Many years ago, longer ago than I care to remember, I was just a couple of months into my very first post in the church after leaving college.
And there came a rather frantic knocking on my door on a Saturday night about 10 o’clock. I opened the door to a rather distressed young man. To say he was panicking is really a bit of an understatement. He had been to the vicarage, he said, and the vicarage was empty – it would be, because the vicar was away on holiday. He was getting married in a few weeks at another church, he told me, and he had completely forgotten to get his banns read. The priest who was performing the ceremony had just reminded him. Was there still time? He’d been told that without the banns being called he couldn’t get married. For those who don’t know – in England the banns have to be called in churches where people live, in case anyone knows a legal reason why they shouldn’t get married, on three Sundays before the wedding.
Well, I sat him down and calmed him down, and we worked out that there were still – just – three Sundays left before the wedding. Being new at the job I knew nothing about the legalities of banns of marriage, but I worked it out and we called the banns.
I subsequently discovered that, technically, he hadn’t given the required notice, and that I should have told him to apply to the Bishop for a special licence, but I’m really rather glad I didn’t know that at the time. I think it might have pushed him right over the edge.
Weddings can be rather stressful for all those concerned, and what happened at the wedding feast at Cana was such a typical, human, embarrassing situation. The wedding reception – most of us have been through it all, in one role or another, as a parent, friend, best man or chief bridesmaid perhaps – trying to make sure that everything goes smoothly for the happy couple. The fuss, the last-minute panics, sorting out the best clothes, the flowers and the food and the photographer to get right. And the reception! Which is often the bit that gets booked first!
And today we hear about problems at a wedding reception – at Cana in Galilee. And we’re going to reflect upon a crisis at the wedding feast – and about five words that solved the problem: do whatever he tells you.
Saint John tells us that “the mother of Jesus was there” and that “Jesus was also invited with his disciples”. By this we assume that it was a family wedding or that at the least Mary was a close friend of the family – she was there automatically, and was clearly helping with the arrangements. We don’t know when Joseph died, but tradition tells us that Mary was by now a widow. Jesus is the young man who has, presumably, rather surprised everybody, by turning aside from his living as a carpenter and taken up started travelling round the local countryside, preaching and teaching. No doubt he was creating quite a stir, and here he is, invited to the wedding along with some of his new friends.
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 church 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 particular occasion the food has held out – the caterers got that right – it’s the wine that they run out of. It would be embarrassing at any wedding, but at a Jewish wedding at the time of Jesus it was a real disgrace. Weddings then were big events – far bigger than today – and they went on for days and everyone in the village was invited.
You came 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 Saint John tells us how it is Mary, the mother of Jesus, is left to deal with the problem. And she goes to Jesus and puts him in the picture. And says to him, “The wine’s all gone!”
Quite what Mary expects Jesus to do about it isn’t clear. After all, he could hardly pop out to the cash and carry – but Mary knows he will solve the problem. She expected Jesus to do, but she clearly had complete faith in Jesus to solve this difficult situation. And he does!
The first miracle that Jesus performs is, perhaps, if you think about it, a little surprising. This is no dramatic healing, no great miracle demonstrating his power over nature like calming a storm or stilling a raging sea, no feeding of thousands of people with a few loaves and fish. This is providing 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, he performs the first of his signs. He turns water into more wine than they could possibly have needed, and wine of the highest quality at that. I once worked out how many bottles in today’s terms it was – Jesus provided over 750 bottles of wine for the party – that’s far more than anyone could have ever needed. Remember that the guests at the wedding feast have already drunk the place dry. But such is the abundance of God’s generosity to us.
This – the first of the signs that Jesus performs – is a miracle that shows us, more than any other miracle, that God desires our not just our wellbeing, but our happiness, and our joy. He wants us to know fullness of life. Jesus shows himself to be God by supplying a whole load of booze for a party – there really is no other way of putting it!
The initial response of Jesus to his mother is so very typical of ourselves, and it highlights for us the other side of Jesus – his humanity. 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 has not seen anything like this before, so how can she expect it now? And yet she has complete faith in him, and he obeys her request like a good dutiful son.
What we learn from Mary is a simple two-fold lesson. 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 lesson that we get from Mary 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 Walsingham, the National Anglican Shrine of Mary, as some of us from St John’s do every year on our annual pilgrimage, 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 the servants at the wedding 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. Do whatever he tells you.
So – do whatever Jesus tells you. And as a result, like those at the wedding feast in Cana, you will discover that Jesus will turn the ordinary water of your everyday lives into the overflowing wine of the kingdom.