By Archdeacon Stringfellow
Year C, Epiphany 2
17 January 2010
A homilist recently mentioned the “three early epiphanies” of Jesus: the adoration of the magi, Jesus’ baptism, and the wedding at Cana. The grouping of these three epiphanies together is new to me (except for stanzas 1 and 2 of Hymn 135 though later stanzas mention other epiphanies), but if they do comprise a group according to a tradition, then we have them together as a sequence in Year C on The Epiphany, Epiphany 1, and Epiphany 2.
The third of these early epiphanies is the Gospel this week. Certainly since R. H. Lightfoot’s St. John’s Gospel: A Commentary (1956), Scriptural commentators have drawn attention to a series of “signs” in Jn that contribute to the structure and the themes of the Gospel. Lightfoot puts it this way, quoting the Authorized Version:
“The unity of this gospel is not only a unity of structure, it is also a unity of themes; and the attempt will be made in the exposition to show how the great themes of light and life, of witness, judgement, glory, and others, some of which are more prominent in particular parts of the book, run like threads throughout it. We may here, however, give some treatment of two which may be said to stand out, inasmuch as the evangelist himself draws attention to them in the highly important statement with which he concludes his book. When he writes: ‘Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye may have life in his name’ [20:30-31], he sums up his work as a narrative of the ‘signs’ of the Lord, whose purpose was the evoke ‘belief’.”
Various lists of the signs have been put forward, and here is a list characteristic of them:
1. Turning water into wine in Cana (2:1-11)
2. Healing an official’s son in Capernaum (4:46-54)
3. Healing an invalid at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem (5:1-18)
4. Feeding the 5,000 near the Sea of Galilee (6:5-14
5. Walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee (6:16-21)
6. Healing a blind man in Jerusalem (9:1-7)
7. Raising dead Lazarus in Bethany (11:1-45)
A sign may be understood to be a “visible pointer to the invisible truth” about the Lord who performs it (Lightfoot). Often the teaching that accompanies the sign makes clear the relationship between the pointer and the truth. In terms I have used before, a sign could be understood as an earthly thing that reveals a heavenly idea (or form). In the terms of today’s Gospel the water turned to wine reveals the nature of the Creator who made wine in the first place, a revelation that would not be so clear if Jesus, for example, had turned a tree or a rock or a cloak into wine.
Commentators occasionally suggest that the list shows an increasing degree of revelation or importance. Most all agree that the last sign, the raising of Lazarus, crowns the list as a preparation for the resurrection that is itself, perhaps, the ultimate sign.
However we understand the list of signs, today’s Gospel is the first of them: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (2:11). And today’s Gospel establishes the nature and purpose of them: a sign reveals Jesus’ glory, and his disciples respond to that revelation with belief.
The changing of water into wine points to the Creator who has placed in nature the process of water becoming grapes that then become wine quite naturally. Speeding up this process, short-circuiting it supernaturally, if you will, identifies Jesus with that Creator and establishes him as one in whom we can believe. It is a sign that changes unbelief into belief. Changing water into wine is a sign that presages many great things to come for those who believe. As Jesus told Nathanael in the episode immediately prior to the wedding at Cana, “You will see greater things than these” (1:50). Greater things, greater revelations, come to those who believe.