, unlike men, are given no maximum at all.
And not only that, the Chief Medical Officer made it clear that any amount of alcohol at all was dangerous. Well, what a good job the Chief Medical Officer wasn’t a guest at the wedding at Cana. What would she have had to say, I wonder?
Today we are confronted in our gospel reading with a wedding.
Now the thing about weddings is that they can be very stressful events for all those concerned. There is so much to do and to organise and so much that can go wrong. I’m sure that weddings in first century Palestine weren’t any different. And today we hear of something going wrong! For what happened at the wedding feast at Cana was a typical, human, embarrassing situation. And it would have been the steward’s fault.
The wedding reception – most of us have been through it all, in one role or another, if not as one of those getting married then as a parent, friend, best man or bridesmaid perhaps. The fuss, the last-minute panics, sorting out the best clothes, the bride’s dress, the flowers and the food and the photographer to get right, have you invited all the right people or have you forgotten someone important, and will your respective parents get on with each other.
And then there’s the catering!
Catering for large groups of people is never easy – trying to guess the amount of food and wine needed is always tricky. I’ve been to endless parish functions all over the place where, rather like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, there is enough left over to fill twelve baskets. On this occasion the food has held out – the caterers got that right – but the wine begins to run short. It would be embarrassing at any wedding, but at a Jewish wedding at the time of Jesus it was a real disgrace. You can imagine the mutterings that would have gone on – “Fancy running out of wine”; “What kind of wedding reception do they call this?”, “I could have organised a better one myself”.
The steward, a little like today’s best man except that he was the person who organised everything, goes to Mary and explains the problem. As the steward it was his responsibility to deal with the problem – perhaps he couldn’t face admitting to the bridegroom that he had let the wine run out. And his way of dealing with the problem tells us something about the wedding. We’ve already been told that Mary was there, unlike Jesus and his disciples, who were invited. Since the steward goes to Mary it is clear that she is not just a guest but has some responsibility here. It seems the wedding is a family occasion. Either the bride or the groom was probably a close relative, which would explain Mary’s involvement in the festivities.
Quite what the steward expected Mary to do we don’t know. You couldn’t just hop in the car and pop down to the cash-and-carry to stock up on more supplies. But Mary knew what to do. She finds her son Jesus and puts him in the picture – the wine has run out.
Well, fortunately the Chief Medical Officer wasn’t there to say to Jesus or Mary, “And what a good thing too! Water or orange juice will be fine!” Had she done so, and got her way, we would never have had this truly amazing miracle. Somehow Jesus turning water into soft drinks for the wedding feast doesn’t quite have the same impact.
It’s not really clear what Mary expected Jesus to do when she went to him with the problem, but she clearly had complete faith in Jesus to solve this difficult situation, and to provide more wine. And that’s precisely what Jesus does. In abundance. John tells us how much water Jesus turned into wine. In today’s terms it’s over 700 bottles of wine. Even in in those days when everyone you could think of was invited to a wedding feast and the feast went on for several days, this was a little over the top to say the least. Remember they would already have drunk their way through what they had thought would be an ample supply. Nobody would organise a feast and stint on the wine. And when they drink it all up, Jesus provides a whole lot more.
This is the first of the signs that Jesus did, says John. And the first miracle that Jesus performs is, perhaps, if you think about it, somewhat surprising. This is no dramatic healing, no great miracle demonstrating his power over the forces of nature, no feeding of thousands of people with a few loaves and fish. This is nothing more nor less than providing vast quantities of wine for a party.
In his compassion and love, probably to save his friends’ embarrassment, and to ensure that the party continued to go with a swing, Jesus performs the first of his signs. A miracle that shows us, perhaps more than any other miracle, that Jesus, desires our wellbeing, our happiness, our joy. He wants us to know fullness of life. Essentially God wants us to be happy – he wants to bless us!
Mary’s attitude to Jesus also gives us a lesson about our own response when Jesus asks something of us. His response seems, at first, to be rather dismissive. Anyone who has had children will recognise the response – “Do I have to?”, “Can’t I do it later”, “What? Not now!” And yet in spite of clear reservations – and what his reasons were for those reservations we can only really guess at – Jesus does as his mother asks him. He solves the problem, perhaps even in a way that Mary herself could not have expected, even though she knew something of his calling. Remember that this is, according to Saint John, his first miracle. She had not seen anything like this before, so how could she expect it now. Yet she knows his divine origin. And she has complete faith in him, and he obeys her request like a good dutiful son.
The message from Mary to us is a simple two-fold message. The message is firstly, have complete trust in Jesus and in what he can do. Take your problems to him, because he cares and he can help. But so often people stop there, and fail to listen to the response from Jesus. And the second part of the message that Mary gives us is the more important. Simple, practical and down-to-earth advice, as a mother’s so often is. Do whatever he tells you. This is her message to the servants at the feast. This is her message to us. Do whatever he tells you. Mary directs our gaze towards her son. Icons of our Lady, in which she holds the infant Jesus, almost always show Mary pointing towards Jesus. If you go to the National Anglican Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham and see the statue of our Lady in the Shrine she is pointing to Jesus. Here is my son: do whatever he tells you.
We are like the servants at the feast, told to do what Jesus asks. We are called to be servants, Christ’s servants. The message is as surely for us as it was for those at the feast. Take your problem to Jesus, as Mary did. Like Mary, trust that Jesus will handle it. And then follow the example of the servants. Do not go away and think about what Jesus wants you to do for him. Do not go away and put it off until another time. Do not go away and leave it. Go and do it now. Whatever he tells you, do it.