Being the Sign

They have no wine.” It is a simple line spoken by Mary to her son, Jesus. Spoken among the music, the dancing, the celebration, the servants working hard to hide their panic, and wedding guest having no idea that this celebration teeters on the edge of disaster. A simple line spoken in the midst of an account that St. John the gospel writer has filled with so much theological richness.

There is the significance of a wedding as the backdrop for Jesus first miracle. It points to Jesus as the bridegroom of the Church. You can have a field day explaining all the OT and NT references to that, but really all you have to do is imagine the deep love and longing any groom feels on his wedding day.  Just consider the importance of joy, celebration, pleasure, and hospitality that Jesus affirms in the miracle of turning 150 gallons water into the best of wine – and if you think about – it is all just to keep a party going.  In this first sign that St. John describes for us, we have on display God’s endless capacity to transform the ordinary into the sacred, the weaker into the stronger, the incomplete into the whole.  It is a foreshadowing of what awaits us in the Eucharist.

I have often pointed out her other words “Do whatever he tells you.”  These are Mary’s last words in the Gospel of John – her final words and a great piece of advice.  What about her words, “They have no wine?” I wonder if I have been missing something of what St. John has been trying to tell me.

They have no wine.”  These are words of scarcity in a story one associates with abundance and a richness of overflowing grace. Words that are familiar to us in our personal lives and stories we hear from around the world. “They have no wine,” is echoed in: “They have no money.” “She has no job.” “He has no friends.” “I have no strength.”  Words that have more variation and instances that I could count.

In the midst of the miracle, there is something about Mary in this account. For starters, Mary notices.  In the ancient world, wedding feasts lasted for days, and it was the host’s responsibility to provide abundant food and drink for the duration of the festivities.  To run out of wine early was a dishonor — a breach of hospitality that the guests would recount for years.  It is not hard to imagine the panic among servants – blame rolls downhill and takes no hostages.

We have no idea what Mary’s connection is to the bride and groom; she is one wedding guest among many.  But even in the midst of celebration and distraction, she notices need.  She sees what’s amiss.  She knows that humiliation is brewing just out of sight. Mary notices and registers concern before Jesus does.

Mary tells the right person.  John’s Gospel doesn’t include an infancy narrative: no angles, no manger, no magi or star. But the Mary knows who her son is and she trusts that he alone can meet the need she perceives. You have to love the assurance with which she brings her distress to Jesus.  She is as certain of his generosity as she is of the need itself.

Mary persists.  This, for me, is the most encouraging part of the story.  I don’t know what to make of Jesus’s reluctance to help when Mary first approaches him.  “Woman, how does your concern affect me?” It sounds dismissive – “How is the dwindling wine supply my problem?”  “My hour has not yet come.”

Jesus knows that his countdown to crucifixion will begin as soon as he makes his true identity known.  Maybe he’s reluctant to start that ominous clock ticking.  Maybe he thinks wine-making shouldn’t be his first miracle.  Maybe there’s a timeline known only to him and to God.  Lots of maybe’s. Whatever the case, Mary doesn’t cave in the face of his reluctance; she continues to press the urgency of her need into Jesus’s presence.  As if to say, “OK, but there’s a desperate problem, right here, right now.  Change your plans.  Hasten the hour.  Help them on their wedding day!”

Mary instills trust and invites obedience.  “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the household servants.  She doesn’t wait to hear the specifics of Jesus’s plan.  She doesn’t pretend to know the details. She simply communicates her long-standing trust in Jesus’s loving, generous character, and invites the servants to practice the minute-by-minute obedience. The kind of obedience that alone makes faith possible.

Think about the servants – their task isn’t easy.  There’s no running water in the ancient world, and those stone jars are huge. How many trips to the well, how much energy, how deep a resolve the task requires!  Mary’s strength, her trust serves as a catalyst for action, for the groundwork of Jesus’s instructions: “Fill the jars.”  “Draw some out.”  Take it to the chief steward.”  She fosters a faith-filled atmosphere that becomes contagious.  She instills wonder in those around her, and ushers in a miracle.

Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs at Cana in Galilee” We can’t do what Jesus does, but we can be like Mary in that we notice, speak out, persist, and trust. No matter how profound the scarcity, no matter how impossible the situation, we can elbow our way in, pull Jesus aside, ask earnestly for help, and ready ourselves for action.

We can be the sign that reveals the glory of God in the world.

The inspiration and – in some cases the text – is from Debi Thomas at Journey with Jesus

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