The Wedding at Cana of Galilee is a beautiful story of celebration. The only problem is the story makes no sense, perhaps because celebration is infinitely beyond sense.
Foremost among the oddities is the scarce presence of the groom and no mention of the bride. The effect of Jesus being at the center of the story and no bride mentioned has the effect of putting us into the position of the bride of Jesus as Isaiah said: “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. (Is. 62:5)” The scarcity of wine (probably humanly created—Cana was a poor village—looks ahead to the scarcity of bread in the wilderness. Both times, Jesus counters scarcity with extravagant abundance.
The six stone jars are supposed to hold water for purification. That would be a lot of purity, but the jars are empty. Well, purity laws and rituals tend to divide humans arbitrarily into clean and unclean. That is, purity always creates a scarcity of purity, especially of pure people. Quite the opposite of God’s marriage with all God’s people.
The water with which the attendants fill the jars suggests baptism, as does the water at the well in Samaria, another story with nuptial overtones. The wine is a festive drink but it also looks toward Jesus’ death as does the bread in the wilderness. The story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple, the event that drove the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to plot the death of Jesus, further suggests that the water and wine refer to the Passion.
Dostoevsky makes powerful use of this story in Brothers Karamazov. The great staretz (spiritual father) Zossima has just died. When his corpse follows the normal course of nature and creates a stink, many of the people are scandalized, including Zossima’s youthful follower, Alyosha. Late at night, the stricken Alyosha is praying in the hermitage where the body lies in state. Another monk is reading the story of the Marriage of Cana. The room expands to take in a vast celebration. Then Alyosha sees Zossima rejoicing. The elder says to him: “We are rejoicing . . . we are drinking new wine, the wine of great joy. See how many guests there are?” “He [Jesus] became like us out of love, and he is rejoicing with us, transforming water into wine, that the joy of the guests may not end. He is waiting for new guests, he is ceaselessly calling new guests.”
Cana was a backwater in a backwater, a place of no significance. The temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish religion and culture. As with the outcasts at the manger, the party is in the backwater, not the center. In this new center, Jesus calls all of us to the party, the party that transforms the body and blood of Jesus into bread and wine of feasting and rejoicing, a party open to all of us. . Jesus has indeed saved the best wine until last.
See blog posts Humanly Created Scarcity, Divinely Created Abundance, and Outcasts at the Manger and article Violence and the Kingdom of God for more comments on Brothers Karamazov.
There are many “strange” details in the new testament… e.g. there are the Magi (only in Matthew) then the Scythian blood-brotherhood (Eucharist) absolutely strange to Jews (drinking blood?)… and so on… Even the Turin Shrine holds some shocking evidence, because there were coins on the eyes of Jesus (lepton) which is a Parthian funeral tradition…
Great post. You made me think more deeply about the wedding at Cana story. 🙂