Book 3, Chapter 4. The Marriage Feast in Cana of Galilee – The Miracle That Is ‘a Sign.’


At the close of His Discourse to Nathanael – His first sermon – Jesus had made use of an expression which received its symbolic fulfilment in His first deed. His first testimony about Himself had been to call Himself the ‘Son of Man.’  We cannot but feel that this bore reference to the confession of Nathanael: ‘Thou art the Son of God; Thou art the King of Israel.’ It is, as if He would have turned the disciples from thoughts of His being the Son of God and King of Israel to the voluntary humiliation of His Humanity, as being the necessary basis of His work, without knowledge of which that of His Divinity would have been a barren, speculative abstraction, and that of His Kingship a Jewish fleshly dream. But it was not only knowledge of His humiliation in His Humanity. For, as in the history of the Christ humiliation and glory are always connected, the one enwrapped in the other as the flower in the bud, so here also His humiliation as the Son of Man is the exaltation of humanity, the realisation of its ideal destiny as created in the likeness of God. It should never be forgotten, that such teaching of His exaltation and Kingship through humiliation and representation of humanity was needful. It was the teaching which was the outcome of the Temptation and of its victory, the very teaching of the whole Evangelic history. Any other real learning of Christ would, as we see it, have been impossible to the disciples – alike mentally, as regards foundation and progression, and spiritually. A Christ: God, King, and not primarily ‘the Son of Man,’ would not have been the Christ of Prophecy, nor the Christ of Humanity, nor the Christ of salvation, nor yet the Christ of sympathy, help, and example. A Christ, God and King, Who had suddenly risen like the fierce Eastern sun in midday brightness, would have blinded by his dazzling rays (as it did Saul on the way to Damascus), not risen ‘with kindly light’ to chase away darkness and mists, and with genial growing warmth to woo life and beauty into our barren world. And so, as ‘it became Him,’ for the carrying out of the work, ‘to make the Captain of Salvation perfect through sufferings,’ so it was needful for them that He should veil, even from their view who followed Him, the glory of His Divinity and the power of His Kingship, till they had learned all that the, designation ‘Son of Man’ implied, as placed below ‘Son of God’ and ‘King of Israel.’

This idea of the ‘Son of Man,’ although in its full and prophetic meaning seems to furnish the explanation of the miracle at the marriage of Cana. We are now entering on the Ministry of ‘The Son of Man,’ first and chiefly in its contrast to the preparatory call of the Baptist, with the asceticism symbolic of it. We behold Him now as freely mingling with humanity, sharing its joys and engagements, entering into its family life, sanctioning and hallowing all by His Presents and blessing; then as transforming the ‘water of legal purification’ into the wine of the new dispensation, and, more than this, the water of our felt want into the wine of His giving; and, lastly, as having absolute power as the ‘Son of Man,’ being also ‘the Son of God’ and ‘the King of Israel.’ Not that it is intended to convey, that it was the primary purpose of the miracle of Cana to exhibit the contrast between His own Ministry and the asceticism of the Baptist, although greater could scarcely be imagined than between the wilderness and the supply of wine at the marriage-feast. Rather, since this essential difference really existed, it naturally appeared at the very commencement of Christ’s Ministry. And so in regard to the other meaning, also, which this history carries to our minds.

At the same time it must be borne in mind, that marriage conveyed to the Jews much higher thoughts than merely those of festivity and merriment. The pious fasted before it, confessing their sins. It was regarded almost as a Sacrament. Entrance into the married state was thought to carry the forgiveness of sins.  It almost seems as if the relationship of Husband and Bride between Jehovah and His people, so frequently insisted upon, not only in the Bible, but in Rabbinic writings, had always been standing out in the background. Thus the bridal pair on the marriage-day symbolised the union of God with Israel. Hence, though it may in part have been national pride, which considered the birth of every Israelite as almost outweighing the rest of the world, it scarcely wholly accounts for the ardent insistance on marriage, from the first prayer at the circumcision of a child, onwards through the many and varied admonitions to the same effect. Similarly, it may have been the deep feeling of brotherhood in Israel, leading to sympathy with all that most touched the heart, which invested with such sacredness participation in the gladness of marriage, or the sadness of burial. To use the bold allegory of the times, God Himself had spoken the words of blessing over the cup at the union of our first parents, when Michael and Gabriel acted as groomsmen, and the Angelic choir sang the wedding hymn. So also He had shown the example of visiting the sick (in the case of Abraham), comforting the mourners (in that of Isaac), and burying the dead (in that of Moses). Every man who met it, was bound to rise and join the marriage procession, or the funeral march. It was specially related of King Agrippa that he had done this, and a curious Haggadah sets forth that, when Jezebel was eaten of dogs, her hands and feet were spared because, amidst all her wickedness, she had been wont to greet every marriage-procession by clapping of hands, and to accompany the mourners a certain distance on their way to the burying. And so we also read it, that, in the burying of the widow’s son of Nain, ‘much people of the city was with her.’

In such circumstances, we would naturally expect that all connected with marriage was planned with care, so as to bear the impress of sanctity, and also to wear the aspect of gladness. A special formality, that of ‘betrothal’ (Erusin qidushin), preceded the actual marriage by a period varying in length, but not exceeding a twelvemonth in the case of a maiden. At the betrothal, the bridegroom, personally or by deputy, handed to the bride a piece of money or a letter, it being expressly stated in each case that the man thereby espoused the woman. From the moment of betrothal both parties were regarded, and treated in law (as to inheritance, adultery, need of formal divorce), as if they had been actually married, except as regarded their living together. A legal document (the shitrē Erusin) fixed the dowry which each brought, the mutual obligations, and all other legal points. Generally a festive meal closed the ceremony of betrothal – but not in Galilee, where, habits being more simple and pure, that which sometimes ended in sin was avoided.

On the evening of the actual marriage (nisuin ḥaṯnuṯ), the bride was led from her paternal home to that of her husband. First came the merry sounds of music; then they who distributed among the people wine and oil, and nuts among the children; next the bride, covered with the bridal veil, her long hair flowing, surrounded by her companions, and led by ‘the friends of the bridegroom,’ and ‘the children of the bride-chamber.’ All around were in festive array; some carried torches, or lamps on poles; those nearest had myrtle-branches and chaplets of flowers. Every one rose to salute the procession, or join it; and it was deemed almost a religious duty to break into praise of the beauty, the modesty, or the virtues of the bride. Arrived at her new home, she was led to her husband. Some such formula as ‘Take her according to the Law of Moses and of Israel,’ would be spoken, and the bride and bridegroom crowned with garlands. Then a formal legal instrument, called the keṯubah, was signed, which set forth that the bridegroom undertook to work for her, to honour, keep, and care for her as is the manner of the men of Israel; that he promised to give his maiden-wife at least two hundred zuz  (or more it might be), and to increase her own dowry (which, in the case of a poor orphan, the authorities supplied) by at least one half, and that he also undertook to lay it out for her to the best advantage, all his own possessions being guarantee for it. Then, after the prescribed washing of hands and benediction, the marriage-supper began – the cup being filled, and the solemn prayer of bridal benediction spoken over it. And so the feast lasted – it might be more than one day – while each sought to contribute, sometimes coarsely, sometimes wisely, to the general enjoyment, till at last ‘the friends of the bridegroom’ led the bridal pair to the ḥeder and the ḥupah, or the bridal chamber and bed. Here it ought to be specially noticed, as a striking evidence that the writer of the fourth Gospel was not only a Hebrew, but intimately acquainted with the varying customs prevailing in Galilee and in Judaea, that at the marriage of Cana no ‘friend of the bridegroom,’ or ‘groomsman’ (shosheḇeyna), is mentioned, while he is referred to in Joh_3:29, where the words are spoken outside the boundaries of Galilee. For among the simpler and purer Galileans the practice of having ‘friends of the bridegroom,’ which must so often have led to gross impropriety, did not obtain, though all the invited guests bore the general name of ‘children of the bridechamber’ (benē ḥupah).

It was the marriage in Cana of Galilee. All connected with the account of it is strictly Jewish – the feast, the guests, the invitation of the stranger Rabbi, and its acceptance by Jesus. Any Jewish Rabbi would have gone, but how differently from Him would he have spoken and acted! Let us first think of the scenic details of the narrative. Strangely, we are not able to fix with certainty the site of the little town of Cana. But if we adopt the most probable identification of it with the modern pleasant village of kefr kena, a few miles north-east of Nazareth, on the road to the Lake of Galilee, we picture it to ourselves as on the slope of a hill, its houses rising terrace upon terrace, looking north and west over a large plain (that of Battauf), and south upon a valley, beyond which the hills rise that separate it from Mount Tabor and the plain of Jezreel. As we approach the little town through that smiling valley, we come upon a fountain of excellent water, around which the village gardens and orchards clustered, that produced in great abundance the best pomegranates in Palestine. Here was the home of Nathanael-Bartholomew, and it seems not unlikely, that with him Jesus had passed the time intervening between His arrival and ‘the marriage,’ to which His Mother had come – the omission of all mention of Joseph leading to the supposition, that he had died before that time. The inquiry, what had brought Jesus to Cana, seems almost worse than idle, remembering what had passed between Him and Nathanael, and what was to happen in the first ‘sign,’ which was to manifest His glory. It is needless to speculate, whether He had known beforehand of ‘the marriage.’ But we can understand the longing of the ‘Israelite indeed’ to have Him under his roof, though we can only imagine what the Heavenly Guest, would now teach him, and those others who accompanied Him. Nor is there any difficulty in understanding, that on His arrival He would hear of this ‘marriage,’ of the presence of His Mother in what seems to have been the house of a friend, if not a relative; that Jesus and His disciples would be bidden to the feast; and that He resolved not only to comply with the request, but to use it as a leave-taking from home and friends – similar, though also far other, than that of Elisha, when he entered on his mission. Yet it seems deeply significant, that the ‘true Israelite’ should have been honoured to be the first host of ‘Israel’s King.’

And truly a leave-taking it was for Christ from former friends and home – a leave-taking also from His past life. If one part of the narrative – that of His dealing with His Mother – has any special meaning, it is that of leave-taking, or rather of leaving home and family, just as with this first ‘sign’ He took leave of all the past. When he had returned from His first Temple-visit, it had been in the self-exinanition of voluntary humility: to ‘be subject to His Parents.’ That period was now ended, and a new one had begun – that of active consecration of the whole life to His ‘Father’s business.’ And what passed at the marriage-feast marks the beginning of this period. We stand on the threshold, over which we pass from the old to the new – to use a New Testament figure: to the marriage-supper of the Lamb.

Viewed in this light, what passed at the marriage in Cana seems like taking up the thread, where it had been dropped at the first manifestation of His Messianic consciousness. In the Temple at Jerusalem He had said in answer to the misapprehensive question of His Mother: ‘Wist ye not that I must be about My Father’s business?’ and now when about to take in hand that ‘business,’ He tells her so again, and decisively, in reply to her misapprehensive suggestion. It is a truth which we must ever learn, and yet are ever slow to learn in our questionings and suggestings, alike as concerns His dealings with ourselves and His rule of His Church, that the highest and only true point of view is ‘the Father’s business,’ not our personal relationship to Christ. This thread, then, is taken up again at Cana in the circle of friends, as immediately afterwards in His public manifestation, in the purifying of the Temple. What He had first as a Child, on His first visit to the Temple, that He manifested forth when a Man, entering on His active work – negatively, in His reply to His Mother – positively, in the ‘sign’ He wrought. It all meant: ‘Wist ye not that I must be about My Father’s business?’ And, positively and negatively, His first appearance in Jerusalem meant just the same. For, there is ever deepest unity and harmony in that truest Life, the Life of Life.

As we pass through the court of that house in Cana, and reach the covered gallery which opens on the various rooms – in this instance, particularly, on the great reception room – all is festively adorned. In the gallery the servants move about, and there the ‘water-pots’ are ranged, ‘after the manner of the Jews,’ for purification – for the washing not only of hands before and after eating, but also of the vessels used. How detailed Rabbinic ordinances were in these respects, will be shown in another connection. ‘Purification’ was one of the main points in Rabbinic sanctity. By far the largest and most elaborate of the six books into which the Mishnah is divided, is exclusively devoted to this subject (the ‘seder tohoroṯ,’ purifications). Not to speak of references in other parts of the Talmud, we have two special tractates to instruct us about the purification of ‘Hands’ (yadayim) and of ‘Vessels’(kelim). The latter is the most elaborate in all the Mishnah, and consists of not less than thirty chapters. Their perusal proves, alike the strict accuracy of the Evangelic narratives, and the justice of Christ’s denunciations of the unreality and gross hypocrisy of this elaborateness of ordinances. This the more so, when we recall that it was actually vaunted as a special qualification for a seat in the Sanhedrin, to be so acute and learned as to know how to prove clean creeping things (which were declared unclean by the Law). And the mass of the people would have regarded neglect of the ordinances of purification as betokening either gross ignorance, or daring impiety.

At any rate, such would not be exhibited on an occasion like the present; and outside the reception-room, as John with graphic minuteness of details relates, six of those stone pots, which we know from Rabbinic writings, were ranged. Here it may be well to add, as against objectors, that it is impossible to state with certainty the exact measure represented by the ‘two or three firkins apiece.’ For, although we know that the term metretes (A.V. ‘firkin’) was intended as an equivalent for the Hebrew ‘baṯ,’ yet three different kinds of ‘bath’ were at the time used in Palestine: the common Palestinian or ‘wilderness’ bath, that of Jerusalem, and that of Sepphoris. The common Palestinian ‘bath’ was equal to the Roman amphora, containing about 5¼ gallons, while the sep̱oris’bath’ corresponded to the Attic metretes, and would contain about 8½ gallons. In the former case, therefore, each of these pots might have held from 10½ to 15¾ gallons; in the latter, from 17 to 25½. Reasoning on the general ground that the so-called Sepphoris measurement was common in Galilee, the larger quantity seems the more likely, though by no means certain. It is almost like trifling on the threshold of such a history, and yet so many cavils have been raised, that we must here remind ourselves, that neither the size, nor the number of these vessels has anything extraordinary about it. For such an occasion the family would produce or borrow the largest and handsomest stone-vessels that could be procured; nor is it necessary to suppose that they were filled to the brim; nor should we forget that, from a Talmudic notice, it seems to have been the practice to set apart some of these vessels exclusively for the use of the bride and of the more distinguished guests, while the rest were used by the general company.

Entering the spacious, lofty dining-room, which would be brilliantly lighted with lamps and candlesticks, the guests are disposed round tables on couches, soft with cushions or covered with tapestry, or seated on chairs. The bridal blessing has been spoken, and the bridal cup emptied. The feast is proceeding – not the common meal, which was generally taken about even, according to the Rabbinic saying, that he who postponed it beyond that hour was as if he swallowed a stone – but a festive evening meal. If there had been disposition to those exhibitions of, or incitement to, indecorous and light merriment, such as even the more earnest Rabbis deprecated, surely the presence of Jesus would have restrained it. And now there must have been a painful pause, or something like it, when the Mother of Jesus whispered to Him that ‘the wine failed.’ There could, perhaps, be the less cause for reticence on this point towards her Son, not merely because this failure may have arisen from the accession of guests in the persons of Jesus and his disciples, for whom no provision had been originally made, but because the gift of wine or oil on such occasions was regarded a meritorious work of charity.

But all this still leaves the main incidents in the narrative untouched. How are we to understand the implied request of the Mother of Jesus? how His reply? and what was the meaning of the miracle? It seems scarcely possible to imagine that, remembering the miraculous circumstances connected with His Birth, and informed of what had passed at Jordan, she now anticipated, and by her suggestion wished to prompt, this as His Royal Messianic manifestation. With reverence be it said, such a beginning of Royalty and triumph would have been paltry: rather that of the Jewish miracle-monger than that of the Christ of the Gospels. Not so, if it was only ‘a sign,’ pointing to something beyond itself. Again, such anticipations on the part of Mary seem psychologically untrue – that is, untrue to her history. She could not, indeed, have ever forgotten the circumstances which had surrounded His Birth; but the deeper she ‘kept all these things in her heart,’ the more mysterious would they seem, as time passed in the dull round of the most simple and uneventful country-life, and in the discharge of every-day duties, without even the faintest appearance of anything beyond it. Only twelve years had passed since His Birth, and yet they had not understood His saying in the Temple! How much more difficult would it be after thirty years, when the Child had grown into Youth and Manhood, with still the same silence of Divine Voices around? It is difficult to believe in fierce sunshine on the afternoon of a long grey day. Although we have no absolute certainty of it, we have the strongest internal reasons for believing, that Jesus had done no miracles these thirty years in the home at Nazareth, but lived the life of quiet submission and obedient waiting. That was the then part of His Work. It may, indeed, have been that Mary knew of what had passed at Jordan; and that, when she saw Him returning with His first disciples, who, assuredly, would make no secret of their convictions – whatever these may have conveyed to outsiders – she felt that a new period in His Life had opened. But what was there in all this to suggest such a miracle? and if it had been suggested, why not ask for it in express terms, if it was to be the commencement, certainly in strangely incongruous circumstances, of a Royal manifestation?

On the other hand, there was one thing which she had learned, and one thing which she was to unlearn, after those thirty years of the Nazareth-Life. What she had learned – what she must have learned – was absolute confidence in Jesus. What she had to unlearn, was the natural, yet entirely mistaken, impression which His meekness, stillness, and long home-submission had wrought on her as to His relationship to the family. It was, as we find from her after-history, a very hard, very slow, and very painful thing to learn it; yet very needful, not only for her own sake, but because it was a lesson of absolute truth. And so when she told Him of the want that had arisen, it was simply in absolute confidence in her Son, probably without any conscious expectancy of a miracle on His part. Yet not without a touch of maternal self-consciousness, almost pride, that He, Whom she could trust to do anything that was needed, was her Son, Whom she could solicit in the friendly family whose guests they were – and if not for her sake, yet at her request. It was a true earth-view to take of their relationship; only, an earth-view which must now for ever cease: the outcome of His misunderstood meekness and weakness, and which yet, strangely enough, the Romish Church puts in the forefront as the most powerful plea for Jesus’ acting. But the fundamental mistake in what she attempted is just this, that she spake as His Mother, and placed that maternal relationship in connection with His Work. And therefore it was that as, on the first misunderstanding in the Temple, He had said: ‘Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?’ so now: ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ With that ‘business’ earthly relationship, however tender, had no connection. With everything else it had, down to the utter self-forgetfulness of that tenderest commendation of her to John, in the bitterest agonies of the Cross; but not with this. No, not now, nor ever henceforth, with this. As in His first manifestation in the Temple, so in this the first manifestation of His glory, the finger that pointed to ‘His hour’ was not, and could not be, that of an earthly parent, but of His Father in Heaven. There was, in truth, a twofold relationship in that Life, of which none other but the Christ could have preserved the harmony.

This is one main point – we had almost called it the negative one; the other, and positive one, was the miracle itself. All else is but accidental and circumstantial. No one who either knows the use of the language, or remembers that, when commending her to John on the Cross, He used the same mode of expression, will imagine, that there was anything derogatory to her, or harsh on His part, in addressing her as ‘woman’ rather than ‘mother.’ But the language is to us significant of the teaching intended to be conveyed, and as the beginning of this further teaching: ‘Who is My mother? and My brethren? And He stretched forth His hand toward His disciples, and said, Behold My mother and My brethren!’

And Mary did not, and yet she did, understand Him, when she turned to the servants with the direction, implicitly to follow His behests. What happened is well known: how, in the excess of their zeal, they filled the water-pots to the brim – an accidental circumstance, yet useful, as much that seems accidental, to show that there could be neither delusion nor collusion; how, probably in the drawing of it, the water became best wine – ‘the conscious water saw its God, and blushed;’ then the coarse proverbial joke of what was probably the master of ceremonies and purveyor of the feast, intended, of course, not literally to apply to the present company, and yet in its accidentalness an evidence of the reality of the miracle; after which the narrative abruptly closes with a retrospective remark on the part of him who relates it. What the bridegroom said; whether what had been done became known to the guests, and, if so, what impression it wrought; how long Jesus remained; what His Mother felt – of this and much more that might be asked, Scripture, with that reverent reticence which we so often mark, in contrast to our shallow talkativeness, takes no further notice. And best that it should be so. John meant to tell us, what the Synoptists, who begin their account with the later Galilean ministry, have not recorded, of the first of His miracles as a ‘sign,’ pointing to the deeper and higher that was to be revealed, and of the first forth-manifesting of ‘His glory.’ That is all; and that object was attained. Witness the calm, grateful retrospect upon that first day of miracles, summed up in these simple but intensely conscious words: ‘And His disciples believed on Him.’

A sign it was, from whatever point we view its meaning, as previously indicated. For, like the diamond that shines with many colours, it has many meanings; none of them designed, in the coarse sense of the term, but all real, because the outcome of a real Divine Life and history. And a real miracle also, not only historically, but as viewed in its many meanings; the beginning of all others, which in a sense are but the unfolding of this first. A miracle it is, which cannot be explained, but is only enhanced by the almost incredible platitudes to which negative criticism has sunk in its commentation, for which there assuredly exists no legendary basis, either in Old Testament history, or in contemporary Jewish expectation; which cannot be sublimated into nineteenth-century idealism; least of all can be conceived as an after-thought of His disciples, invented by an Ephesian writer of the second century. But even the allegorical illustration of Augustine, who reminds us that in the grape the water of rain is ever changed into wine, is scarcely true, save as a bare illustration, and only lowers our view of the miracle. For miracle it is, and will ever remain; not, indeed, magic, nor arbitrary power, but power with a moral purpose, and that the highest. And we believe it, because this ‘sign’ is the first of all those miracles in which the Miracle of Miracles gave ‘a sign,’ and manifested forth His glory – the glory of His Person, the glory of His Purpose, and the glory of His Work.