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Water into wine

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GOSPEL COMMENTARY Jan. 16, Jn 2:1-11

Mother Teresa once commented: “God doesn’t ask for success, he asks us to be faithful.” That sage advice reverberates through our Gospel this Sunday, where in John 2:1-11 we encounter Jesus and Mary at the Wedding Feast of Cana.

The scene is so familiar that we sometimes lose some of the sense of the “impossibility” of it all. We’ve heard the story so many times that we expect Jesus to come through, to answer his mother’s prayers and turn water into wine. Of course, six jars of water become wine. Doesn’t that always happen?
There’s even the chance that we’re familiar with the symbolic backdrop of it all. 

God’s providence leaves nothing to accident and the whole story is richly symbolic in a way that reveals who Jesus really is and what he’s really come to do. For instance: Jesus begins his public ministry at a wedding to hint that he’s the divine bridegroom, come to welcome us to the wedding feast of the Lamb.  As weddings are a common biblical analogy for heaven, it points forward to what we hope for in the world to come.

Meanwhile though, for the guests back at the wedding, water just turned into wine for the first time in history, and quite unexpectedly. Moreover, it was amazing wine, and not simply a little amazing wine, but an abundance of amazing wine. Crunching the numbers in the passage, it’s between 120 and 180 gallons.  That astounding amount of choice wine represents the superabundance of God’s love. It’s clear that no one saw this miracle coming.

It’s also astounding that the servers followed through with Jesus’ instructions in the first place, and then had the gumption to present it to the headwaiter. Water in those days was often not safe for drinking. It was used for ritual washing and bathing, but for drinking? You might end up with dysentery. In fact, because of this, it was common practice to mix water with wine itself. The alcohol acted as an antiseptic. Though they didn’t have microbiology to explain it, they did know that water mixed with wine did not make you sick, while water alone often did. Wine was a purer, safer and cleaner drink. But imagine being a server, presenting what you knew, moments ago, to be water from the stream to the headwaiter and asking him to taste it.

Here is another symbolic element of the passage: The six stone jars represent the law of purification, and thus stand as a symbol of the Law of Moses itself. Literally, that water in those jars could only purify the outside of the body. Drink it, and at best it would make you less thirsty. At worst, you died. The same could be said of the Law; it would purify outward conduct, but could not purify the wounds of sin or clean what is deeper — the soul. Jesus transforming water to wine shows us that his grace transforms and fulfills the law, and cleanses not just the outside, but refreshes and cures the inside as well.

Where does this leave us? Often, we find ourselves, like the servers in the Gospel, flabbergasted at what Jesus is asking us to do, almost positive it will never work or even do us harm. “Surely,” we cry, “I can’t love my enemy” or “set aside time daily for prayer” or “accept the hard sayings of our faith.” On our own, we’re absolutely correct: we can’t do it. Yet God doesn’t ask for our earthly perfection, just our fidelity. With the help of God, all is possible. If we’re willing to follow Mary’s advice and “Do whatever he tells you,” faithfully carrying out the commands of Christ and trusting him, we’ll find that little by little, his grace turns our impossible to possible and ordinary to extraordinary, just like water into wine.

Fr. Miserendino is parochial vicar of St. Bernadette Church in Springfield. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2022