Fr Oliver Treanor reflects on the miracle of the marriage feast of Cana and tries draw out what it means.
The first miracle Jesus worked was at a wedding reception. According to St John’s gospel he changed water into wine to spare the bridal couple embarrassment and disappointment on their wedding day. Their married life was not going to start with a sense of failure, if he had anything to do with it. St John called it ‘the first of his signs’ and noted that it caused his disciples to believe in him (in 2:11). A sign is a thing that points to something like itself. So what did this unusual miracle signify?
It signified that Jesus has the power to change the quality of human love. Love is so precious in God’s eyes that he will willingly transform it to make it last. Jesus wanted this young couple’s life together to be a success from start to finish. He wanted it to be more than a matter of water; he wanted to turn it into a single cup of sparkling wine.
And that is one reason why his disciples believed in him – they recognized what the miracle meant.
They knew as Jesus did that natural affection, no matter how strong, is fragile. That it needs to be protected in a world that is often hostile to fidelity, commitment and self-giving – the very things that support a relationship. These are qualities, however, that demand sacrifice, and there has always been a trend that despises self-sacrifice. It wasn’t fashionable in their day and it isn’t fashionable now.
Yet without discipline, vigilance and care, the tenderness in love goes out of it, evaporates like morning mist. Jesus could not bear to think of that happening to the marriage at which he was an invited guest.
The touch of God
He was aware that good intentions are not enough, that even the best efforts of husbands and wives on their own do not guarantee a stable partnership. For that, it requires the touch of God himself. Therefore he wanted to make God present in every union, as he himself was present that day in Galilee.
That’s why he worked his first miracle at a nuptial feast. He had a message for married couples before he had a message for anyone else. ‘I can fill your boat with wine’, he wanted to tell them. And it was true. He did not produce merely a litre of vino rosso at Cana; he produced a deluge.
‘There were six stone water jars standing there’, recounts St John, ‘each holding twenty or thirty gallons’. The banquet was flowing with it, a fine, full-bodied fruit-filled vintage, according to the maitre d’hôtel who was thoroughly astonished at the quality! Enough grace in fact to make it marriage to remember, to give it substance, to make it holy.
A sign of God’s fidelity
But Jesus had another reason for holding marriage sacred. He saw it as a sign of his Father’s yearning for his people. The Old Testament prophets were forever likening Yahweh’s relationship with Israel to a husband’s desire for his wife. Isaiah for example thought of him as a young man intoxicated with love and not afraid to show it.
‘As a young man marries a virgin’, he told his listeners, ‘so shall the Lord marry you. And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so will your God rejoice over you’ (Is 62:5).
Because of this Jesus made matrimony a sacrament. The sacraments are the living signs of God’s inexhaustible fidelity. They prove him incapable of breaking his vows. After Jesus, every sacramental marriage is a miracle
that points to unbreakable love. Yes, a miracle, given that human beings themselves. are so breakable. And yet in their married life they make the divine love present in a human way, a constant reminder to the world
cf God’s reliability, a reminder that no matter how things change, he does not.
Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine; his last was to change wine into his blood. At the table of the Last Supper he passed the chalice into the hands of the same disciples who believed in him at Cana. ‘Take this all of you and drink it,’ he told them; ‘this is the cup of the new covenant in my blood’.
It was another sign. It foreshadowed his death on the cross when he would open his arms in a spousal embrace and pour himself out for his bride the Church. Once again he had left the best wine to the last to show how seriously he took his own wedding and family life.
Love without measure
At that moment the miracle of Cana was made complete. Here was a power with which to build a life that would last. Poured into the chalice of matrimony and overflowing the brim, more than was needed, here was the
essence of Christ himself, to enrich and transform what people are capable of and make it into something extraordinary, escpially in times of difficulty challenge.
And that is why marriage and Eucharist have always been linked, as Jesus intended from the start. One sacrament draws strenght from the other. When couples celebrate the Lord’s Supper together their union is supported and fortified and revitalized. Holy Communion reinforces marital union.
Witnesses of God’s love
The miracle of the Eucharist repeats the miracle of Cana. It reproduces it in the miracle of the cross. And every time this happens, God renews his whole Church, brings his bride closer to himself. He does so through the witness of those couples in whom his own love has come to rest and to ferment and to mature.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (July 1998), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.