This beginning of signs…

This first lectionary blog for 2022 appropriately draws attention to the word ‘beginning’ which appears in the Sunday Gospel reading John 2.1-11.

Clare Amos, clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

One of a pair of two tiles originally in the Armenian Cathedral of St James in Jerusalem, depicting the wedding feast at Cana.

I have become increasingly drawn to the way how ‘Epiphany’ is a season which has several aspects to it, rather than ‘just’ Matthew’s account of the visit of the wise men to Jesus (if you are a western Christian) or the Baptism of Christ (if you are a Christian of the Orthodox tradition). In church tradition the story of Jesus turning water into wine at Cana in Galilee has been seen as one of the mysteries of Epiphany, ‘Jesus did this… and revealed his glory’ (John 2.11). It is good that (for example) the Common Worship Extended Eucharistic preface for the Epiphany season now includes the sign of water become wine. Ultimately Epiphany leads us towards Jesus’ passion and crucifixion which is, certainly in John’s Gospel, the moment when his glory was most fully revealed.

Two words sum up Epiphany for me: ‘shining’ and ‘surprise’ – and along with the visit of the magi and Christ’s baptism, ‘shining’ and ‘surprise’ seem aptly to describe this episode, which is deliberately placed by John as opening the public ministry of Jesus.

There is a prayer written by the United Reformed Church minister and poet, Kate McIlhagga, who I was proud to call a friend, that somehow catches the light of Epiphany:

Epiphany is a jewel,

multi-faceted,

flashing colour and light.

Epiphany embraces

the nations of the world,

kneeling on a bare floor

before a child.

Epiphany shows

a man

kneeling in the waters of baptism.

Epiphany reveals

the best is kept for last,

as water becomes wine

at the wedding feast.

O Holy One

to whom was given

the gifts of power and prayer,

the gift of suffering;

help us to use 

these same gifts

in your way 

and in your name.

All the same, unlike the magi and the baptism, the wedding at Cana does not get into the Sunday lectionary in Epiphanytide every year – it manages it one in three. I reckon that means that when, as this year, it does show up, it deserves a bit of attention.  When it last appeared three years ago, the reflection on this Gospel passage for this blog was written by Venerable Colin Williams, then an Archdeacon in the Diocese in Europe. Colin wrote about how the account, which speaks so powerfully about the generosity of God, should act as a prompt to us (especially as Christians in Europe) to seek to reflect such divine generosity. It was a brilliant reflection, as relevant in our context now as it was then, and I would encourage you to take a look at it. You can find it in the back pages of this blog here: https://faithineurope.net/2019/01/16/epiphany-3-the-generosity-of-god/

The other in the set of two tiles originally in the Armenian Cathedral of St James in Jerusalem, depicting the wedding feast at Cana.

For myself, on this occasion I would fairly briefly like to add two additional threads. The first is a theme that has long intrigued me. The Gospel of John is, I believe, intending to present the ministry of Jesus as a new Genesis, a new creation. Given the way that the Gospel opens ‘In the beginning was the Word’ (John 1.1)  – that is hardly rocket science. But I believe that the motif of new creation, new world, new humanity, is profoundly embedded in John’s retelling of the whole story of Jesus, including his death and resurrection. And as a key part of this new creation John is wanting to suggest to us that in this ‘new creation’ the imbalance in the relationship between men and women which had marked human relationships since the ‘Fall’ (Genesis 3.16) is going to be revisited and redeemed.  The story of a wedding feast in John 2.1-11 is the first in the series of narratives in which this thread will be explored until it culminates in the meeting of Jesus with Mary in the garden (John 20.1-18), in terms that also are intended to remind us of Eden’s garden. In which case of course it is intriguing that neither groom nor bride explicitly appear in the wedding story of John 2. It is however telling that in the following chapter, John the Baptist, speaking about Jesus, explicitly describes him as the ‘bridegroom’ (John 3.29). But where is the bride?  I have written more extensively on this in other places – the most immediately accessible location is Love’s Labour Unlost https://www.theway.org.uk/back/s072Amos.pdf

It is interesting that the story concludes by referring to this as ‘the first of [Jesus’] signs’ (John 2.11). Actually the NRSV translation here is not quite precise. In Greek the word translated as ‘first’ is arche. The word basically means ‘beginning’ and by extension ‘ruling principle of’. So what we are beginning told is that this sign is the beginning of a process and establishes the principle for the process. In other words the sheer overflowing life-giving creativity of this sign at the wedding feast marks out the pattern of Jesus’ later signs in this Gospel. Arche, of course, is also the first word of John’s Gospel. ‘in the beginning’… so it also reinforces the link between this sign at the wedding and that theme of new creation which is so clear in the Prologue to the Gospel.

The other comment relates to something that I have much more recently become aware of. The wedding at Cana (John 2.1-11) comes directly after Jesus’ call of Nathanael and discussion with him (John 1.45-51). In John 1 it nowhere spells out where Nathanael is from. However in the only other point in the Gospel where Nathanael is named (John 21.2) he is explicitly described as ‘Nathanael of Cana in Galilee’. Which then raises some intriguing questions. What exactly was Nathanael’s role at this wedding? And is the sign that Jesus offers during it the fulfilment of Jesus’ words to Nathanael in 1.50 ‘You will see greater things than these’?  And is it also telling that John 21 – that other point in the Gospel where Nathanael is named is also a story about Jesus’ miraculous – almost excessive – provision: in that case a feast of fish.

It is fascinating that the historic Armenian pottery tiles in Jerusalem that depict the wedding are a pair – with one showing the vessels of wine, and the other the banquet of fish! Reproductions of the original tiles are used to illustrate this blog. See above. The groom at the wedding is portrayed in one of them – but where is the bride?

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