Monday, January 16, 2012

A Wedding in Cana

Nowadays  the reading of The Wedding at Cana is influenced by David Hume and the post-Enlightenment and the debate on whether Jesus performed miracles or not

Attention is on the physical changing of water into wine. Or not. And whether it is proof of the divinity of Christ or not.

But St Augustine described what happened in Cana as "mysterious" and redolent with symbols and signs (Tractate 8 (John 2:1-4); and Tractate 9 (John 2:1-2)

Some of the "mystery" of the story is caught in the following work which was used as a model for many depictions of the scene in Germany in the nineteenth century. It is replete with meaning - perhaps too much.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
The Wedding Feast at Cana
Oil on canvas, 
140 x 210 cm
Kunsthalle, Hamburg

The incident is only related in John. The other Gospels do not relate it. It is the first of Jesus`s miracles or rather "signs".  It comes at the beginning of his public ministry when there were not even  twelve disciples or apostles.  

Blessed Pope John Paul II thought that the location of the sign in John`s text- the beginning of Chapter 2 -  was very significant:

"The expression “the beginning of his miracles”, which the Council has taken from John’s text,[(Lumen gentium, n. 58)] attracts our attention. The Greek term arche, translated as “beginning”, is used by John in the Prologue of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word” (1:1). This significant coincidence suggests a parallel between the very origins of Christ’s glory in eternity and the first manifestation of this same glory in his earthly mission"
(Blessed Pope John Paul II, General Audience, Wednesday, 5 March 1997)

The Text in St John`s Gospel

John writes:
"1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 
2 Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding. 
3 When the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." 
4 (And) Jesus said to her, "Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come."
5 His mother said to the servers, "Do whatever he tells you." 
6 Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding twenty to thirty gallons.
7 Jesus told them, "Fill the jars with water." So they filled them to the brim. 
8 Then he told them, "Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter." So they took it. 
9 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 
10 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." 
11 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. 
12 After this, he and his mother, (his) brothers, and his disciples went down to Capernaum and stayed there only a few days."
It is the first of a number of "signs" made by Jesus and narrated in Chapter 2. But John has the following comment regarding these signs:
"23 While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, many began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing. 
24 But Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all, 
25 and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well."
(John 2: 23 - 25)

The setting of the incident 

It is in the village of Cana. There is disagreement as to where Cana was. It was a small hill village. But only John mentions Cana (in this and some other occasions). It is not mentioned anywhere else in Scripture 

It is a wedding. We do not know whose wedding it was. 

There was a tradition among some in late  medieval times that the groom was St John himself.  It was based on the Apochrypha and the stories set out in Jacobus de Voragine. Others went further and said that the bride was St Mary Magdalene. But even Jacobus de Voragine thought that too fanciful and rejected it absolutely. 

Here are two paintings both by Flemish artists and based on the legend that the bridegroom was St John:

Juan de Flandes (active by 1496–died 1519)
The Marriage Feast at Cana
ca. 1500–1504 
Oil on wood 
8 1/4 x 6 1/4 in. (21 x 15.9 cm) 
The Metropolitan Museum, New York

Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen c. 1500 - 1559 
The Marriage at Cana
c. 1530
Oil on panel
66 x 84,5 cm

Vermeyen`s work is hypnotic. It is a remarkable work. Realism and Chiaroscuro did not begin with Caravaggio. The Flemish artists of the sixteenth century had already perfected the technique.

Unusually the artists makes the bride and the bridegroom major figures in the narrative. This emphasis on their identification with St John and St Mary Magdalene detracts from the painting. The intimacy of the theme and the chiaroscuro effects inevitably suggests the compositions of the Caravaggisti`s depictions of the scene at Emmaus.  However the identification of the Feast with the Eucharist is another major theme considered below

But presumably like all rural weddings that used to take place in the Mediterranean the wedding was not a quiet or private occasion. It was a public and  communal occasion in which the whole village and the whole extended families and friends were invited. 

Weddings in the Holy Land were celebrated for a whole week. Much wine was consumed.

The running out of wine would have been a  personal disaster for the spouses and their families. It would never have been lived down. It would always be remembered. The beginning of the marriage would have been to say the least inauspicious.

It is the setting of the wedding which is emphasised by the Vatican website when it discusses the incident as the Second Mystery of Light:
""On the threshold of his public life Jesus performs his first sign ­at his mother's request - during a wedding feast: The Church attaches great importance to Jesus' presence at the wedding at Cana. She sees in it the confirmation of the goodness of marriage and the proclamation that thenceforth marriage will be an efficacious sign of Christ's presence" (CCC, 1613)."

Feasting at a crowded wedding is the predominant theme in a number of works such as these. Everyone loves a wedding:

Diego Oronzo Bianchi di Manduria (1683 - 1767)
The Marriage Feast at Cana
18th century
Oil on canvas
Santa Maria degli Angeli , Gallipoli, Puglia, Italy

Leandro da Ponte (Leandro Bassano)
The Marriage at Cana c. 1579
Oil on canvas
127 cm x 203 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

A Spiritual Union

But it is more than an affirmation of a marriage between man and woman. The early Church saw it as a symbol of much greater significance: a Spiritual Marriage, the prefiguration of the institution of the Eucharist and the sacrifice on Calvary:
"The context of a wedding banquet, chosen by Jesus for his first miracle, refers to the marriage symbolism used frequently in the Old Testament to indicate the Covenant between God and his People (cf. Hos 2:21; Jer 2:1-8; Ps 44; etc.), and in the New Testament to signify Christ’s union with the Church (cf. Jn 3:28-30; Eph 5:25-32; Rv 21:1-2, etc.) .
According to the interpretation of Christian authors, the miracle at Cana also has a deep Eucharistic meaning. Performing this miracle near the time of the Jewish feast Passover (cf. Jn 2:13), Jesus, as he did in multiplying the loaves (cf. Jn 6:4), shows his intention to prepare the true paschal banquet, the Eucharist. His desire at the wedding in Cana seems to be emphasized further by the presence of wine, which alludes to the blood of the New Covenant, and by the context of a banquet."
(Blessed Pope John Paul II, General Audience, Wednesday, 5 March 1997)

Pope Benedict XVI put it more expansively (Monday, 11 September 2006):
" [He] gives a sign, in which he proclaims his hour, the hour of the wedding-feast, the hour of union between God and man.  
He does not merely “make” wine, but transforms the human wedding-feast into an image of the divine wedding-feast, to which the Father invites us through the Son and in which he gives us every good thing, represented by the abundance of wine.  
The wedding-feast becomes an image of that moment when Jesus pushed love to the utmost, let his body be rent and thus gave himself to us for ever, having become completely one with us - a marriage between God and man.  
The hour of the Cross, the hour which is the source of the Sacrament, in which he gives himself really to us in flesh and blood, puts his Body into our hands and our hearts, this is the hour of the wedding feast.  
Thus a momentary need is resolved in a truly divine manner and the initial request is superabundantly granted. Jesus' hour has not yet arrived, but in the sign of the water changed into wine, in the sign of the festive gift, he even now anticipates that hour.

It is this spiritual dimension which is recorded in these works especially in the last of the 'Flemish Primitives':

 Gérard David (c 1460-1523)
The Wedding Feast at Cana
1501 - 1502
Oil on wood
1.0 m. x 1.280 m.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Jacopo Robusti (Tintoretto) (1518-1594)
The Marriage Feast at Cana
Oil on canvas
4.35m x 5.45 m
Commissioned, Painted and still in situ in the Sacristy of the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute, Venice

Lavinia Fontana 
1552 - 1614
The Marriage Feast at Cana 
Oil on copper
26 1/4 by 14 3/4 in.; 66.5 by 37.5 cm.
Private collection

The six stone jars

The superabundance of the grace of Christ is seen in the amount of wine which results. The six stone jars John speaks of would together hold about 150 gallons, that is, about 800 bottles’ worth. Such superabundance is seen again in the Feeding of the Five Thousand

But the early Church saw a greater significance in the six stone jars. Early Christian art focuses on these:

Panel depicting the filling of the water pots at the Miracle of Cana, 
Relief in ivory
c. AD 650

The stone jars were filled with water for Jewish religious rites. The transformation of the water into wine was seen as the supersession of the Old Law by the New Law

But there is more. 

In Tractate 9, Saint Augustine expounds at length on the pots:

"And we know that the law extends from the time of which we have record, that is, from the beginning of the world: In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. Genesis 1:1 
Thence down to the time in which we are now living are six ages, this being the sixth, as you have often heard and know.  
The first age is reckoned from Adam to Noah; the second, from Noah to Abraham; and, as Matthew the evangelist duly follows and distinguishes, the third, from Abraham to David; the fourth, from David to the carrying away into Babylon; the fifth, from the carrying away into Babylon to John the Baptist; Matthew 1:17 the sixth, from John the Baptist to the end of the world.  
Moreover, God made man after His own image on the sixth day, because in this sixth age is manifested the renewing of our mind through the gospel, after the image of Him who created us; Colossians 3:10 and the water is turned into wine, that we may taste of Christ, now manifested in the law and the prophets.  
Hence there were there six water-pots, which He bade be filled with water.  
Now the six water-pots signify the six ages, which were not without prophecy. And those six periods, divided and separated as it were by joints, would be as empty vessels unless they were filled by Christ. Why did I say, the periods which would run fruitlessly on, unless the Lord Jesus were preached in them? Prophecies are fulfilled, the water-pots are full; but that the water may be turned into wine, Christ must be understood in that whole prophecy"

The role of Mary

And then but not least we come to Mary. 

Mary had a major role in what happened at Cana. Without her the great "sign" would not have occurred She is the instigator of the first public manifestation of Christ`s ministry

It is in this incident that we have the last recorded authentic words of Mary. "They have no wine."  "Do whatever he tells you." 

Cyr Manuel Evgenikos 
(14th century)
Fragment of The Marriage Feast at Cana
South transept, The Church of The Holy Saviour, Tsalendjikha, Georgia

Yet there is something very disturbing about this part of the tale.

Saint Augustine and Pope Benedict XVI both point out what is wrong or seems to be wrong: we do not like the way Christ talks to Mary, his mother

"In the first place, we don't like the way he addresses her: “Woman”. Why doesn't he say: “Mother”? ... 
Yet we like even less what Jesus at Cana then says to Mary: “Woman, what have I to do with you? My hour has not yet come” (Jn 2:4). We want to object: you have a lot to do with her! It was Mary who gave you flesh and blood, who gave you your body, and not only your body: with the “yes” which rose from the depths of her heart she bore you in her womb and with a mother's love she gave you life and introduced you to the community of the people of Israel."

Mattia Preti 1613 - 1699
The Marriage at Cana
about 1655-60
Oil on canvas 
203.2 x 226 cm
The National Gallery, London

Pope Benedict XVI explains thiese difficulties in his Homily
It was also considered in the ARCIC document Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ

It considered the role of Mary in the entirety of St John`s Gospel, the great Christological Gospel where the emphasis is on the Divinity of Christ. Mary is fully human. Christ is wholly human and wholly divine. The public ministry of Christ changes His relationship with his mother:

"Mary in John’s Gospel 
22 Mary is not mentioned explicitly in the Prologue of John’s Gospel. However, something of the significance of her role in salvation history may be discerned by placing her in the context of the considered theological truths that the evangelist articulates in unfolding the good news of the Incarnation. The theological emphasis on the divine initiative, that in the narratives of Matthew and Luke is expressed in the story of Jesus’ birth, is paralleled in the Prologue of John by an emphasis on the predestining will and grace of God by which all those who are brought to new birth are said to be born “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (1:13). These are words that could be applied to the birth of Jesus himself.  
23 At two important moments of Jesus’ public life, the beginning (the wedding at Cana) and the end (the Cross), John notes the presence of Jesus’ mother. Each is an hour of need: the first on the surface rather trivial, but at a deeper level a symbolic anticipation of the second.  
John gives a prominent position in his Gospel to the wedding at Cana (2:1-12), calling it the beginning (archē) of the signs of Jesus. The account emphasizes the new wine which Jesus brings, symbolizing the eschatological marriage feast of God with his people and the messianic banquet of the Kingdom. The story primarily conveys a Christological message: Jesus reveals his messianic glory to his disciples and they believe in him (2:11). 
24 The presence of the “mother of Jesus” is mentioned at the beginning of the story: she has a distinctive role in the unfolding of the narrative. Mary seems to have been invited and be present in her own right, not with “Jesus and his disciples” (2:1-2); Jesus is initially seen as present as part of his mother’s family.  
In the dialogue between them when the wine runs out, Jesus seems at first to refuse Mary’s implied request, but in the end he accedes to it. This reading of the narrative, however, leaves room for a deeper symbolic reading of the event.  
In Mary’s words “they have no wine”, John ascribes to her the expression not so much of a deficiency in the wedding arrangements, as of the longing for salvation of the whole covenant people, who have water for purification but lack the joyful wine of the messianic kingdom.  
In his answer, Jesus begins by calling into question his former relationship with his mother (“What is there between you and me?”), implying that a change has to take place. He does not address Mary as ‘mother’, but as “woman” (cf. John 19:26). Jesus no longer sees his relation to Mary as simply one of earthly kinship. 
25 Mary’s response, to instruct the servants to “Do whatever he tells you” (2:5), is unexpected; she is not in charge of the feast (cf. 2:8).  
Her initial role as the mother of Jesus has radically changed. She herself is now seen as a believer within the messianic community. From this moment on, she commits herself totally to the Messiah and his word. A new relationship results, indicated by the change in the order of the main characters at the end of the story: “After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples” (2:12).  
The Cana narrative opens by placing Jesus within the family of Mary, his mother; from now on, Mary is part of the “company of Jesus”, his disciple. Our reading of this passage reflects the Church’s understanding of the role of Mary: to help the disciples come to her son, Jesus Christ, and to “do whatever he tells you.” 
26 John’s second mention of the presence of Mary occurs at the decisive hour of Jesus’ messianic mission, his crucifixion (19:25-27). Standing with other disciples at the cross, Mary shares in the suffering of Jesus, who in his last moments addresses a special word to her, “Woman, behold your son”, and to the beloved disciple, “Behold your mother.” We cannot but be touched that, even in his dying moments, Jesus is concerned for the welfare of his mother, showing his filial affection. This surface reading again invites a symbolic and ecclesial reading of John’s rich narrative. These last commands of Jesus before he dies reveal an understanding beyond their primary reference to Mary and “the beloved disciple” as individuals. The reciprocal roles of the ‘woman’ and the ‘disciple’ are related to the identity of the Church. Elsewhere in John, the beloved disciple is presented as the model disciple of Jesus, the one closest to him who never deserted him, the object of Jesus’ love, and the ever-faithful witness (13:25, 19:26, 20:1-10, 21:20-25). Understood in terms of discipleship, Jesus’ dying words give Mary a motherly role in the Church and encourage the community of disciples to embrace her as a spiritual mother. 
27 A corporate understanding of ‘woman’ also calls the Church constantly to behold Christ crucified, and calls each disciple to care for the Church as mother. Implicit here perhaps is a Mary-Eve typology: just as the first ‘woman’ was taken from Adam’s ‘rib’ (Genesis 2:22, pleura LXX) and became the mother of all the living (Genesis 3:20), so the ‘woman’ Mary is, on a spiritual level, the mother of all who gain true life from the water and blood that flow from the side (Greek pleura, literally ‘rib’) of Christ (19:34) and from the Spirit that is breathed out from his triumphant sacrifice (19:30, 20:22, cf. 1 John 5:8).  
In such symbolic and corporate readings, images for the Church, Mary and discipleship interact with one another. Mary is seen as the personification of Israel, now giving birth to the Christian community (cf. Isaiah 54:1, 66:7-8), just as she had given birth earlier to the Messiah (cf. Isaiah 7:14).  
When John’s account of Mary at the beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry is viewed in this light, it is difficult to speak of the Church without thinking of Mary, the Mother of the Lord, as its archetype and first realization."

The Prayer of Mary: "Vinum non habent"

Gerónimo  Nadal (1507-1580), 
Adnotationes et meditationes in Evangelia : [cum Imaginibus et lineis rubris] 

Pope Benedict has cited Mary`s prayer as a model:

"Mary leaves everything to the Lord's judgement.  
At Nazareth she gave over her will, immersing it in the will of God: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). And this continues to be her fundamental attitude.  
This is how she teaches us to pray: not by seeking to assert before God our own will and our own desires, however important they may be, however reasonable they might appear to us, but rather to bring them before him and to let him decide what he intends to do.  
From Mary we learn graciousness and readiness to help, but we also learn humility and generosity in accepting God's will, in the confident conviction that, whatever it may be, it will be our, and my own, true good."

In his Purgatorio, Dante uses this prayer on the Second Terrace where those guilty of the sin of Envy are being purified. The prayer is seen as part of the cure for Envy.

Dante and Virgil first hear voices on the air telling stories of Charity, selfless generosity, the opposite virtue.

"The first voice that passed onward in its flight,
29 Vinum non habent, said in accents loud,
30 And went reiterating it behind us."
(Dante, Purgatory. Canto 13. Lines 28 - 30  trans Longfellow)

In the same way that Christ transformed water into wine at Cana, Dante reminds us that by the grace of God, those in Purgatory are transformed.

Mary`s order: " "Do whatever he tells you." ( Quodcumque dixerit vobis, facite)

These are Mary`s last recorded words in Scripture. They are in the form of a command

They are simple and direct. The words need no elaboration.

Pope Benedict used the words to make an exhortation:
"Mary told the servants to turn to Jesus and gave them a precise order: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). Treasure these words, the last to be spoken by Mary as recorded in the Gospels, as it were, a spiritual testament of hers, and you will always have the joy of the celebration: Jesus is the wine of the feast!"


  1. This is fantastic stuff, please keep blogging. I am a teacher and your summations and thoughts are really helpful. Thank you!

  2. Beautiful artwork and really helpful reflections - thanks.