by HG Yuhanon Mor Meletius, Thrissur
Gospel Reading: St. John 2:1-11
Reading and understanding of the Gospel according to St. John is an extremely difficult task. John has applied several traditions of his time to analyze, interpret and record the words and works of Jesus during Jesus’ earthly ministry. St. John has used his knowledge of Old Testament, Hellenistic concepts, rabbinic literature and even Gnostic themes in his Gospel. This is evident from the symbols and terminology he has used.
For Orthodox Christians, as it is explained in the matrimonial liturgy hymn (… suvisesham yohannane …), it is important to understand the Gospel terminology in its true spirit. Phrases like the Word, the hour, the sign etc. and symbols like light, darkness, water, wine, lamb etc. are to be understood well in their respective background to get the meaning and purpose of John’s message.
The passage that is selected by the Church to be read as the Holy Gospel reading on Kothine Sunday which is the Sunday of the opening of great lent is St. John 2:1-11. This Sunday is also called Peturtho. The word pethurtho comes from the Syriac root ptr which means ‘go away’ or ‘return from (a banquet). Kothine is used because Cana is called by its other name Kothine in Syriac Bible.
This passage is the last part of the calling of the disciples that starts at 1:35 and ends at 2:11 where we have the concluding statement “and his disciples believed in him”. So what happened at Cana becomes a testimony for those who were called by Jesus to believe in him. The question is, does what happens in history and nature make us believe in our Lord or we still ask for proof in our own personal lives to believe in him?
The event can be explained in one word, ‘a messianic sign’. The word ‘sign’ itself is to be understood in John’s Gospel uniquely. It becomes more crucial when we understand that unlike the other three (Synoptic) Gospels, there is no wonder or miracle worked by Jesus in John’s Gospel. No event to John is an occurrence in itself. It should become a sign for something greater, sacramental and Messianic (here the word sacramental is to be understood distinctly from western interpretation). There are altogether seven signs in John (2:1-11; 4:46-54; 5:1-15; 6:1-14; 6:15-22; 9:1-41 and 11:38-44). To an Orthodox faithful happening something in terms of a blessing from God (these days all we look for in life is miracles) should be sacramental and therefore should have wider implications.
The event happens on the 3rd day after Jesus’ encounter with Nathaniel. What happened here is some thing related to what was promised to Nathaniel in 1:50 (greater things than this …) climax of which is said in 1:51. Reference to third day reminds us of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on the third day. This is the ultimate goal and destiny of any sign that may happen in this world. If a disease is cured, a better job is sought, some progress in life is experienced in some one’s life, it should not end there. Rather should lead to resurrection of that person which will also be salvific to all others. It should not be made a private, personal and selfish experience of an individual or a small group.
The presence of Mary is quite significant to the whole event. She brings the matter to Jesus and then directs the servants to follow his command. Incidentally the command of Jesus may not be found so much reasonable to any one not to speak the servants. Here what was needed was wine and what Jesus asked them to bring was water. This may sound absurd and may be rejected by the servants. Mary is indirectly cautioning them not to disobey. The role of saints as seen by Orthodox Church fits very well with what we see here. They stand with us in prayers (commonly used Syriac phrase in this regard says sluthek aman – pray with us) and also directs us to follow Jesus. Unfortunately we take only the first part that is bringing our need to the Lord. The second part which is they asking us to follow Jesus is not heard by us most of the time. We know what he would be telling us. He will ask us to “love one another even as I have loved you” (John 13:34; 15:12), ‘be his friend and obey his commandments’ (John 15:14) and be united to one another (17:21). We do not like these things so much and so we ignore that part.
Jesus’ address of Mary “O woman” (v.4) is seen elsewhere also, particularly at the cross (19:26). The Greek word gunai does not have any disrespect tone. Hence it could be better translated as ‘O loady’. Verses 4 to 7 have to be read together. Detaching one verse from the section and commenting on it to say either ‘Jesus did not respect his mother’ or ‘Jesus ‘dismissed her without consideration’ would be against the spirit of the total message of the text. Jesus’ primary mission is not related to individual and alienated issues. Every issue he deals with is to be understood in the context of a larger goal which is ‘sacramental’ or ‘soteriological’ in theological terms.
What was to happen in Cana cannot be understood as a work on the basis of Jesus’ or his mother’s concern for just that particular family or those guests in the marriage feast. So he asks “what is for us?”. The same question will be asked by Jesus when we present our selfish and individualistic prayers before him directly or through the saints. We have to prove to him that our needs in prayer carry greater and wider relevance.
The next statement supports this explanation. Jesus says, “My time has not yet come”. The term ‘hour’ has special meaning in St. John. There are 22 occurrences of the word in the Gospel. Most of them refer to something that is to happen in Jesus’ life or in the life of others including the disciples. Special mention is to be made to 12:23 and 17:1 where he speaks about the ‘hour’ that had come. There he was speaking about his time to be crucified as the Lamb of God (Greek word ‘hora’ means ‘the specific time’ and is used in this sense in all these three occasions. Compare it with Matthew 26:45).
So what would happen at Cana can only be a sign of what is to happen on the cross (12:16,23; 13:31 f.). It is the time for his glorification and that will be the crucifixion and resurrection. This is revealing of the glory of God the Father (17:5,14) and is manifested in Jesus’ works (11:4,40). The wine is the symbol of blood that was to be poured on the cross. The tasting of wine is to be the sign of acceptance of the cup of the blood of Jesus and satisfaction expressed by the master of the event is to be the sign of the salvation of everyone who would taste of his blood. Thus the whole event becomes a sign of the messianic banquet that is to happen in the kingdom of God. This is what we foretaste in H. Eucharist. Jesus was telling his mother that the ‘hour’ for that has not yet arrived.
Mary knew what Jesus would do. So she does not stay any further pleading again with her son, rather goes to the servants to give them necessary direction. The word used for servant is not the one for domestic servants. Out of 12 occurrences of the word in the Gospel, five including this one, have used the Greek word for deacon (DIAKON – 2:5,9; 12:26; 15:15,20) and the rest slave (DULOS -4:51; 13:16; 18:10,17,18,26,36). This also tells us that the event at Cana is to be understood in a sacramental context. The deacons, who serve in the Church distribute what is provided by Jesus for the congregation, Jesus’ guests (Luke 22:27). In such situation presence of Mary (or saints) is a must, not formally invited (in the text she was not an invited person, rather was there as part of the household or family – 2:1).
Jesus asks the deacons to get water in the jars kept for the purification rite. God always uses human participation in working out his mission to save humans. Humans are created in His image and likeness and has been breathed His breath in to his nostrils to participate with God in His work (see Genesis 2:19-20). But human’s failure to participate, irrespective of the saints request to that cause, is much painful to God.
The event is used by John to talk about the inadequacy of one of Jewish customs. There were only six jars, one short of seven the number of perfection and fullness. In addition to that they were not filled up. The water turned wine was served to the steward. But no one knew what happened there when it was tasted top quality wine. This is mystery and hence a sacrament. No one knows how the bread becomes Jesus’ body and the wine Jesus’ blood. This is what the Jews were asking in astonishment (John 6:52). This is what we celebrate in every H. Eucharist.
This is said to be the first sign Jesus performed during his public ministry. But the sentence construction would suggest that ‘first’ may also mean ‘the most important’ one. Of course, this was the first (chronologically) sign recorded. Wine in Rabbinic Judaism is a symbol of Jewish Torah or Law. At Cana it was proven to be insufficient to satisfy the need of the guests in the banquet (Rom. 3:20). The new law that Jesus gives through pouring out of his blood is sufficient to make every one more than content and satisfied. When we are satisfied, glory of God is manifested. The retelling of the event in John concludes with the words, ‘’the disciples believed in him”. The Church narrates to us this event that we may believe in him (19:31) and have life in him (3:16).
The Church requires us to read and meditate on this passage on the opening day of the great lent which prepares us to the most important (first) event of pouring out of the intoxicating wine on the cross. The Church invites us to be part of a feast that surpasses all feasts. We are called to participate in a joy that is given by our Lord through the perfecting of all imperfections. Every moment of joy and happiness in human life without notice could slip away in to a moment of suffering, shame and dishonor. The presence of Christ by way of ‘being invited’ will certainly remove that slippery nature of our moments and make them moments of greater joy and satisfaction. Mary and saints are always there and they pray with us and asks us to follow Jesus’ commandments.
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