The metaphor of marriage imaging God’s relationship with the people of God is recurrent in the Old Testament. Yahweh is to Israel as husband is to wife. Recall also the comparison of Hosea’s troubled marriage with the story of God’s relationship with Israel.
In this Sunday’s First Reading the prophet Isaiah uses this tradition with regard to Israel’s future restoration when the coming vindication of Jerusalem is portrayed as a wedding feast for God and his spouse: “… but you shall be called ‘My Delight’;…As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.”
Jesus himself makes bold to apply the tradition to himself. When, in the Gospel of Mark (2:18), the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples are not fasting like those of John the Baptist, he replies, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” He continues the metaphor by speaking of his presence and ministry as “new wine” demanding new wineskins.
Knowing this background helps us better appreciate the account of the wedding feast of Cana, Sundays Gospel. Far more is going on here than an observation that Jesus “liked a good party” or was affirming the institution of marriage. In the framework of John’s Gospel, the wedding feast at Cana is nothing less than the revelation of divinity in Jesus as Word made flesh.
Also significant is that John states that the wedding occurred “on the third day.” Third day relative to what? Relative to Exodus 19:11; 15 and 16, as it turns out. For in that account of Yahweh’s appearance on Mount Sinai, at the giving of the covenant, the appearance occurs on the third day, and it is twice referred to as a display of God’s “glory” (Ex 24:16-17).
John’s account of the wedding begins with the third-day note and ends by saying that by this “sign” Jesus “revealed his glory.” These connections would not be lost on readers who knew their Hebrew Scriptures and the prologue to the fourth Gospel, which includes such statements as “The Word became flesh and we saw his glory … full of grace and truth. … From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace, because while the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:14,16-17).
Cana, in a sense, acts this out. Consider the jars of water that become wine. One hundred twenty to one hundred eighty gallons of wine is a great amount. And John is careful to note that the containers are stone jars, that is, jars not made the usual ceramic way, out of clay worked and baked, but sculpted out blocks of stone. Such jars were costly, the very best, and pure because they were nonporous. John notes that there are six and are there for the purpose of Jewish ritual purifications. The symbolism is clear. As stone and large, they are special and abundant; but as only six (not seven), they are incomplete. However, when people do what Jesus says, water becomes a surprising abundance of the best wine of all. The bridegroom has arrived with new wine. The wedding party of the new covenant has begun!