The miracle at Cana is traditionally commemorated around Epiphany (esp. the second Sunday after Epiphany [Jan 19, 2020]). I will be discussing this today as the first of two notes on the two episodes in the second chapter of John—the miracle at Cana (John 2:1-11) and the “cleansing” of the Temple (John 2:13-23). That these are roughly parallel episodes, reflecting “signs” done by Jesus, can be seen by comparing the general structure:
- Introduction to the narrative—a festal setting (Wedding/Passover)—one in Galilee, the other in Judea (Jerusalem), which Jesus attends (v. 1-2, 13)
- The “Sign”—miracle of changing water to wine (vv. 3-10), and the “cleansing” of the Temple; the latter is two-fold: Temple action (vv. 14-17) and Temple saying (vv. 18-22)
- Belief/trust in Jesus—his disciples, because of the sign (v. 11); and many in Jerusalem, because of the signs (v. 23)
- Narrative summary—Jesus resides with this relatives and disciples in Capernaum for “not many” days (v. 12); notice that Jesus did not entrust himself to the people in Jerusalem (vv. 24-25)
It is possible that these two episodes are also meant to reflect the very beginning, and the end, of Jesus’ ministry, i.e. encapsulating the narratives and discourses in chapters 3-12 (“Book of Signs”). Indeed, critical scholars have variously proposed that one or both of these episodes is “misplaced” chronologically—i.e., would have occurred at the historical level at a different point than indicated in the Gospel structure. This question is more obvious with regard to the Temple episode (discussed in the next note), but some commentators have suggested that the miracle at Cana better fits a setting during Jesus’ youth, the main reasons being:
- The setting in Galilee, where Jesus is with his mother and relatives; this would have been more likely to take place prior to the beginning of his adult ministry.
- The exchange between Jesus and his mother, with his rebuke of Mary’s question, has a vague similarity to that narrated in Luke 2:41-51.
- The character and setting of the miracle itself is generally similar to several of the miracles narrated in extra-canonical works such as the (Infancy) Gospel of Thomas.
Each of these points can be debated, but have to be admitted as technically possible—a tradition from Jesus’ childhood could have been adapted for the context here simply by adding “with his disciples” (in v. 2) and including the notice in verse 11. However, I find the theory rather speculative; in any event, we must deal with the narrative as it has come down to us. In many ways, it is a curious episode, and one might question why it was included at all. Apart from its place as Jesus’ first significant miracle (taking the notice in v. 11 at face value), what other meaning does it contain? I would suggest three possible areas for interpretation:
1. Foreshadowing of future events. One might point out here several details:
- “On the third day” (th=| h(me/ra| th=| tri/th|), v. 1. There is always a danger of rushing to read the death and resurrection of Jesus into such references, since “three days” is a common narrative device which could occur in any number of contexts. However, the specific wording “(on) the third day” does appear frequently in relation to Jesus’ resurrection (Matt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 46; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor 15:4; cf. also Matt 27:64; Lk 13:32; 24:21), though not in John. The only other use of the phrase occurs in Acts 27:19. In nearly all of these references the wording is th=| tri/th| h(me/ra|, but in Lk 18:33 and 1 Cor 15:4 it is th=| h(me/ra| th=| tri/th| as in Jn 2:1. On the surface, the expression here is a simple narrative device, which may tie back to the episodes narrated in chapter 1 (commentators have various theories on just how). In the previous note, I discussed the “three days” of Jn 1:29-50—there are three sections, dealing with the witness of John the Baptist and the disciples to the person of Jesus, each of which begins with the phrase th=| e)pau/rion (“upon the morrow [i.e. the next day]”).
- The presence of Mary, Jesus’ mother (v. 1ff). The only other time Mary appears in the Fourth Gospel is when Jesus is on the cross (Jn 19:25-27). On both occasions, Jesus addresses her as “Woman” (gu/nai). This sounds rather harsh in English, but it is the way Jesus addresses all women in the Gospel of John (see Jn 4:21; 8:10; 20:15). However, here (and in Jn 19:26), it probably does indicate a subordination of family ties to Jesus’ own (higher) mission and identity. If this episode actually stems from Jesus’ youth (see above), then there may be a parallel with Luke 2:48-50.
- “My hour has not yet come” (v. 4). There are two expressions Jesus uses in the Gospel of John: (1) “(the) hour is coming” [e&rxetai w%ra], an eschatological phrase, with both a present future aspect, tied to the person and work of Christ (Jn 4:21, 23; 5:25, 28; 16:2, 25, 32; cf. also 16:4, 21); and (2) “(my) hour has come” [e)lh/luqen h( w%ra], a reference to the time for Jesus’ death/departure (see, with related forms, Jn 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 16:21, 32; 17:1). Every other use of “(my) hour has (not) come” in John refers to Jesus’ death (and subsequent exaltation); for a similar sense of “hour” in the Synoptics, cf. Mark 14:35, 41 par; Luke 22:53. The immediate context in Jn 2:1-11 would suggest that Jesus’ saying relates to the time for him to begin his public ministry (by working miracles), or simply that the time/situation was not right for him to intervene. The verb used here is h%kw, which is generally synonymous with e&rxomai, but carries the sense of arriving, or reaching a point (in time); that the verbs are interchangeable, cf. notably Jn 6:37; 8:42.
2. Elements of the miracle itself. Here too there are several key details to examine:
- The Wedding feast (v. 1ff). The “signs” and discourses of Jesus in Jn 2-12 typically take place in the context of a Jewish feast or holy day (Sabbath, Passover, Sukkoth, Dedication). Here it is a wedding, which is a unique setting in that, as a celebration, it would have both a “religious” and “secular” aspect. That is an ordinary wedding feast is clearly indicated throughout the passage. However, wedding/marriage imagery (emphasizing the bride/bridegroom) is widely used as religious or spiritual symbolism—of many Old Testament examples, see Psalm 19:5; 45; Isa 61:10; 62:5; Hos 1-2; Joel 2:16, and the Song of Songs. Weddings occur in Jesus’ parables and sayings (Mark 2:19ff par; Matt 22:2ff; 25:1-13; Luke 12:36; 14:8). Believers as the Bride of Christ (the Bridegroom) would become a popular early Christian motif (Jn 3:29; 2 Cor 11:2; Rev 18:23; 21:2, 9; 22:17). The Wedding feast itself was a significant image (Song 3:11, etc; Psalm 45; 78:63; Jer 7:34; 33:10-11; Matt 25:10), which could merge together with the idea of an eschatological feast (for the righteous, Rev 19:6-9, cf. Isa 25:6, etc).
- The Wine (v. 3ff). Wine is a widespread poetic and religious symbol; numerous references can be found in the Old Testament (Gen 27:28; Song 1:1-2; Isa 25:6; 65:8; Hos 2:21-22; Amos 9:13; Joel 3:18, etc), the New Testament (Mark 2:22 par; Acts 2:; Rev 14:8, 10, etc), and throughout the Ancient Near East and Greco-Roman world. For its association with the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist), see below.
- The Jars of Water (v. 6). Here we have the general motif of water/cleansing, with the specific religious image of ritual purification (kaqarismo/$).
- The Filling (v. 7ff). Jesus tells them “Fill [gemi/sate] the water-jars with water” and “they filled [e)ge/misan] them until over (the top)”. The verb gemi/zw, rarely used in the New Testament, refers to filling up something completely—usually an empty space is implied (of a house, boat, jar, sponge, etc). They are filled with water, otherwise to be used for ritual purification, and miraculously changed to wine. Here is an image of the substance of a religious object (and symbol) being transformed (one is reminded of Jesus’ saying in Mark 2:22 par). This theme will carry on throughout the subsequent miracles and discourses, with their festal settings—Jesus’ presence symbolically fills and transforms the holy days, and fulfills various details related to the religious background of Israel (he is the true bread, water, light, shepherd, et al.).
3. Eucharistic theme. It would be reading far too much into John 2:1-11 itself to find any substantial eucharistic symbolism here. However, there are several interesting parallels elsewhere in the Gospel which are worth considering:
- Water and Blood come out from Jesus’ side upon his death (Jn 19:34)
- There eucharistic symbolism (at some level) related to the drinking of Jesus Blood (= Wine of the Cup) in Jn 6:53-56.
- Jesus connects new birth (“birth from above”) with being born out of Water and the Spirit (Jn 3:5)
- That these three—Water, Blood (=Wine?), Spirit—are closely connected can be seen in 1 Jn 5:6-8.
Perhaps a stronger eucharistic connection can be established in the way the Miracles of John 2-12 are inter-related:
- Two introductory miracles, which are narrated with little comment or explanation by Jesus:
- Four miracles, each of which lead into a discourse, or incorporate an extended dialogue, with a central “I Am” saying:
- The healing of the invalid at Bethesda, 5:1-17 (Sabbath setting)
Discourse: 5:19-47 (no “I am” statement, but note the frequent use of e)gw/ [“I”] in connection with the Father)
- The miraculous feeding of the multitude, 6:1-15 (Passover setting?)
Discourse: 6:22-71 (“I am the Bread of Life” v. 35, 41, 48, 51)
- The healing of a blind man, 9:1-41 (Dedication setting? cf. 10:22)
Dialogue (“I am the Light of the world” v. 5)
- The raising of Lazarus from the dead, 11:1-44 (Passover setting? cf. 12:1)
Dialogue (“I am the Resurrection [and the Life]” v. 25)
- The healing of the invalid at Bethesda, 5:1-17 (Sabbath setting)
Another way to group the miracles is in three pairs, the second of which has a dialogue setting and central “I am” statement (along with a statement to the wider meaning/purpose of the miracle):
- First pair—miracle involving transformation of food to provide for a large gathering:
- The miracle at Cana, 2:1-11 (water/wine, for drinking)
- The miraculous feeding, 6:1-15 (bread, for eating)
“I am the Bread of Life” v. 35, 41, 48, 51
“Whoever eats my flesh [bread] and drinks my blood [wine]…” v. 53ff
- Second pair—healing of a man disabled for many years:
- The healing of the invalid at Bethesda, 5:1-17
- The healing of the blind man, 9:1-41
“I am the Light of the world” v. 5
“For judgment I came… the ones not seeing would see, and the ones seeing would become blind” v. 39
- Third pair—miracle involving a young man near death:
- The healing of an official’s son, 4:46-54
- The raising of Lazarus from the dead, 11:1-44
“I am the Resurrection [and the Life]” v. 25
“The one believing in me, even if he were to die, he will live…” v. 25-26
Once the miracle of Cana is paired with the miraculous feeding and discourse of chapter 6, a eucharistic association (at the spiritual level at least), comes more clearly into view (cf. 6:53-58, 63).