One of the big questions in any religious or philosophical tradition is ‘What does a good (or holy) life look like?’ Often there are two poles, which we might call the ‘purity’ pole, where goodness is judged by adherence to rules and strictness of behaviour, and the ‘celebration’ pole, where goodness is judged instead on a supernatural joy and openness to life.
We see this division famously played out in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov, in the contrast between two monks: the dour and strict Elder Ferapont and the joyful and generous Elder Zosima. When Zosima dies and his body begins to decompose (in contravention of the Russian tradition that the bodies of Saints remain ‘incorrupt’), Ferapont sees this as a vindication of his strict path against Zosima’s. But as the monks are reading the Gospels over Zosima’s body, Alexei, the novel’s young hero, has a vision of Zosima in the midst of a great party, the Wedding at Cana. The departed monk says to him: “We are rejoicing . . . we are drinking new wine, the wine of a new and great joy. See how many guests there are?” After urging Alexei to continue down the path of love, the elder continues:
[Jesus] is boundlessly merciful, he 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, now and unto ages of ages. See, they are bringing the new wine, the vessels are being brought in…. (The Brothers Karamazov)
I have encountered no interpretation of the Wedding at Cana, which is today’s Gospel reading, more powerful and moving than this one. But let’s take a step back and see for ourselves how Dostoevsky got there.
The story begins with a problem. Jesus, his disciples, and mother Mary are at a wedding, when the wine starts to run low. Mary urges Jesus to do something about it, but he’s reluctant to show off his power and tries to brush her off, telling her it’s not yet his time. But she persists, and Jesus steps in to save the wedding and allow the celebrations to continue. Jesus sees six large stone jars, normally used to store the water for the routine household purification rites, but at the moment sitting empty. He tells the servants to fill the jars and when they do, the water is miraculously turned into the best wine anyone had tasted.
On the surface, it’s a simple story, but a beautiful one. Jesus, unsure and pressured by his mother, intervenes in a situation to prevent embarrassment and shame from befalling his hosts, and, quite literally, to keep the party going. What a fantastic idea it is that the first time Jesus performs a miracle it is to prolong celebration and joy!
But, the way John tells the story suggests that he had more than this in mind. The language he uses, and the details he draws our attention to, are rich in symbolism and practically demand a more allegorical reading alongside the literal.
First, the scene takes place at a wedding banquet, which was a well-established image for the Day of the LORD, or the presence of the Kingdom of God, within both Judaism and the early Christianity that emerged from it. (See, for example Isaiah 49.18, 61.10, 62.5; Song of Songs passim; Matthew 9.15 (cf. Mark 2.19 and Luke 5.34), 22, 25.1-11; 1 Corinthians 11.3; Ephesians 5.23; and Revelation 19.) A wedding in the Scriptures is an event laden with rich symbolism of God’s intimate and joyful presence in relationship with the faithful.
Second, we have the symbol of the water jars, which John specifically describes as being reserved for water used in purification rites. This is an important detail, because we know that these rituals became a major flashpoint of the religious authorities’ conflict with Jesus. Jesus rejected the whole idea of ritual purity and impurity, instead insisting that purity is about the disposition of the heart. The jars here are lying empty, so Jesus needs them to be filled and their contents transformed.
This transformation is from something mundane (water — necessary but very normal) into something special (not only wine, but the best wine). This has echoes with Paul’s teaching of radical transformation, from death to life, from slavery to freedom, from infancy to maturity, and so on. The presence of Jesus in one’s life is one that transforms that life in a fundamental way.
If we want to really go all in on symbolism, the jars themselves are evocative symbols in the Scripture of the human person, and specifically our ability to be filled with something, whether for good or bad purposes. Jeremiah 13, for example, says that Jerusalem’s elite are like jars which God will fill with wine, rendering them senseless. To a different end, in 1 Corinthians 4 Paul compares the knowledge of Christ to a “treasure kept in clay jars” (v.7). Again, the sense is that humanity has a capacity (literally in the metaphor!) to hold something. Luke takes advantage of this idea in both his Gospel and Acts of the Apostles, where he speaks of being “filled with the Holy Spirit.” It’s also interesting to note that the jars here are said to be made of stone. Stone implements are made to last, but unlike other materials, stone is also inflexible; Ezekiel brings up this side of stone when he says that God will “remove their hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh” (11.19).
So then, the language John uses to tells this story of Jesus turning water into wine points beyond one miracle to a bigger vision. If we put the symbols together, we get something like this: Jesus stepping into our lives, filling us up and transforming us from within. No longer relying on external markers of so-called ‘purity’, we are purified and changed from the inside out and become full participants in the never-ending, joyous celebration that is the Kingdom of God.
Whether we prefer the surface reading or the symbolic reading, Dostoevsky got it right: the story of the Wedding at Cana is a joyful one. There is a glorious feast and we are all invited.
“He is waiting for new guests, he is ceaselessly calling new guests, now and unto ages of ages. See, they are bringing the new wine, the vessels are being brought in….”