The Old Testament is filled with metaphorical language depicting God and Israel as husband and wife. Ezekiel allegorized Israel as a young virgin married to Yahweh. So when Israel practiced idolatry, the prophet likened her to an unfaithful wife. Hosea was even called by God to marry a prostitute, creating a prophetic image of Israel’s unfaithful marriage. Yet God promised a healing reunion: “I will remember the covenant I made with you when you were young; I will set up an everlasting covenant with you” (Ez 16:60); “You shall call me ‘My Husband’” (Hos 2:18). Our first reading, from Isaiah, follows this imagery: “As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so shall your God rejoice in you.”
When did God actually establish this everlasting covenant that Ezekiel promised, one that promised a renewed marriage? The New Testament, and indeed the whole Christian tradition, saw this as a promise still waiting for the Messiah to fulfill. Now we see why weddings and wedding banquets were among Jesus’ favorite images of the kingdom. We also see why John the Baptist referred to himself as the best man, who needs to step aside now that the bridegroom has arrived (Jn 3:29-30).
Reflecting on these wedding and marriage metaphors can help us more deeply understand the significance of the wedding at Cana, recounted in today’s Gospel reading from John. Recall the story: Jesus, his mother and his disciples are invited to a wedding. These wedding celebrations often lasted for days, and eventually the wine ran out. Mary tells him, “They have no wine.” Jesus seems dismissive: “Woman, how does your concern affect me?” She is undeterred, and he seems to acquiesce, having the servants fill washing jars with water, soon to be transformed into the finest wine.
Instead of describing the event as a miracle, Jesus calls it a sign: “Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.” Several factors make the event a particularly powerful sign. For instance, there had been prophesies that the messianic days would be marked by an abundance of wine (Am 9:13-14). More important, Jesus’ actions at Cana point toward the inauguration of the everlasting covenant between God and Israel, the covenant of which Ezekiel spoke. What better place to provide his first sign than a wedding?
In the Gospel of John, signs are powerful deeds, but they do not guarantee faith on the part of those who witness them (12:37). To understand a sign, one must see through the event to its deeper meaning. This requires the eyes of faith.
Amid many countersigns in our lives, are there real signs of the kingdom, of the everlasting covenant? I see them in my students. At the end of the fall semester, my student Kevin confessed to the class that our course was overwhelming to him. “I don’t know what to think about the Bible anymore,” he said. “I no longer accept any of my easy answers, and I’m not sure what to think about my faith anymore. Yet, this semester has been the holiest period in my life, and I’ve never felt closer to Christ.” This young man will be a seminarian next year, and I can hardly wait until he enters ministry. I am convinced his intimacy with Christ freed him to unmoor himself from a level of maturity no longer worthy of that intimacy.
Where are signs in your life? Are they not present in forgiveness freely given to you or by you? Are they not there in the constancy of love you’ve shown to or received from children or parents? Where have you experienced deep compassion in your life? If you look, there are signs of the gracious presence of the Lord around us. They are nothing less than wedding gifts from our divine spouse. “Alleluia! The Lord has established his reign.... For the wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready” (Rv 19:6-7).