20 January 2019

‘Everyone serves the good
wine first’ … or do they?

‘On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee’ (John 2: 1) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 20 January 2019

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

9.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

Readings: Isaiah 62: 1-5; Psalm 36: 5-10; I Corinthians 12: 1-11; John 2: 1-11.

Waiting for the banquet at sunset on the beach in Rethymnon in Crete … in the Kingdom of God, ‘the best is yet to come.’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This morning, our readings continue the great themes of Epiphany, exploring those moments of sudden and striking realisation that in Christ God is present among us on earth, in our daily lives.

Over the past few Sundays, we have heard two of the three great Epiphany stories:

● The Visit of the Magi (Matthew 2: 1-12, 6 January 2019, The Epiphany);

● The Baptism of Christ (Luke 3: 17-17, 21-22, 13 February 2019, the First Sunday after Epiphany);

Now, this morning, we hear the third of the three great Epiphany stories:

● The Wedding at Cana (John 2: 1-11).

In each of these three events, Christ is manifest as God-incarnate at a point that marks the beginning of his ministry or his presence among us. It is the moment when we are caught off guard as we realise that this seemingly helpless new-born child, or this one among many in the stream of visitors to Saint John the Baptist at the River Jordan, or this anonymous guest who is one among many at a small-town wedding, is in fact the omnipotent God, the one through all things are made, the King and Ruler of the universe.

There are many reasons why I enjoy returning to his morning’s Gospel reading again and again.

It is one of my favourite passages for weddings, because it talks about how families are made and shaped, and asks us to think again about how we cannot shape or control our own families. We cannot decide or control who is going to be an uncle or aunt by marriage to our children or grandchildren. And if we cannot control relationships like that, then, in the same way, we should rejoice in diversity, variety and pluralism in the Church and in Society.

I find too that this passage is a good reminder that Christ is truly God and truly human. Chapter 1 of Saint John’s Gospel introduces us to a new creation, a new creation that is in Christ. Then, there are six days in this new creation, and this reading brings us to Day Seven.

What did God do on the Seventh Day in the creation story? God rested. And now that we have arrived at Day Seven in the Saint John’s Gospel, we come to the Day that Christ rests with his disciples, and to a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet, which is the completion of God’s creation.

‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb’ (Revelation 19: 9).

Christ rests as God on the seventh day, and Christ rests in a very human way on the seventh day: an Epiphany experience in the truest sense.

This is also the story of the first of the Seven Signs in Saint John’s Gospel, and the first of the seven signs comes on the seventh of the seven days that introduce the Gospel.

But there is another way in which this Gospel story should reach our emotions and into our hearts.

While Christ is at the wedding in Cana with his disciples, the hosts run out of wine. The mother of Jesus tells him: ‘They have no more wine.’ And Jesus replies: ‘Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come.’

His mother then says to the servants: ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

Jesus orders the servants to fill the empty containers with water and to draw out some and take it to the chief waiter. After tasting the water that had become wine, and not knowing what Christ has done, he remarks to the bridegroom that he has departed from the custom of serving the best wine first by serving it last.

This miracle is not mentioned in any of the other three Gospels, although it has parallels with the parable of the New Wine and Old Wineskins.

In the Old Testament, we read promises that there will be an abundance of wine in the time of the Messiah (Genesis 27: 27-28; 49: 10-12; Amos 9: 13-14), especially at the wedding feasts (see Isaiah 62: 4-5). The wine in this story represents the overflowing and abundant blessings of God coming to fruition.

The wine gives out.

Why do you think this happens?

Because everyone has had too much to drink?

Because the groom, as he ought to in that tradition, did not buy in enough wine?

Or, because the groom had bought enough wine, but someone was siphoning it off, hoping everyone would be too drunk to notice?

Embarrassing, yes. But for whom?

Certainly, for Mary, she takes action immediately. You can just picture her as the concerned aunt, like so many aunts at a wedding, not wanting her nephew and his new wife, or her niece and her new husband, to be embarrassed.

Did you notice that Mary does not make a request here? She simply observes or passes comment on a matter of fact in her conversation with her son. They have no wine. She is not asking for a miracle.

She accepts whatever her Son may say, even if it is not going to turn out to be what she expected.

What did she expect?

What did she know at this stage?

What did she think her Son could say or would do?

But, whatever about Mary’s embarrassment, this is not an embarrassing moment for Jesus.

And not for the servants either. They seem to have done just what they were told to do.

Jesus says his time, his ‘hour has not yet come’ (verse 4).

So, why does he seem to change his mind, and do something that means that this wedding is not going to crash into disaster?

Wine fraud is one of the oldest frauds in the world. Perhaps the finger of suspicion points at the chief steward, the master of the feast.

He has not been paying attention to what has been going on. At best, he has been negligent, at worst he was complicit, perhaps even the organiser.

Have the newly-wed couple and their guests, and their servants too, been the victims of a smart con trick by the chief steward?

Is he inefficient?

Does he not realise what is going on?

Did he not buy all the wine that he had charged up to the couple getting married or their parents?

Has he, perhaps, been siphoning off the wine?

He is certainly not a model of probity as a wedding planner. Perhaps he is avoiding some potentially tough questions when he claims dismissively: ‘Everyone serves the good wine first.’

We know this is not so. At some dinners, people may mark the end of the celebrations with a good port. At weddings, we often hold off on serving the good wine, so that the champagne is there to toast the bride and groom later on.

Why do you think the servants obeyed Mary and then obeyed Jesus?

And why was the steward not in control of what was going on at this stage?

Was he hiding in embarrassment?

Had he headed off to buy some more wine?

The steward never even asks where this good wine comes from. He just accepts that it is there. Perhaps he suspects he has been caught out.

The steward shifts responsibility to the bridegroom. But the truth is that the good wine has been kept until now. Now the best of God’s promises are about to be fulfilled.

The six stone jars contain water for rites of purification. They are ceremonial rites, not hygienic rites – they are not drinking water, but more like the waters of Baptism. Each jar contained 20 or 30 gallons, so we are talking about 180 gallons of wine – roughly speaking, in today’s terms, 1,091 bottles of wine. And because the wine was so good (see 9-10) in those days, it had to have water added to it, so this may have doubled the amount –perhaps up to 1,500 or 2,000 bottles of wine by today’s reckoning. It was enough to ensure they partied for days … and weddings in the Eastern Mediterranean do go on for days.

The Wedding at Cana, the Epiphany cycle of stories, the promises contained in the stories that compare wedding banquets with the Kingdom of God, all let us know that in God’s plans, in Christ’s hope, for ‘the little people’ who feel cheated and marginalised, ‘the best is yet to come.’

This is not just after the seventh day in a new creation, but we are told that in another cycle it has become the third day.

Anyone listening to this Gospel soon after it was written would immediately associate the third day with the Resurrection.

And the good news is that on third day Christ is Risen, that we are all invited to the banquet.

So, what are we to take away from this morning’s Gospel story?

1, The Christ revealed to us at Epiphany time is truly human and truly divine.

2, In Christ there is a new creation – the best is yet to come.

3, In our obedience to Christ we find that he takes away all our embarrassments – if you like, he saves us from all that is sinful.

4, God’s generosity to us in Christ is over-generous, God’s love for us in Christ is over-abundant, God’s goodness to us is the best, is beyond measure, is beyond our imagination.

5, God in Christ calls us all to join him in the waters of baptism and to feast with him at the Heavenly Banquet.

And so may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Empty tables waiting for the wedding banquet … in the third of the great themes of Epiphany, the wedding feast is the royal banquet (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 2: 1-11 (NRSVA):

1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4 And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ 5 His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6 Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim (John 2: 7) … two large jars or pithoi at the Minoan palace in Knossos, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: White

The Penitential Kyries:

God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
in Christ you make all things new:
Transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (cf Isaiah 9: 6, 7)

The Blessing:

Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:

Finding good wine to serve at the end of the meal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


553, Jesu, love of my soul (CD 32)
52, Christ whose glory fills the skies (CD 4)
445, Soul, array thyself with gladness (CD 26)

The Wedding at Cana … a modern icon

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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