The wine of His grace: sermon on the second Sunday after the Epiphany

“Now there were set there six water-pots of stone…”

The wedding feast of Cana is the third of the three manifestations of Christ which are united by the liturgy of the Church. On 6 January, we celebrated His manifestation to the Magi, who represent the people of the Gentiles. On the octave day of that feast, we celebrated His manifestation at the River Jordan, when the voice of the Father bore witness to Him in the presence of His own people. This Sunday, we celebrate what the evangelist calls simply “the manifestation of His glory”: “this beginning of signs did Jesus in Galilee; he manifested his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”

What does it mean, “to manifest His glory”? On Mount Thabor, Christ’s body was transfigured in the presence of Peter, James, and John. But we are not told about any such transfiguration here. “He manifested his glory” seems to mean that by this miracle at the wedding feast, Christ showed His divinity; or perhaps more precisely, that He showed His divinity acting for the salvation of mankind.

St John tells us that there were six great stone jars in the place where the wedding was held. Six, in Scripture, appears to be the number that signifies man; it is the number of humanity. According to Genesis, man is created on the sixth day of the week. He is also redeemed on the sixth day. In the Apocalypse, we read that the beast who rises out of the sea, to whom the dragon gives “his own strength and great power” has a number, which is the number six repeated three times. This beast from the sea is generally understood to be some political power, turned against God; so, if it has six as its number, the number of man, and repeats it three times, this seems to mean that this political power considers man, rather than God, as the most important being, making man, rather than God, the centre of its thought, and love, and honour. 

If six is the number of man, then perhaps these six stone jars represent human works. We can take them to signify works that are in accordance with the natural law, since the ten commandments, which summarise the natural law, were engraved on stone when Moses received them. These six stone jars are filled with water, before the miracle takes place. Now, water is a good thing, but it is hardly adequate for a marriage feast. A wedding where only water was given to the guests to drink would be a sorry affair. So, I think that this water in the stone jars signifies that the works which man can perform by his own natural strength cannot make him worthy of “the marriage feast of the Lamb”. As a matter of fact, fallen human beings cannot even keep all the ten commandments for a long time by their own strength; but even if they could keep them all, not killing, not stealing, not lying, and all the rest, this would still only be like water; it would not make them into children of God, and living members of the Church, the bride of God’s Son.

Only God can change water into wine. He does so, as St Augustine points out, every year, in all the vines of the world, and in the barrels where the fruit of the vine is stored. And He does so in human souls, though not in all of them, since the evangelists says that, “as many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name.” By placing His Holy Spirit in the souls of those who believe in the name of His Son, God gives them power not just to be decent citizens, but to produce works truly worthy of the heavenly marriage feast: works of faith, hope and love, meriting eternal life. This is a true transformation.

To change water into wine is a divine work. I think that knowing this helps us to understand the mysterious conversation between our Lady and her Son before the miracle occurs: “The wine failing, the mother of Jesus saith to him: They have no wine. And Jesus saith to her: Woman, what is that to me and to thee? My hour is not yet come.” The phrase translated as “What is that to me and to thee?” is a very compressed one, both in Greek and in Latin: literally, it is just “What to me and to thee?” Some people understand it as if our Lord were asking His mother, “Why should we be concerned with their lack of wine?” but when we see how the same phrase is used in the Old Testament, it seems that it means rather, “What have I in common with thee?”

Mysterious words, but I think that St Augustine, again, gives us the clue to them. What does our Lord have in common with the Blessed Virgin? Only His human nature, and not His divine one. By asking His mother “What to me and to thee?” Christ therefore seems to be saying to her, “You are asking for a miracle; and yet it is not in virtue of what we have in common, that I will perform miracles.” Does this mean that our Lady’s request was out of place? No; it could not have been more discreet or timely. Why then does Christ draw attention here to the difference between Himself and His mother?

Partly, He seems to do this to teach us that God reserves to Himself alone the right to decide when a miracle should be worked; and even more, that the public mission of Christ, which begins here with the first of the signs, is something which only God can conceive and bring about. Only God could decide, as He did from eternity, the exact moment in the history of the world, when His incarnate Son should begin to manifest His glory by miracles. Thus, we can understand the words “My hour has not yet come” to mean “The hour to begin My mission can only be decided by My Father.” It is as if He is saying to His Mother, “Although, O Mother, you are the holiest of all creatures, My work cannot begin at your request, but only by My Father’s will.”

But there is perhaps a second interpretation which we can add to the first one. If our Lord is telling the Blessed Virgin, “It is not in virtue of what we have in common, that I will perform miracles”, then He seems to be preparing her for a kind of separation between them. Until now, He has not manifested His divinity before the world; He has manifested what He has in common with Mary, namely, His humanity. Therefore, He has lived with her, in Nazareth. The beginning of His public mission, by which He will manifest His divinity by miracles and sublime teachings, and dispute with the scholars in Jerusalem, means also that He will leave Nazareth for good. Mary’s own life will no longer be a life shared with her Son in the seclusion of the Holy House. If this interpretation is correct, Christ by these words, “What to me and to thee”, would be tenderly preparing His Mother for this partial separation between them. It is as if He is telling us that she is sacrificing that life which must have been so dear to her, by asking her Son to begin the working of His miracles. 

But this also suggests a second interpretation, again inspired by St Augustine, of the words “My hour is not yet come”. In the rest of the Gospel of St John, whenever our Lord speaks of His “hour”, it is a reference to His Passion, and so it is reasonable to understand the word in the same sense here. If the divine nature which belongs to Christ and not to His holy Mother will now become more manifest, nevertheless, when His Passion comes, His divinity will scarcely manifest itself. For Christ was crucified in weakness, as the apostle says. So, by His words to Mary, it is as if our Lord is saying to her, “You wish Me by a miracle to provide wine: but the wine that I desire most to provide will be produced on the Cross, both by what we have in common, and what we do not” — by what is in common, since He suffered by that nature which He had from her; and by what was not in common, since His divinity gave to those sufferings that infinite merit which redeemed the world and turned the water of our human efforts into the wine of His grace.