By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson, commentary on John 2:1-11, re-posted from January 2016
“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee…”
The rich beauty of this week’s gospel sets the stage for the journey into God and discipleship which follows. In his first public act in John’s gospel, Jesus transforms a wedding which has run out of wine into an overflowing, abundant celebration of the best wine. Every detail of this packed scene is worth pondering deeply.
The wedding at Cana scene is part of a narrative diptych that includes the scene that follows: Jesus’ exorcism of the Jerusalem temple (2.13-22). Together, they express God’s vision of Jesus’ purpose in the world. First, at Cana, to invite people into the pure embodied passion of abundant joy, and then in Jerusalem, to the pure embodied passion of truth.
It begins “on the third day.” This points toward Jesus’ resurrection, and in the narrative context of John 1, it points to the seventh (Sabbath) day of the new week of re-creation. Consider:
1.19-28: the first day of the narrative
1.29: “The next day…”
1.35: “The next day…”
1.43: “The next day…”
2.1: “On the third day…”
In a Gospel that begins, “in the beginning,” we continue to track the start of Genesis here in John. The wedding at Cana expresses the bountiful joy of what Sabbath was meant to be all along: the time of celebration of the gift of creation and of the Creator God who is present with us. In Genesis 1-2, the “seventh day” is not simply a “day off” after which God goes back to work. What we often miss is that Genesis tells us that God’s intention was that it is always “Sabbath” on earth. God has done the work of creation. Our “task” is simply to live into the gift.
But obviously, that is not how we experience life, nor how our ancestors did. Hence, the tragedy of the Garden and the expulsion. Apart from our participation in God’s ongoing re-creation, life can often be brutally hard, grinding people into the very dust from which we were made. Jesus’ ministry at the start of John’s gospel sets out his mission: to restore things to their state of divine intention.
Returning to the Cana scene, Jesus’ mother tells him, “They have no wine.” The narrator then draws our attention away from Jesus and his mother: “Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Judean rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons” (2.6). The Judean rituals—that is, the Jerusalem temple-centered practices—have run dry. They have lost the ability to lead people into joyous celebration. The simple words of Jesus: “Fill the jars with water” provides the antidote.
The image of abundant wine resonates both with Hebrew Scriptures and the cultural context of the time and place. In Scripture, we hear the promise that, when God truly reigns:
The time is surely coming, says the LORD, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. (Amos 9.13; also, Joel 3.18)
In addition, Cana was well known as a site of the worship of Dionysus (aka Bacchus), the Greco-Roman god of wine and celebration. Such worship was marked by the disinhibited behavior that flowed from consuming an abundance of wine, including sexual orgies. But John’s Jesus is not inviting disciples to an orgy! To understand the symbolism, we must also hear how the imagery of wine combines with the imagery of weddings.
Again, Hebrew Scripture offers the key, as shown in this verse from Isaiah:
You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for YHWH delights in you, and your land shall be married. (Isa 62.4)
This image recalls the ancient symbol of YHWH’s marital covenant with Israel. The covenant was imagined both as the relationship between a king and his people, and as a set of wedding vows. We hear in the prophets YHWH’s frequent pain and disappointment as Israel’s “infidelity” to this marriage, but the section from Third Isaiah quoted above expresses hope in the healing of the broken relationship. Jesus, of course, is the source of that healing.
Thus, the difference between the Dionysian and Jesus-centered wine-infused celebration is found in what the wedding imagery adds to the wine imagery. For Dionysus worshipers, wine offered the passionate abandon of drunken sex. For Jesus’ disciples, though, abundant wine expresses the now-fulfilled hope for the pure passion of life with others in God. In other words, God’s original purpose for human life on earth is being restored: to live with passionate joy and celebration, while abiding in God in and through the Word-made-flesh in Jesus.
Following the wedding at Cana, Jesus takes his first of several journeys to Jerusalem. Only in John does Jesus initiate his public ministry by declaring war on the Jerusalem temple and its supporters. Why? Because it is the Judean water jars—that is, the rituals and practices controlled by the Jerusalem elite—that have run dry. The collaboration of the temple state with the Roman Empire has sucked the life out of festivals which were meant to re-member YHWH’s previous acts of salvation from empire (e.g. the Passover), while redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. Instead, the temple has become an imperial emporium where God’s gift is now for sale (2.16). The wedding at Cana and Jesus’ exorcism of the temple combine to express Jesus’ purpose: to resist the “religion of empire” and call people back to the “religion of creation.”
As the Christmas season moves into what is often called “ordinary time,” how do we continue to live in the ongoing Sabbath celebration that is God’s hope for humanity and the earth? How can we interrupt the commodification of the Gift: of the fruit of the earth, of our daily energy, of our relationships, of life itself? May we support one another in resisting the forces of “ordinary time” that would call a halt to the celebration, and live ever more fully in the joy of the Gift.
2 thoughts on “Abundant Joy”
Thanks for the commentary. Very helpful, and I always appreciate your insights into the text. Is there any chance you might be able to fill in the argument that sabbath in Genesis should be read as intending “always sabbath”? I’m not seeing it there…
Thanks for your comment. In Genesis 1-2, sabbath marks the completion of YHWH’s creation of heaven and earth. The work is “done,” and now the humans are put in the completed “garden” to enjoy it. This perspective depends on seeing Gen 1-11 as an integrated unit, rather than a pastiche of “J” and “P” stories from different times. I wrote about this more in “Come Out, My People!”, too.