2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time — ‘There Was a Wedding at Cana’

SCRIPTURES & ART: Jesus is the “beloved Son sent by God” who, at the wedding feast of Cana, first manifests his love.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Wedding at Cana,” ca. 1672
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Wedding at Cana,” ca. 1672 (photo: Public Domain)

I noted two weeks ago on the Epiphany that the solemnity was once observed as profoundly as Christmas. Part of the reason is that brought many mysteries of Christ’s life together in this feast, a trace of which remains in the antiphon for the Magnificat in Evening Prayer II of Epiphany:

Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.

What the Church once marked as the “three mysteries [of] … this holy day” we have been observing the last three Sundays. Two weeks ago, Matthew’s Gospel spoke of the Adoration of the Magi. Last Sunday, Luke told us of the Baptism of Jesus. This Sunday, John takes us to the wedding at Cana.

These three mysteries each help us identify who Jesus is: God, King and mortal, the “beloved Son sent by God” who, at the wedding feast of Cana, first manifests his love.

While the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all contain at least some “miracles” worked by Jesus, John never uses that term. He calls them “signs” because they are to reveal who Jesus is (something with which the Synoptics would not disagree). As today’s Gospel notes, the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana was “the beginning of his signs … and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.”

Jesus, his mother, and his disciples have been invited to a wedding. In the ancient (and not just) world, a nuptial feast was indeed a feast in which great hospitality was extended over time — no “six-hour-reception-rental-and-you’re-out” weddings in ancient Israel. 

The problem for this first sign is, as the Polish poet Roman Brandstaetter puts it, “beautiful. [It] foretell[s] glorious times.” There is no crippled man trying to crawl to the pool. There is no woman crying as she prepares to bury her son. There are no devils or herds of swine. 

All there is is a young couple, at the start of their lives together, who face an embarrassing moment: the wine has run out. And here “the smiling God, for­ his first miracle, multiplied joy, happiness, and the Song of Songs.”

At first, Jesus seems indifferent. When Mary discreetly notes the couple’s predicament, Jesus’ response seems almost as rough as when his parents found him in the Temple at age 12, the Gospel account we read three weeks ago on the feast of the Holy Family. “Woman, how does your concern affect me?” But Mary’s response here is what it had been 30 years earlier in Nazareth: one of obedience. “Do whatever he tells you.”

On Jesus’ instruction, the waiters fill six large water jars, vessels the Gospel tells us would have held 120-150 gallons. After filling them and while bringing them to the maître d’, the water becomes wine.

The master of ceremonies tells us something of ancient customs. The usual order would be to serve the select wines first and then, as people’s palates dulled, to serve cheaper vintages. Here the master of ceremonies marvels because, presumably after people have been partying for a while, the premium wine is served.

Brandstaetter draws an interesting parallel between the wedding feast at Cana and the Holy Eucharist:

So sang those feasting at the wedding
imbibing the wine.
But they did not know that they were drinking
the blood of God
sitting quietly on the palm mat.

Today’s Gospel was depicted by 17th-century Spanish artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, whom we met on the Second Sunday of Advent. Murillo, a master of the Baroque, was long considered the epitome of Spanish art. He painted this work around 1675, and it now hangs in the Barber Institute at the University of Birmingham, England.

Some commentators argue that the painting depicts the very moment that the lack of wine became known — the looks of concern spread all around the table. The bride looks like she wants to disappear. Others seem to report on the situation or take counsel how to fix the situation.

I’ll accept that interpretation, although I normally assume that in paintings of the day the expressions on everyone’s faces are generally serious. 

Jesus and his mother on his right join in the concern, but Jesus has already told the wait staff what to do and his hand is extended — not unlike a concelebrant today (although that is probably anachronistic) — to change the water into wine. 

Commentators also note that this is one of the earliest depictions of a black servant or slave in a European painting.

Why did I choose this depiction? Precisely because it puts Jesus somewhat off to the side. The wedding is the couple’s affair, and Murillo depicts them front and center (even if the moment is a bit awkward). Jesus is there, as he is in Christian weddings today, but in some sense discreetly. That seems to comport with the tenor of the Gospel, where the sign Jesus works is accomplished discreetly, between the drawing of the water and its presentation to the master of ceremonies.

Given that the Gospel also notes that the MC did not know the origin of the wine, but simply assumed the couple had held it in reserve until that moment, there seems to be a double measure of discreetness to the event. Murillo’s work reflects that in a way that the other great depiction of the Marriage at Cana — Veronese’s, which puts Jesus at the center of events — does not. 

Both paintings are Baroque, but Murillo’s is far less anachronistic in terms of dress, background and other conventions, than Veronese’s. Murillo provides a more intimate setting. There are Baroque elements here, e.g., the dress of the wedding party (which some suggest depicts the Flemish patrons who commissioned the painting) and the venue of the feast, but at least Jesus and those in the foreground where the miracle is taking place are more appropriate to ancient Israel.

And while the red drapery over the painting, especially on the right, was in keeping with Baroque conventions, can we suggest perhaps also an allusion to a baldacchino (a canopy typically over a sacred place or person, like an altar and, in this case, Jesus) or even a chuppah, the canopy under which a Jewish wedding is celebrated?