The first half of John’s Gospel is sometimes known as the Book of Signs, because St. John’s account of the ministry of Jesus principally includes seven miracle stories. These accounts can be lengthy (the raising of Lazarus is 43 verses), and it is John’s interest in these seven miracle stories that distinguishes the Gospel of John from Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Though John spoke Aramaic as a native language, the Gospel is written in Greek. This would not be that unusual as Greek – the language of Alexander the Great – was the mother tongue of trade, government and culture in the east. John uses the term σημεῖον (semeion) to the remarkable and wondrous works performed by Jesus. Semeion can be translated into English as sign, symbol, wonder, or miracle.
The first miracle story is the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus converts water into wine. Here is the account, from John 2: 1-10:
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding. When the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.”
His mother said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus told them, “Fill the jars with water.” So they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So they took it.
And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine, without knowing where it came from (although the servers who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.
Archaeologists know that Cana is a village or town that is four to eight miles north of Nazareth, in Galilee. As Jesus, Mary and the disciples were invited to the wedding, the hosts must have been either extended family or close friends of Jesus or his mother. There is a lot of imagery in this passage, and I will start with the most generic and broadly Christian symbolism.
The Kingdom of Heaven
Jesus first miracle is, at one level, a positive sign or portent of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. This imagery comes directly from Revelation 21:1-2… Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. In the New Testament, weddings – the union of a man and a woman – are symbolic of the unity of God and his people (see also Ephesians 5:23-24).
The author of John is also polite enough to interpret his own text for us. John explains in 2:10 that “Jesus did this” in order to “reveal his glory” so that his disciples might “believe in him.” Through the first miracle, Jesus gives a faint indication that the Kingdom of God is at hand. And of course, there will be more miracles to come.
The miracle also conveys the message of abundance and joy. The wedding party runs out of wine, so Jesus converts 120 gallons of water (!) into wine. His first miracle is not a healing, nor has a stranger asked him to perform a miracle. At his mother’s request, he resolves the dilemma anonymously, leaving the servants to think that the house saved the best wine for last. Wine is associated with abundance because grain and wine are staples of the local economy.
In Deuteronomy 11:13-14, God tells us: And it shall be that if you earnestly obey My commandments which I command you today, to love the LORD your God and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will give you the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain, your new wine, and your oil.” Finally, new wine – the wine that Jesus created – is traditionally reserved as an offering to God (Deuteronomy 18:4).
From Water to Wine.
While John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus changed water into wine at the wedding, John does not mirror the passage by detailing the blessing of wine and bread at the Last Supper. Instead, John gives an extended discourse at the Last Supper that takes place after the meal. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, we have very similar accounts of the words of Jesus spoken over the wine cup: Matthew 26:26-27, Mark 14:23-24, Luke 22:20. It is surprising that John omits the words over the bread and wine, but then, his theological goal is to develop, add to and round out the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is generally not John’s objective to repeat what the previous three Gospel authors have already written.
In either event, both a) the miracle of the conversion of water into wine and b) Jesus words at the Last Supper that the wine has become symbolic (at the very least) of the blood he will shed for the remission of sins- foreshadow the coming of the Kingdom of God.
The Role of the Mother of Jesus
Catholics view the mother of Jesus as playing an important role in this passage, as she asked Jesus to perform the first sign or miracle in john’s gospel. For Catholics, this passage establishes a precedent that Jesus will act at the request of his mother. Other Christians may not interpret the passage this way.
As an aside, many readers have asked why Jesus speaks to his mother in such an abrupt tone – Woman, how does your concern affect me? I have heard several theories on this passage, including the theory that the phrasing is poorly translated and does not convey the true intent of what Jesus said or meant. I think this proposition is over-worked, though. In John’s writings, Mary the mother of Jesus is never – as in never – addressed by her first name (see Jn 19:26, Rev 12:1). There is a simple reason for this – she was still alive and living in the vicinity of John’s community when John wrote the Gospel! John did not want to identify a living member of his Christian community as being the mother of Jesus, since Christians were being arrested, detained and executed in Asia Minor. It is simply a literary peculiarity of John’s Gospel that the men formally address female personalities with the impersonal noun “woman” (Jn 4:21, Jn 8:10, Jn 20:15).