V. THE MARRIAGE FEAST.
[Lincoln's Inn, 4th Sunday in Lent, March 2, 1856.]
John II. 11.
This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth His glory; and His disciples believed on Him.
The word 'Miracles,' which our translators have adopted in this verse, gives little trouble to a reader. He thinks of some singular, glaring effect, which makes men wonder, and which they can refer to no known principle. That effect he calls a miracle. To produce astonishment is the immediate object of him who works it; to convince those who see it, and those who are told of it afterwards, that he is not subject to ordinary laws, and has the power of setting laws aside, is his ultimate object.
Such thoughts, I say, are suggested naturally enough by the word Miracle. It is otherwise with the word 'Sign' (Σημεῖον), which St. John uses himself. That word is simpler in sound than the other, but it gives rise to a longer and more troublesome inquiry. Outward display, the excitement of wonder, departure from rule, have no necessary or natural connection with it. The name drives us to the question, 'A sign of what?' And all these qualities — supposing they were present in the sign — would not help us to answer the question. In the case before us, the act of turning water into wine — in which the miracle is supposed to consist — cannot be separated from the other parts of the narrative: together they constitute the sign. And to find the signification of the sign, we must have recourse to the first chapter of the Gospel; we must ask St. John himself to tell us why he has introduced it, and how it bears upon the subject of the history.
'On the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there.' On the third day, no doubt, after the events which we were speaking of last Sunday. What were those events? A preacher who had drawn crowds by his word, who had attached to him some devoted disciples, had spoken of One mightier than he, who was coming after him, but had been before him. He had pointed to a certain man. He had said of Him, 'Behold the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world.' He had said that he came baptizing with water, on purpose that this person might be manifested to Israel as the Son of God, who would baptize with the Holy Ghost. Two of those who heard these words, we are told, followed Jesus. They invited others, saying that they had found the Christ. One or two more Jesus Himself called to come after Him.
What expectations were these men likely to form of their new Master? All their deepest impressions had been received from John. Would not He whom John declared to be greater than himself exhibit all His characteristics in a higher degree? They had first seen Jesus in the desert. Might not that be His favourite home? Would not He be more of a solitary, more of an ascetic, than His predecessor? Would not He, whose origin was said to be heavenly, be more withdrawn from the things of earth, than the man who said he was not worthy to unloose the latchet of His sandal? This was a reasonable supposition. There was another, which would strike many as even more reasonable. The Christ was associated with thoughts of royalty. He might be the very reverse of John; not one who could converse familiarly with disciples; not one who could speak words of friendly admonition to publicans and soldiers; but one who would walk aloft, asserting the dignity of His descent, claiming to rule the people, impatient of even seeming to belong to them.
On the third day came a sign which showed how far either of these expectations corresponded to the truth. There was a marriage in Cana of Galilee, and Jesus was sitting there beside His mother. This is the appearance He made to those disciples who had heard Him described by such magnificent titles, — to those disciples who had learnt to look upon the desert life, the life that is withdrawn from all family relations and sympathies, as the specially holy and prophetical life. And yet it is clearly no august regal marriage which is taking place at Cana. A homely, rustic wedding, — one in which there is feasting and merriment, but no pomp. To this He is bidden; and those fishermen who had joined Him are bidden too. They are called His disciples. They had but lately seen Him or known Him, but they are already fast bound to Him. As His disciples they go with Him, not into a far-off desert, but to a wedding-feast in a little town.
Here is surely the sign of a change, — a change the very reverse, perhaps, of what we were looking for. We are coming nearer to the common earth, to those bonds which connect the inhabitants of earth with each other, to those which touch all earthly feelings and earthly interests. The next incident surely does not weaken this impression. The wine at the feast is said to have failed. We might easily have formed some vague notion of a festival that was different from all others, marked by no vulgar events; at least we might have wished that these should be kept out of sight — that we should not be informed of them. St. John, the divine, the theologian, does not indulge us in this wish. He is determined that we should understand it to have been an ordinary wedding-feast, at which men drank as at others. 'The mother of Jesus said to Him, They have no wine.' Whatever meaning we may discover in the words when we know who spoke them and to whom they were spoken, they are plain words, the announcement of the plainest fact. Some interpreters suppose that Mary only intended to say, 'Let us withdraw, that the deficiency may not be apparent.' I like their honesty, their determination to find the simplest sense they can; but if we consider what must have been the dialogue between Mary and her Son for so many years; if we remember that a crisis had come in His life, which must have appeared to her the fulfilment of all her expectations concerning Him; if we remember that He was now gathering about Him a set of disciples; it surely is most reasonable to suppose that these words expressed her desire that He should, and her belief that He would, put forth some unwonted power which had been latent in Him until the point in time. The old Scriptures told how Elisha had used his divine powers for the relief of ordinary necessities, — to heal, for instance, the waters which might have poisoned the sons of the prophets. Was it strange that a devout reader of these Scriptures should think that her Son might prove He had divine endowments in like manner? It belongs to the very nature of a woman, to the finest part of her nature, to think that power is best exerted in individual cases, for individual needs. What we are apt to regard as too mean and minute occasions for a divine might, she measures by a wiser and more loving rule. The distinctions of little and large are forgotten, as they ought to be, when the Eternal is in question. The most blessed of women ought to have exhibited this tendency in its highest degree. In doing so, she was not degrading Him whom she loved and reverenced most; she was judging rightly for what ends His powers on earth would nearly always be put forth.
But yet there was a weakness in this feminine eagerness. There was a thought that a mere circumstance or necessity could determine the exercise of an internal energy. And this is what He appears to reprimand in the next sentence. 'Woman, what have I to do with you? mine hour is not yet come.' A comparison of this passage with one in the seventh chapter of our Gospel, in which Jesus uses a similar expression to His brethren when they urged Him to go up to the feast at Jerusalem that He might make Himself known openly, shows that He designed to tell His mother that no events or outward motives could decide when it was right for Him to do a work, — that the Spirit which He had received without measure was regulating His acts — that He must be always doing His Father's business. Such an intimation, conveyed to the one who in all this world knew Him best, who had most inward sympathy with Him, was no discouragement to her faith, — rather was certain to awaken it. The power would come forth, not in obedience to her call, but to a more lofty, more divine, impulse. She could say, therefore, to the servants, without hesitation or anxiety, 'Whatsoever He said to you, do it.'
I believe, my brethren, that all these passages in the story just as much belong to the sign, are quite as essential elements of it, as anything which follows. Nothing can be more simple or brief than the passage which comes next. 'There were set there six water-pots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. Jesus said to them, Fill the water-pots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And He said to them, Draw out now, and bear to the governor of the feast. And they bare it. When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not where it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew:) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, and said to him, Every man at the beginning does set plainly good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but you have kept the good wine until now.' It cannot have escaped you how carefully St. John informs us that not even the ruler of the feast, the taster of the wine himself, knew where the wine came; he merely makes an idle, merry observation about it. Most of those who sat round him were probably just as ignorant and as little concerned about the matter as he was. The servants may have wondered at what they saw; but their wonder had so little to do with the intention of the act that the Apostle does not stop to notice it. Very little, then, of the notion which we affix — honestly and etymologically affix — to the word miracle has any application here. There was no effort to produce surprise; if surprise was produced, it led to no conviction. Not one of those who tasted the water that was made wine, simply on that ground believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God.
What, then, was signified by this act? What force lay in it? I can only beg St. John to tell us. He says, 'This beginning of signs did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth His glory; and His disciples believed on Him.' What glory did He manifest? In all fairness and reason, we must again consult the writer of the words about the sense which he puts upon them. He had said, 'And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.' I said, when we met with this passage in the last chapter, that it was evidently the text of the whole Gospel. The Gospel would either show how the Word made flesh manifested His glory to those among whom He dwelt, and how that glory was as of the only-begotten Son full of grace and truth, or it would fail of its purpose, it would belie its name. Of the Word it has been said before, 'that all things were made by Him: that in Him was Life, and the Life was the Light of men.' The manifestation of His glory, we might surely then expect, would include a manifestation of Him as one who exercised creative power, as one in whom the Life that quickens all things dwells inexhaustibly. One might expect that this Life, if it was exhibited upon things, would still be in some very remarkable sense an illumination of men. But one would be certain that that illumination could not be outward to the eye. As life is internal, as all its movements and operations are secret, though its effects are so palpable; so the Light which proceeds from this Life — that which is emphatically the Light of men, as distinguished from mere animals — must be light penetrating into the inner being, filling the heart, reason, and conscience, scattering darkness in them, preparing them hereafter, — since the Light is not put into any one to be hid under a bushel, but to be set upon a candlestick, — to show forth what had so marvellously affected and changed them, to the world.
Now, if we consider the sign in Cana of Galilee with these thoughts in our minds, — which we have not invented for ourselves, but derived straight from the Evangelist, — I cannot doubt that all its different aspects will come out very harmoniously before us.
The first aspect of it is that which is brought before us in our own Marriage Service. Christ is said to have 'adorned and beautified the holy estate of matrimony with His presence and first miracle that He created in Cana of Galilee.' This has been the conclusion at which the reason of the most thoughtful men has arrived, and to which the instinctive feeling in all has responded. If Jesus was the Word made flesh, if the order of the world was established by Him, then His acts upon earth would be done for the purpose of vindicating this order. By them He would claim it as His. By them He would say that it did not belong to the evil one. Marriage, as one of the fundamental parts of this order, as one of the earliest institutes of humanity, as one that had suffered most from abuse, would be one of the first over which He would assert His dominion. And because the ordinance is one in which all are interested, we should look for the assertion to come in some distinct and yet very general way; not, I mean, in a broad proclamation, or in a maxim which is forgotten speedily or frittered away in the application to each individual instance; not again in some case clothed with circumstances that take it out of the common range of cases, not the wedding of a king or of a saint, but one of which every peasant as well as every king might say, 'This tells me to whom I must look to bless my wedlock, because He is the Author of it.'
Then, again, that part of the story which refers to the mother of Jesus becomes, I think, clearer when we contemplate it in this light. Romanists are puzzled by it, Protestants exult in it, because it seems to put a kind of slight upon the Virgin. But Protestants and Romanists agree that Jesus had a divine Father and a human mother. If this act was one of the manifestations of Him as the Son of God, can anything be more natural or consistent than that it should be introduced by words which declare that He could not be in subjection to any earthly authority, while yet the act itself was an act of ministry to even the commonest necessities of the sons of earth? Is not this apparent contradiction the accomplishment of His work, the exhibition of Him in His complete character? He will not be the servant of His creatures, not even of His mother; He obeys the Will, which all are created to obey. He will be the servant of His creatures: He is come into the world for that end. He is doing the will of His Father when He is stooping to the lowest of all.
But if this be our judgment of two parts of the sign, it must, I think, greatly modify, if not alter altogether, the apprehensions which we have formed of the third part, that which concerns the turning of the water into wine. We cannot regard the main characteristic of the marriage and the marriage-feast as being their commonness, their similarity to what is going on in every part of the world — to what is going on among ourselves; and then make the essence of that which our Lord did at the feast consist in its uncommonness, in its unlikeness to everything that is done elsewhere — to everything that is done among ourselves. We must abandon one habit of feeling or the other. Which we shall abandon depends, it seems to me, upon the strength or the weakness of our faith in St. John's assertion, that in Him who sat at that feast was life and that all things were made by Him. If we take those words literally, if we suppose the Evangelist to mean what he says, then we must assume that what happened then was but an instance of the working of a universal law. We shall conclude that all living processes — be they slow or rapid, be they carried on in the womb of nature or through the intervention of human art — have their first power and principle in Him, that without Him nothing could become that does become. Such a belief undoubtedly carries us into great depths and heights. It increases the wonder with which we regard every dynamical discovery. But it does not interfere with any discovery. It gives solemnity and awfulness to the investigations of science. It forbids trifling in them. It stimulates courage and hope in them. It makes all superstitious dread of them sinful. The Word, who is the Light of men, will Himself teach those who seek humbly and diligently to enter into those operations of life of which He is the first Mover.
But there are other thoughts connected with this word Life, which it is impossible to sever from it in any case, and which suggest themselves more directly than any others when the subject is a wedding-feast and the turning of water into wine. Life has a relation to joy, which is as close as the relation of death to sadness. Our minds become confused upon this point. We talk of the burden of life. We talk of death as delivering us from this burden. But these are careless expressions, against which the conscience of man rebels. The Scripture is in harmony with the conscience. It speaks of our carrying about with us a burden of death from which we need to be delivered. If it ever speaks of the moment of departure from the world as a moment of deliverance, it is because, as the poet says, 'Death itself there dies.' In creating the wine, then, which is said in the old Scriptures to make glad the heart of man, which had been a symbol of joy as well as of life to the heathen — the symbol of high inspirations even when it was actually acknowledged to be the cause of the lowest animal degradation — the Son of Man was claiming to be the Giver of all joy, to be the Redeemer of all joy, even in its humblest earthliest forms, from that which had made it base and inhuman. In what sense the Source of Joy was also the Man of Sorrows, St. John will tell us in due time. There is something which binds this very story of the feast at Cana to His deepest sorrow. Mary has not appeared before in this Gospel; she never appears again till we meet her beside the cross. She knew that a sword was to pierce through her soul, at the very time when she was asking her Son to prove Himself the Lord of nature and the Giver of delights to man. One work did not interfere with the other. He could not be really the Word made flesh unless He fulfilled both.
And now, then, we may understand why we are told so expressly in the text that 'He manifested forth His glory, and that His disciples believed on Him.' Who were these disciples? One of them must have been that Andrew who told his own brother Simon, 'We have found the Christ.' One would have been that Philip who said to Nathanael, 'We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and the Prophets, did write.' One would have been that Nathanael who said, 'Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.' Not one of these had received a sign or a miracle to impart to them these convictions. The witness of John concerning the Light, met by the witness in their own hearts, the manifestation to those hearts that Jesus was the Light of whom they had heard, — this was their preparation for the marriage-feast and for what passed there. Because they had acknowledged Jesus and had become His disciples, with a feeble, imperfect, confused knowledge of course, but with a desire of the knowledge which they should receive from continual converse with Him; therefore the sign of the water being made into wine had a meaning for them which it had not for others; therefore it was to them a manifestation of His glory; therefore it gave them a belief in Him, as answering to John's testimony, which they had not had before. An outward exercise of power strengthened their belief in a power which lay entirely beyond the region of their senses. They were sure that a sign had been given them that He who blesses marriage, He through whom all things live, He from whom all men derive their light and joy, was actually dwelling among them.
I have been the more careful in considering this subject, my brethren, because St. John records it as the beginning of the signs which Jesus did. It is not recorded in the other Evangelists. It is told here as if the whole scene had come back to the mind of the old Apostle; as if he had been at that feast, and felt himself transported there again from his chamber at Ephesus. I think there must have been a reason why that day was brought again to his remembrance, why he was enabled to describe it so briefly yet with such distinctness. People in that age, as we know from St. Paul's Epistles, as we might have guessed if we had not this decisive information, were prone to set great store by the powers which had been presented as an honor upon the Church to manifest the presence of the Holy Spirit within it. From magnifying the powers, they had passed, by a natural process, to magnify the outward effects of these powers; then, to exult in them because they were strange and peculiar. St. Paul had urged the Corinthians to remember that all gifts were presented as an honor for use, and not for show; that it was better to speak five words which could be understood and might be profitable, than to speak a thousand words in an unknown tongue, unless it were interpreted. In spite of these exhortations, the sign was no doubt gradually losing itself in the miracle. The unseen Presence, which could not be recollected without a sense of awful responsibility, was far less thought of than the display which could be made in the eyes of the ignorant. Whenever such a temper begins to prevail, we may be sure that tricks, impostures, lies in the name of Christ and of God, will spread rapidly; the spirit of falsehood will creep into the heart which has confessed its allegiance to the Spirit of truth. Ephesus, we know from the Acts of the Apostles, had been a favourite home of the magician and the enchanter. In the first fervour of their belief in Him who is the way and the truth and the life, the Christians had burnt their books and abjured their lying trade. But St. Paul, as he told the elders of the city, dreaded that after his departure grievous wolves might come in among them. There was no sheep's clothing these wolves were more likely to wear than this. Reverence for Christ's miracles might be made an excuse for practising all old heathen arts and enchantments in His name. How suitable a work for the aged disciple of Christ to lay his axe to the root of this deception! How fitting a thing was it for him to say, 'You talk of the miracles of the Christ. I remember the first of them all. I remember what it taught me then, what it teaches me still. It was not an enchantment; it was not a wonderment. It was a sign of His presence in whom is all grace and truth, who was manifested that He might put down all falsehoods whatsoever, and who will put them down at the last.'
It was the beginning of signs. I do not say that our examination of it will save us from the trouble of examining each new sign as it comes before us. By rigorously adhering to that name, as St. John does, we assume that each has a signification of its own. We shall find them all very different from this in their circumstances, in some of their internal characteristics. But I believe that if we follow out the line of thought into which I have endeavoured to lead you this afternoon, and if we make St. John's first chapter the expounder of his object in every subsequent narrative, we shall be delivered from innumerable difficulties by which the study of miracles generally, and of each particular miracle is beset. To those who tell us that a Church which can work miracles is a true Church — to those who speak of miracles done with a serious purpose in former days, or of miracles done for the amusement of men that crave for some new thing in our days — we may make the same answer. The Scriptures teach us to care for no miracles except so far as they are signs. Of what are your miracles signs? Do they signify that the Word who was made flesh is not continually acting in the affairs of men now? If so, they contradict those signs which we confess to be true signs, those which have signified to us and to our forefathers that all life is in Him, that all light is from Him. Or do they say this? Then they say what every marriage is saying just as clearly; what our ordinary food and wine, what the growth of trees and flowers, what the plough of the husbandman and the laboratory of the chemist are such pledges of as your miracles can never be. God may perform wonders to break the chains of sense, to make us aware that He is always at work. We are sure that He will not enact wonders to rivet the chains of sense upon us, to turn away our thoughts from Him to some low earthly agent. Only a wicked and adulterous generation seeks for such wonders, for such signs. The signs which will be given to it, if it does not repent, are signs of fire and of blood, the slaughter of the first-born, the cry in the Temple, 'Let us depart.' But if we receive the beginning of signs which Christ gave us in Cana of Galilee, all common things will become sacraments of His presence. The husband and the wife will confess that He has united them. We shall receive the water and the wine both as His gifts. He will drink the new wine with those who come at His bidding to give thanks for the blood which He poured out for the redemption of the world.
From the Gospel of St. John by FREDERICK DENISON MAURICE, M.A, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Combridge. Published by MACMILLAN AND CO in 1882; Produced by Charlene Taylor, Julia Neufeld and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Insights of the past for the present
Gospel of St. John - F.D. Maurice
ON THE BOOK SHELF
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