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Wine, Weddings, and Signs

I’ve recently found myself, in the transition from Lent to Easter, focusing on the miracle at the wedding in Cana. The story—including its place in the broader story of John’s gospel—is a powerful reminder that, good as merely natural things are, they neither exhaust our desiring nor constitute our final end.

The first of Jesus’s miracles recorded in the Gospels, the wedding in Cana is among the best known of his wonders: in response to his mother’s prompting, Jesus transformed many gallons of water into fine wine. On the surface the miracle seems arbitrary, a premature and anti-climactic commencement of his earthly ministry. “My hour has not yet come,” Jesus says to Mary—before getting involved anyway and supplying the wine. Jesus performed this extravagant miracle quietly: only the servants and his disciples knew what he had done.

A few days later Jesus burst onto the public scene at Jerusalem, overturning the money-changers’ tables and upbraiding those who made temple sacrifice a lucrative business. Here we might question the prudence of Jesus’s decision to begin his public ministry with such pugnacity, but disquieting as his outburst may be, it is an unmistakable way to announce that his hour was coming indeed.

What should we make of the odd timing of the miracle at Cana? Does it matter that it is in some sense premature, and given that it is premature, why this miracle rather than some other?

Here I want to offer answers to these questions by reflecting on what Christ affirms by keeping the party going. Doing so shows us something about what Christ’s official ministry is all about. My suggestion is that Jesus gives a hearty thumbs up to everything natural and wholesome and pleasant and normal in ordinary human life—all of which are on display at the wedding—but that Christ means for us to transcend these natural goods and achieve a supernatural end: “to become,” as John’s Prologue puts it, “children of God.”

Christ affirms the goodness of marriage. He is at the wedding as a guest; he is recruited to ensure the wedding reception can continue with suitable conviviality. He complies lavishly: the resupply is ample and excellent. We infer that Jesus is pro-marriage. He wants to celebrate it and he encourages others to celebrate it.

Christ implicitly affirms the goodness of whatever constitutes marriage: here we can focus on the goodness of sex and the goodness of covenantal kinship relationships. Man and woman are drawn to each other in part by their sexual appetite. This appetite is intense and it is dangerous, but not gross or wicked. At its best it binds lovers together as husband and wife, is a source of physical pleasure and interpersonal intimacy, and gives rise to new life. The man and woman become kin by covenant, and produce kin by blood. These are the facts of life: humans are gonna human, and Jesus celebrates that.

Christ affirms the goodness of wine and hence the relaxation of body and elevation of spirit we nowadays describe with ugly words like intoxication and inebriation. Wine makes glad the heart of man, the Psalmist says. Like sex, it too is dangerous, but not wicked. Jesus knows that wine is good for aches and pains; it’s good for social anxiety; it’s good for throwing off cares and finding the joy in the moment; he knows it tastes good and feels good. This is partly why he does a much more lavish winey thing just before his arrest, torture, and execution.

Christ affirms the goodness of honor. It would have been embarrassing for the steward and the bridegroom (not to mention the bride) if the wine had run out. On special occasions one feels the social need to show off a little, to be and to be seen as generous. The peculiar sort of generosity on display at a banquet has a mutuality not always evident in other displays of generosity: the host provides lavishly for his guests, to honor and nourish and delight them; the guests in turn are impressed by the host and express their gratitude and esteem; the host comes away from the banquet having enhanced his social status (or maintained an already high status). In the particular context of a wedding banquet, the bride too is honored both by her groom and guests. All of this giving and receiving of honor was at risk of collapse when the wine ran out. Jesus helped the bridegroom to save face, and helped the steward to keep his job. But, again, he does this lavishly: “you have kept the good wine until now.”

Christ even affirms the goodness of wealth. A bridegroom who saves the best wine for last (when the guests have already “drunk freely”) is not just being generous; he is displaying a sort of greatness, a greatness achieved in part by wealth. A poor man cannot afford fine wine. A man of moderate means might be able to splurge, and if he does so the splurge will be front and center. Only a rich man can have the best on reserve.

Aristotle concluded that the good life is the happy life, and then inquired what true happiness is. He considered, then rejected, several common views about the happy life: the life of pleasure, the life of honor or social esteem, and the life of wealth. Pleasure, honor, and wealth are not bad in themselves. But they lack the character of the final end of human action: pleasure alone is part of our merely animal nature. Honor is derivative from what is honorable; the latter is therefore more choiceworthy than the former. And wealth is only good for what it helps achieve, and not as an end in itself.

Aristotle would go on to develop an account of happiness which focused on the virtuous activity of our noblest part: our rationality. The noblest activity of reason is contemplation of divine things, and in this contemplation we come as close to a divine life as Aristotle thought we mortals capable of.

But Jesus does Aristotle one better. Affirming the goodness of pleasure, honor, and wealth, but like Aristotle rejecting these as the final end of human life, Jesus gives all these his nihil obstat on the eve of his earthly ministry—before teaching in word and deed that he means us to transcend these natural goods. This divine approval of merely natural human life comes before Jesus’s “hour” because Jesus’s mission is not to encourage us to keep on going about our mundane affairs, but instead “to enlighten every man” (John 1:9) and to give “power to become children of God…born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13).

After the ruckus at the temple, there follows the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3), in which Jesus speaks mysteriously about the need to be born again. It is a birth “of water and the Spirit,” a new birth unto eternal life which can unite all peoples of the world as fellow worshippers “in spirit and truth,” as he tells the woman at the well (John 4). Jesus himself is the food and drink which sustains this new life (John 6), and he himself is the light by which those who are born again do their God-given work (John 7)—not merely as servants but as friends of God (John 15). He wants us to have the same glory that he himself has, and he wants us to have the union with God that he himself has (John 17).

This is all very lofty. How odd, then, that when Jesus has risen from the dead, he devotes one of his three precious appearances to his disciples to a simple seaside luncheon of grilled fish and bread (John 21)! But there is a fitting closure here. We began with a wedding banquet in which Jesus affirmed the goodness of ordinary life; we close with a lunch—a reminder that the transcendent good to which we are called is to be pursued, for now, within the confines of the world as we know it. So while the ordinary things of life are good indeed and well worth enjoying, they are also signs, pointing beyond themselves, to the Logos through whom all things were made.

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