Last Sunday we heard of the amazing miracle of the turning of water into wine – the first miracle of Jesus, according to John’s gospel, at a wedding party in Cana of Galilee
All through Advent we in the Church get ready for Christmas with a period of penitence and abstinence. I suspect we all found it very difficult, while most of the country was already in a celebratory mood, to do without such things as alcohol and meat – at least on Wednesdays and Fridays if not every day. You did fast during Advent, didn’t you? (No – it seems they didn’t given their response but that’s all right – I didn’t either!)
And what happens? Barely has the Christmas season started for the Church when, on the eighth day of Christmas – January 1st – when the Church is all geared up to celebrating for another 32 days until the feast of Candlemas we start being exhorted to have a dry January. And increasingly people are celebrating Veganuary – no animal products at all in your diet!
And yet, here we are in the Church still celebrating. I was therefore encouraged to read in The Times a week ago the diary writer Patrick Kidd. He wrote: As a good Anglo-Catholic, I don’t recognise the absurd practice of Dry January since liturgically the Christmas decadence should last until Candlemas on February 2nd. I’m with him on that one – forget about Dry January because we are still celebrating!
And one cannot help but wonder what those who advocate Dry January would make of Jesus’ behaviour at the party that we have heard about today. For today we are confronted in our gospel reading with a wedding reception. 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! .
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 runs 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”.
And it’s Mary who takes it upon herself to sort out the problem – and that tells us something about the wedding. It seems most likely that this is some relative of Mary, because she clearly has some authority over the servants and is in a position to take charge of the situation. It’s a family wedding. And the steward – a bit like a best man today – who was responsible overseeing everything including providing enough wine and who would get the blame for failing in his duty, seems to have gone to Mary to elicit some help in sorting out his predicament. .
Quite what the steward expected Mary to do we don’t know. You couldn’t just hop in the car and pop round to Morrison’s 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 Government’s Chief Medical Officer wasn’t there to say to Jesus or Mary, “and what a good thing too! The guests have all drunk too much already! 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 she expected him to do as she asks, despite his reservations.
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 in the village 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 have 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, 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. Jesus first miracle is simply about helping people to have a really great party!
In his compassion and love, probably to save his friends’ embarrassment, partly in response to his mother’s instructions, 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 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.
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.
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 the servants at the feast. 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.