Who Is Jesus Christ?
Learning from the Wedding Feast of Cana
Because Jesus as the protagonist appears in almost every gospel episode, it is necessary to be attentive to the nuanced Christologies that are entwined in the individual gospel stories. The wedding feast at Cana (Jn 2:1-11 is an example par excellence of a gospel episode that can sustain multiple interpretations and multiple insights into the meaning of Christ.
Perhaps it is John’s intention to coax a reader to consider a variety of interpretative perspectives on this short text, given that he employs the Greek word for ‘sign’ to designate what the Synoptic authors would typically label ‘mighty deeds’ or ‘deeds of power’: ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee’ (2:11).i By using the term sêmeion, perhaps John is prompting a reader not simply to focus on the capacity of Jesus to perform miracles, but, also, to be alert to what lies beneath the surface of the narrative, to dig deeper in order to unearth the theological and Christological significance(s) or meaning(s) of the passage.
While many theological perspectives, such as John’s sacramentology and his understanding of Judaism and its relationship to Christianity, are entwined in the Cana narrative, the spotlight is firmly on Jesus, and provokes a reader to delve more deeply into the nature of his identity. The setting – a marriage ceremony – provides an overarching context for interpreting the episode. Interestingly, the focus is not on the actual bridegroom, so much so that we do not even know the names of any member of the wedding party. More importantly, Jesus is presented almost as assuming the role of bridegroom by providing wine for the guests. John Marsh captures what is happening here:
For the central issue of this narrative is not the miracle of the changing of the water into wine, if that wonder be isolated from its setting in John’s story, but it is rather the amazing thing that happens when he who is the bridegroom, the real, the genuine bridegroom, attends the festival of a Jewish wedding, a marriage ceremony among the people of God, and transforms it.ii
This interpretative stance can be substantiated by recognising that elsewhere in the Gospel of John Jesus is described as a bridegroom. In John 3:29, John the Baptist clarifies his own role in relation to Jesus using the metaphor of bridegroom, ‘He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.’ Also, in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus explains the actions of the disciples by utilizing the image of a bridegroom, ‘The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast’ (Mk 2:19; cf. Mt 9:15, Lk 5:33-35).iii
What is most interesting is that Jesus’ provision of wine at the wedding at Cana is almost a perfect enactment of Jesus’ words in the Synoptic tradition, so much so that one might assume that Jesus’ words, as found, for example, in Mark 2:19, have in some way influenced John’s shaping of the Cana sign. Indeed, one could readily imagine John’s Jesus responding to his mother’s comment (‘They have no wine’) with the Markan Jesus’ comment, ‘The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them,’ rather than the more abrasive, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?’ (2:4). If the Johnannie community knows this aspect of the Synoptic tradition, then Jesus’ identity and function as bridegroom would be a perspective that they would bring to a reading of John 2:1-11.
John’s readers, familiar with Jewish texts and traditions, might also acknowledge that Jesus’ identity as bridegroom in John 2:1-11 fits in seamlessly with the high Christological fabric of John’s Gospel, particularly texts that show Jesus functioning in a similar manner to God. The bridegroom-and-bride relationship is an important metaphor employed by Old Testament authors to communicate something about Yahweh’s relationship with his people Israel. The prophet Isaiah captures this: ‘as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you’ (Isa 62:5).iv
Employing the metaphor of bridegroom in relation to Jesus envisages that Jesus’ relationship with those who accept him is almost identical to the relationship that God has with Israel. And the fact that Jesus assumes a role attributed to the God of the Israelites places him on the same platform as God, and is another indication of the divine nature of Jesus that John has introduced right from the outset of the Gospel (Jn 1:1-18).
Jesus’ identity as Messiah is also evident in John 2:1-11. Unlike Mark’s, there is no messianic secret in John’s Gospel. Jesus’ messiahship is evident from the beginning, when Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, utters in relation to Jesus, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (Jn 1:41). Jesus’ identity as Messiah is affirmed right throughout the Gospel. For example, one of the few passages that John shares with the synoptic Gospels – the feeding of the five thousand – is reshaped to draw attention to Jesus as the Messiah, particularly the reference to the people who wanted to ‘take him by force to make him king’ (John 6:15). Some of the Rabbis believed that the expected Messiah would repeat the miracle of the manna in the desert. Although evidence for this tradition is quite late, it nevertheless accounts for the crowd’s belief that Jesus is the Messiah in the direct aftermath of the feeding miracle, and, indeed, the crowd’s enthusiasm to make him a king by force. v Interestingly, the wedding feast at Cana – a miracle similar to the feeding miracle because of the abundance of provisions – also endorses Jesus’ messianic status.
The prophetic tradition is important for discerning Jesus’ messiahship here. Craig Koester explains:
Several prophetic writings spoke of an outpouring of divine favour upon Israel, saying that ‘the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it,’ and sometimes connecting abundant wine with the restoration of Davidic rule (Amos 9:11, 13; cf. Joel 3:18; Isa 25:6). Jewish tradition associated this outpouring of wine with the advent of the Messiah.vi
It is clear from John 2:6-7 that there is an abundance of wine at the Cana feast. Six stone water jars, each holding 20 or 30 gallons, are filled to capacity with water, and are eventually transformed into wine by Jesus. Readers familiar with the prophetic tradition would undoubtedly connect this abundance of ‘good’ wine with Jesus’ identity as Messiah. This is certainly affirmed by the author’s own understanding of the purpose of the signs, expressed towards the end of the Gospel: ‘But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’ (Jn 20:31).
Interestingly, just as the image of Jesus as bridegroom fits well with John’s focus on the divinity of Jesus, so, too, does Jesus’ action of providing wine. Readers familiar with Greco-Roman culture and traditions would likely discern from the Cana sign that Jesus is a divine being similar to Dionysos. Again, Koester explains:
Greeks would not have grasped the messianic significance of this sign, but they would have understood that the miraculous gift of wine revealed the presence of the deity. Throughout the Mediterranean world, wine was associated with the god Dionysos, who was said to have been the first to cultivate the vine and ferment its fruit. At Andros, on the festival called theodosia or ‘gift of God’ a spring would flow with wine; and at Elis, three empty jars were placed in a sealed room and on the following morning were always found full of wine.vii
Jesus’ divine nature is expressed in other ways in this sign, most notably by means of John’s designation of this miracle as a sign. The Book of Exodus is a relevant background text, because God characterizes the Exodus event as a sêmeion:
But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘But I will be with you; and this shall be the sign [sêmeion] for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain’ (Ex 3:11-12).
Because John designates Jesus’ miracles as signs, he creates a link between Jesus’ present works and the work of the Lord on behalf of Israel by means of the Exodus. Both the Old Testament God and Jesus perform signs, an indication that Jesus and God’s work is inextricably related, and, moreover, a high Christological marker. Indeed, this is consistent with Jesus’ perception of his work: ‘My Father is working still, and I am working’ (Jn 5.17).
A related high Christological marker is the reference to Jesus’ ‘glory’ (doxa) in John 2:11: ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee and revealed his glory.’ Readers once again familiar with Old Testament traditions would recall that glory is connected with the presence of the Lord. For example, Exodus 16:10 mentions that while Aaron was addressing the Israelites, ‘they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory [doxa] of the Lord appeared in the cloud.’ In relation to John’s use of glory in John 2:11, Craig Keener notes that ‘John here may echo Exodus 16:7, where Israel sees God’s ‘glory’ by his signs for them in the wilderness, namely, by providing food for their desires despite their unbelief.’viii The use of doxa in John 2:11, a term that is linked to God’s presence, suggests that God’s presence and power are somehow made manifest through the presence and power of Jesus, and is, therefore, another affirmation of Jesus’ divinity.
One final high Christological perspective is evident in relation to Jesus’ apparent harsh rebuke of his mother, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?’ One might be tempted to conclude that this reflects the humanity of Jesus, similar to John 11:33 where Jesus is ‘greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,’ or John 12:27 where Jesus explains that ‘my soul is troubled.’ While the humanity of Jesus is overshadowed by Jesus’ depiction as a divine being in John’s Gospel, it is nevertheless central to John’s theology, particularly the theme of revelation, whereby Jesus reveals the Father though taking on human form, becoming flesh (John 1:14). The divinity of Jesus, however, comes to the fore at this Cana wedding in an unexpected way, through Jesus’ fairly sharp response to his mother.
As mentioned above, Mary’s seemingly innocuous and positive request to provide wine is first met with a rebuke by Jesus. Jesus, then, appears to take on board Mary’s prompt to remedy the lack of wine. It is interesting that Jesus reacts in a similar fashion to other positive requests in the Gospel. In John 11:3, Jesus receives word that Lazarus is sick. The message from Martha and Mary – ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill’ – could be read as a request to come immediately to remedy the situation. Jesus does not initially spring into action, and opts instead to delay two days, before eventually saying to his disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again’ (Jn 11:7). A similar pattern emerges when Jesus’ disciples make a positive proposal that Jesus should go to the festival of Booths in Jerusalem (Jn 7:2-4). Jesus rebukes the idea and, almost immediately, takes on board the disciples’ initial proposal: ‘ ‘Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.’ After saying this, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret’ (Jn 7:8-10)
While we might be tempted to say that these instances display the humanity of Jesus, particularly from the point of view that Jesus appears to change his mind or be dismissive, it is more probable that they reflect Jesus’ divinity. The Johannine Jesus does not work according to human prompting, however positive the request, but, as a divine being, works according to divine timing and foreknowledge. Each of the instances mentioned above reflect this, including Jesus’ words to Mary in John 2:4, ‘My hour has not yet come,’ which indicate that Jesus is working according to a divine schedule.ix So, rather than mull over Jesus’ bizarre rebukes in each of these instances, maybe it is best to consider them from the point of view of affirming the divinity of Jesus.
The Christological perspectives introduced above only skim the surface when it comes to the depth of theologies entwined in the Cana story. Jesus uses fishing as a metaphor for discipleship and religious leadership in the Gospels (Mk 1:16-18; Mt 4:19). A fishing metaphor is also relevant for interpreting John’s Gospel. In each passage, there are abundant theological insights beneath the surface, and a reader needs to be willing to cast the rod into the sea time and time again to reap the insights that John’s narrative facilitates.
Diane Corkery lectures in theology at St Patrick’s College, Thurles.