The Wedding Feast at Cana

The Wedding Feast at Cana

When most Catholics learn about the wedding feast at Cana, they assume Mary was so concerned about the young couple's reputation in the Jewish community that she was able to influence the Lord's decision, making him perform his first miracle, even though his hour had not yet come. The same can be said about a recovering alcoholic named Scott who heard about the Lord's first miracle at Cana, except instead of focusing on Mary's intercession abilities, Scott assumed that Jesus wanted to get everyone at the party drunk on wine.

According to John 2:6, "there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons." Because Jesus asked the servants to fill the jars with water, Scott was able to calculate that six jars (each containing 20 to 30 gallons) would total more than 150 gallons of wine. Because Jewish wedding feasts lasted several days, Scott assumed the Lord liked to party, and that getting drunk on wine must be okay with God.

Although this may be one person's interpretation of Sacred Scripture, it would conflict with other Scripture passages that specifically define drunkenness as a sin. For example, in Ephesians 5:18, Saint Paul says, "Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery." In Galatians 5:21, Saint Paul warns us that drunkards "will not inherit the kingdom of God." In the same way that an alcoholic has the ability to twist Sacred Scripture out of context to line up with his or her own point of view, it would also be possible for spiritually immature Catholics to assume that Jesus will do "whatever his mother tells him."

It's understandable why so many Catholics would want to believe that Jesus "will do whatever his mother tells him," because Mary was the first person to present the shortage of wine to our Lord. According to John 2:3, "When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, 'They have no wine.'" In response, Jesus said to her in verse 2:4, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come."

Although this statement may sound like a disrespectful way for our Lord to address the Blessed Mother, according to the notes in the Official Catholic Bible (that contains a nihil obstat from Stephen Hartdegen, O.F.M., S.S.L., and an imprimatur from James Hickey, S.T.D., J.C.D., Archbishop of Washington) the term woman was a normal and polite way for our Lord to address his mother in the context of a Jewish community more than 2,000 years ago.

The notes from the Official Catholic Bible for verse 2:4 also state that, "Jesus did not work miracles to help his family and friends."1 So if Jesus did not turn water into wine for the purpose of getting everybody at the party drunk, and if Jesus doesn't grant special favors for his friends and family members, what would be the real reason behind the Lord's actions? Because it is always best to allow Sacred Scripture to define itself, one possible explanation comes from verse 2:6, where it says the "stone water jars" were used in the "Jewish rites of purification."

The fact that these vessels were made of stone is important because water jars that were made from earthen, clay or ceramic pottery were subject to impurity laws and needed to be broken if they became unclean. This requirement comes from the Book of Leviticus in chapter 11 that describes a list of clean and unclean animals. If a mouse or lizard fell inside a purification vessel that was made out of earthen pottery, it needed to be broken, because Leviticus 11:33 says, "If any of them falls into any earthen vessel, all that is in it shall be unclean, and you shall break the vessel." Because the stone water jars that were used at the wedding feast were carved out of a soft limestone (most likely from a rock quarry that archaeologists discovered near Cana called Einot Amitai) they were not subject to impurity.

A good example of how stone water jars were used for purification is found in Luke 11:38 when Jesus was invited to a Pharisee's home to share a meal. After Jesus took his place at the table, "the Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner." From the Pharisee's perspective, Jesus was required to thoroughly wash his hands in order to be ceremonially clean, holy and undefiled before God. From the Lord's perspective, the Pharisee needed to enter the New Covenant to be made clean, holy and undefiled before God.

Another example that describes Jewish purification rituals comes from Mark 7:2–4 when the Lord's "disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them." In the following verse, the Gospel writer gives us a deeper understanding into the purification laws by saying, "the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles."

Because Jewish purification laws required the wedding guests to use ritually pure vessels to wash their hands, cups and kettles (so that they would be made clean, holy and undefiled before God on the outside), Jesus performed his first miracle at Cana to prove that he was the Messiah sent by God to establish the New Covenant. To accomplish this, Jesus needed to perform many signs, even though the Gospel writer only recorded seven, because seven is the Hebrew number for perfection.

The seven signs that Jesus performed in the Gospel of John are as follows:
1. John 2:1–11, The Wedding Feast at Cana.
2. John 4:46–54, Healing the Royal Official's Son.
3. John 5:1–15, Healing the Paralytic at Bethesda.
4. John 6:5–14, Feeding the Five Thousand.
5. John 6:16–24, Walking on Water.
6. John 9:1–7, Healing the Man Born Blind.
7. John 11:1–45, Raising Lazarus from the Dead.

The introduction to the Gospel of John from the Official Catholic Bible offers a deeper understanding into why Jesus performed seven signs, and it also states that the writer was "primarily interested in the significance of these deeds, and so interprets them for the reader by various reflections, narratives and discourses."2 According to the Gospel's introduction in the Official Catholic Bible, the Lord's first miracle performed at Cana "represents the replacement of the Jewish ceremonial washings and symbolizes the entire creative and transforming work of Jesus."3

Because Jesus was sent to establish a New Covenant, he needed to prove to the Jews that he was the promised Messiah, the Sacrificial Lamb sent to atone for our sins. Because the Jews were using water from stone containers to make themselves ceremonially clean, Jesus wanted the wedding guests to drink wine (which would later represent his blood shed on the cross of Calvary) from their purification vessels, so that the wedding feast at Cana would represent the "marriage supper of the Lamb" as described in Revelation 19:6-9.

In the same way that Jesus wanted the wedding guests to drink wine from their sacred purification vessels, he also wanted his disciples to drink wine of the New Covenant at the Last Supper. According to Matthew 26:27–29, Jesus "took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.'"

The deeper meaning behind the Lord's first miracle at Cana has nothing to do with Mary's intercession, getting everyone drunk on wine, or saving a young couple's reputation. The reason Jesus performed his first miracle at Cana has already been revealed to us in John 20:30–31, when the Gospel writer said, "Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name."

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The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition copyright © 1993 and 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture texts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament, © 1986 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. All rights reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner. Permission to reprint the text does not indicate endorsement.

  1. New American Bible, "John 2," Note 2:4, p. 1139.
  2. New American Bible, "The Gospel According to John," Introduction, p. 1135.
  3. Ibid.