On the third day, there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee…
On the third day…
The gospel today begins with a phrase that is so familiar to anyone who regularly attends a church like ours where the creed is recited every week in the liturgy. If we pause for a moment to think about it when we hear it, we will immediately think of the rest of the clause “On the third day, he was raised from the dead.”
On the third day … It’s a decidedly odd way to begin this story at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, for it directs our attention away from Jesus’ ministry toward the events at the end of his life, his crucifixion and resurrection. It reminds us now, in this season of Epiphany, when we celebrate God’s presence in the world, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, it reminds us now that Good Friday and Easter are never far away, that the events of Good Friday and Easter permeate everything we know about Jesus and give everything we know about Jesus its ultimate meaning.
There’s another way in which this story at the beginning of the gospel connects with the events at the gospel’s end. It’s the only two times in John where we encounter Jesus’ mother (who by the way, is never named by the Gospel writer). We see her at the end, standing beneath the cross, watching her son die. Now, we encounter her in a very different setting, and there’s a great deal of humor in her exchanges with Jesus and with the servants.
But, and this may be just as important, this odd little story with its ominous introduction, “On the third day,” may help us understand, interpret, make sense of, Good Friday and Easter as well.
On the third day. On the third day of what? One might conclude that the reference is to the length of the wedding party, and that’s not an unreasonable assumption, for weddings among Jews in ancient Palestine could go on for days. That in itself might explain why the wine ran out. But there’s another, intriguing possibility. The third day may refer back to the events and structure of chapter 1.
John begins with a majestic hymn, a prologue, if you will, which we heard just a few weeks ago. In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God. John begins at the very beginning, with the creation of the universe. But as the chapter moves on, we encounter John the Baptizer, an John the Baptizer encounters Jesus. It’s a rather abrupt, and awkward transition, from the beginning of the universe moving suddenly to the dusty roads of first century Palestine. As the gospel writer tells the story of John and Jesus, he adds several chronological referents. Three times he begins a section in chapter 1 with the phrase, “The next day…” Three times, three days, and now at the beginning of chapter 2, “On the third day…”
Add it all up: In the beginning was the word … the next day the next day, the next day, on the third day. Yup, that’s right, we’ve moved through a week, through the six days of creation to the seventh day, the Sabbath, the day when creation comes to its completion. But that intriguing possibility that all this takes place on the Sabbath, the seventh day of creation, points to another possibility and rich vein of meaning. It’s a wedding, the wine flows with amazing abundance. The Jewish tradition in the first-century included hopes of a messianic age, crystalized in the idea of a messianic banquet, where all would God’s goodness and the abundance of God’s creation would flow freely, everyone would have a place at the table and all would eat and drink their fill.
On the third day, on the seventh day, there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee. All of these deeper, richer meanings, converge on this story which on the surface seems to be a rather straightforward miracle story. But there’s one more thing I need to point out. A moment ago, I referred to the amazing abundance of wine. It’s worth pointing just how abundant the wine was. Remember, the party had been going on for quite some time—one day? Three days? In any case, they’d run out. Jesus’ mother hears about it and tells her son. He responds to her rather curtly, “They’ve run out of wine? That’s not our problem.”
But she persists, telling the servants to obey Jesus’ instructions. It just so happens that there are six empty jars standing there. By the way, it’s rather odd that jars used in Jewish purification rituals would be here. They are big jars, each holding 20-30 gallons of water. Let’s be clear about something else. That’s a total of 120-180 gallons of water, which is roughly between 600 and 900 bottles of wine. That’ a lot of wine.
Jesus tells the servants to fill them up and to take some of the water to the steward. When the steward tastes the water, it has become wine, very good wine. The steward and the guests have a mystery on their hands—where did all this good wine come from, and why didn’t they serve it earlier in the party? As a miracle, it’s a strange one, not least because the only people who know what happened are the servants.
And the disciples. The gospel writer tells us, Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.
Let’s think about this a moment. I hope you’ve discerned that the gospel writer has carefully structured the narrative to offer multiple ways of thinking about the story. I should add something else. This is the first thing Jesus does in this gospel, so it takes on added significance and should lead us to see Jesus in that light. He’s introducing his main character and wants us to see something important about Jesus in this story, just as the disciples did. It’s not just that Jesus is a miracle worker; in fact, it’s worth pointing out that the magic takes place out of sight of anyone except the servants.
What’s key in all this is the sheer abundance, the over-the-top amount of wine. What matters in this story is abundance, extravagance. There’s way more here than anyone needs, enough to satisfy every thirst, every hunger, every need. That’s the heart and soul of this story, and that is what it teaches us about God.
We have a tendency to place limits on God’s love and grace. We bargain with God; sometimes, we experience God as a rigid taskmaster or a careful accountant. We know God forgives our sins; we know that God loves us—but sometimes us it’s hard to accept that love or experience the riches of God’s grace. And often, we are reluctant to extend or imagine that God’s love and grace extends to everyone. But here we see the power and fullness of God’s love and grace in all of its extravagance and exuberance. There’s more than enough!
There’s more than enough of God’s love for us and for the whole world. It is poured out on the world like all of that wine was poured out at the wedding. When our eyes are opened to its extravagance, we see God’s glory, and our hearts are made glad and filled with God’s love.