The American family is in trouble! According to a recent interview article for a national magazine - Colin Powell, the famous general of the Gulf War who dedicated his entire career to defending America from external enemies – now believes the enemy is within. General Powell now thinks that “we” have now become our own worst enemy. Speaking of how dangerous America has become – Powell cited staggering statistics: 20 million young people wander the streets, take drugs, alcohol, participate in free sex, homosexuality, lesbianism, and teen-age gangs. The answer to these problems – Powell suggested – will not be found in economic or social reform. The answer lies in strengthening the American family. Our children, he insisted – have become violent because of a lack of family life, love and education
According to the US Government Census Report only 50% of American families are intact. In the last 50 years we have seen a marked increase in juvenile delinquency, disciple problems, and abortions. Since 1980 divorce rates are up 65%. The number of unmarried couples is up 157%. Children living with two parents are down 20% while children living with one parent are up 41%. These statistics reveal a serious problem facing the American family today.
In light of these staggering statistics, it is appropriate for us to gather as Orthodox Christians and to focus our theological and pastoral attention to the important subject of marriage and family. In so doing we acknowledge that the Church still sheds tears for those in need and distress. Since the occasion of her participation at the Wedding at Cana of Galilee - The Theotokos -- our Lord’s Holy Mother -- continues to give attention to the quantity and quality of wine that is served at her children’s sacramental gatherings. Unfortunately, like wine at Cana - the intrinsic sacramental nature of many Orthodox Marriages and their respective families, has indeed begun to be depleted and for some has tragically -- run dry!
Aside from the numerous deleterious consequences associated with society’s relentless disrespect for marriage and family - many within the Church - have understood their participation in the marriage service as a formality that merely gives their marital union a sense of religious legitimacy and social respectability. Some, see their “Church” marriage as an alternative to civil marriage. Still others, consider their participation in the sacrament of marriage as inserting some type of special, yet elusive, mysterious power into their nuptial relationship.
In light of such an unfortunate situation - if we are perceptive - we can hear the cry of the Theotokos to her son. “They have no wine” “Help them my son – Transform the emptiness of their families into the fullness of your sacramental joy.”
“They have no wine.” The precious words spoken by our Lord’s Mother and quoted during each Orthodox Marriage ceremony should not be considered as merely indicating the historical context for her son’s first miracle. The Theotokos eternally scans the historical landscapes of marriage and family, for the Orthodox Family should understand itself as a symposiarch of the Church. Her words should form the invocation of each family’s ministry to itself, the Christian community and the entire cosmos, namely, the Stewardship of the Vine!
Each family that has been established through the sacrament of marriage in every Orthodox Christian parish, must discover its lineage to the household that was inaugurated at the marriage at Cana. The contemporary Christian family should be granted the opportunity to quench its respective spiritual thirst with the wine of the Church’s sacramental grace. Unfortunately, while the Bridegroom’s guests have come desiring to taste of the very best from the Church’s sacramental vine, many depart with the indecorous conclusion that “they have no wine.”
The miracle of Cana provides the contemporary family with welcome theological and pastoral news. If we provide opportunities for our Lord to be at the center of our marriages, a new quality – a new vintage - will characterize family life. It will be like turning water into wine. Without Christ as our primary focus, means, and end, the sacramental nature of our families will at best, remain self-centered, and at worst – run out! When we properly understand and integrate the Grace that resides in all of the Church’s Sacramental life, our families will most certainly be transformed from drab and thrill-less relationships to the most vivid and aromatic of experiences.
The miracle of Cana is one of seven signs or miracles described in the Gospel of St. John that inaugurates the sacramental nature of the Church and magnifies the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. These signs help to create the underlying presuppositions of the Church. The miracles performed by Jesus signal His identity as the Christ of Messiah. The New Testament Theological Lexicon refers to the basic meaning of the Greek word for sign (semeion) as something by which one recognizes a particular person or thing, a confirmatory, corroborative, authenticating mark or token. In general, it denotes a miracle, a divine epiphany. Through these signs, Jesus reveals His glory. What is significant, is that the miracles as signs have the power of revelation only for those whose eyes God Himself opens.
The testimony of Jesus’ signs (miracles) in the fourth gospel points to the glory of the Word made flesh (John 1:14). It is a testimony that many were unwilling to accept (John 3:11). The first sign signals the mastery of the new covenant over the old – the sanctifying precedence of the Christian Church over and above that of the Nation of Israel. The miracle at Cana is a powerful testimony of God’s love and power, a blending of the sacred with the secular, of the water of purification with the fragrant wine of the Kingdom of God.
Many Church Fathers have written extensively on the theological significance of this miracle: Among them are: St. John Chrysostom – St. Cyril of Alexandria – St. Romanos the Melodist, - Justin the Martyr – St. John of Kronstadt – and St. Ephraim the Syrian.
As we have briefly stated, the wedding at Cana is the setting for the first of the seven signs (miracles) performed by Jesus in the Gospel of St. John. These signs are: (a) changing water into wine, (b) curing the nobleman’s son, (c) healing the paralytic, (d) feeding the multitude, (e) walking on the water, (f) giving sight to the blind man, and (g) raising Lazarus from the grave.
The seven signs of the Gospel of John point to something beyond themselves, namely, the mystery of the Incarnate God at work in His mighty and saving acts, the Kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus. The signs are a means by which Jesus’ disciples and others come to recognize His Glory. His divine power reveals that He comes from the Father. Consequently, the signs further strengthen faith in Him. According to Cyril of Alexandria and Ephrem the Syrian, wine symbolizes the supreme revelation given by God to humanity. The water become wine is a powerful sign given by Jesus that manifests the superiority of His Divine Work. While good, the revelation communicated through the Old Testament prophets and the law is inferior to the sacred testimony manifested by Jesus through his Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection.
The setting of this miracle is significant as in the Old Testament marriage symbolizes the union of God with His Bride, Israel. It is interesting to note that Moses began his tenure by turning the water of the Nile into blood. Jesus, on the other hand, begins His ministry by turning water into wine, a symbol of salvation (Is. 25:6) and an indication of the joy and delight of His Kingdom being spread to all of the world. By this sign, Jesus likewise declares marriage to be holy and honorable (Heb. 13:4). It is here significant to note that apart from reading this pericope at the Orthodox sacrament of Holy Marriage it is also read on the Monday after the Sunday of St. Thomas, a season of intense instruction in the early church for Christians who were baptized and chrismated during Pascha. Its selection in the latter is due to the story’s liturgical and rich sacramental context.
The directive spoken to Jesus by His Mother indicates that she was interested in averting a calamity at the wedding that she, her Son and His disciples had been invited to attend. According to Jewish custom, it was the responsibility of the wedding couple to make the necessary arrangements to properly accommodate the needs of their invited guests. In fact, individuals had the right to sue the newlyweds if they as guests were not fed properly! Since most marriage festivities lasted for many days, the need for precise logistics was important. The unexpected large number of guests that was caused by the arrival of Jesus and His five disciples may have depleted the provision of wine. The problem may have been further compounded by the modest economic circumstances of the bride and groom.
In Palestine, wedding feasts often occupied a space of seven to fourteen days (Gen. 29:27; Judges 14:15). The marriage feast to which Jesus was invited might have been advanced, and may provide some explanation for the exhaustion of the supply of wine. It is significant and commonly accepted that the day that Jesus and his assemblage arrived at the wedding feast was the seventh day and thus corresponded with the solemn week of Passover (John 2:13).
Wine is an essential element at a Jewish feast. “Without wine,” write the rabbis, “there is no joy.” Since hospitality in the East was a sacred duty, any failure to extend an ample supply of provisions especially at a wedding feast would be a terrible humiliation for the bride and the bridegroom. The best wine was customarily provided to guests when their senses were at their keenest. When the climax of the gathering had past, then the weaker, poorer and less fragrant wine was produced.
Water, on the other hand, would have been used at the wedding reception for purifying purposes. According to ceremonial law, water was used to: (a) clean the feet on entry into a house, and (b) required for hand-washing. Strict Jewish custom required hand-washing before as well as between each course. It was for this foot and hand-washing that these stone jars were found in the house. In an effort to maintain cleanliness, water pots were usually made of stone. In this fashion the ritual purity that was advocated by rabbinical teaching was protected.
According to Jewish tradition, seven is a number that symbolizes completeness and perfection. On the other hand, six is a number that symbolizes something unfinished or imperfect. The six water pots used by Jesus to perform His first sign therefore symbolize the imperfections of the Jewish law. The number of water pots is often interpreted in terms of the Levitical Law (Lev. 11:29-38). The number six is one less than the number seven which typifies perfection and thus symbolizes the old dispensation. In order to complete and perfect this law Jesus manifests the new Wine of His Grace. While the Levitical Law was partial, incomplete, and imperfect, the abundance of wine is symbolic of the abundant Grace and truth in Christ. By transforming such a large quantity of water into wine John is informing his readers that in Jesus grace is perfect, limitless, and sufficient for every need.
It is extremely possible that that the five disciples who accompanied Jesus and His mother to the wedding feast were themselves the unnamed servants who were instructed to fill these six water pots with water. In all likelihood, the disciples, as deacons (ministers) and “stewards of the mysteries” (1 Cor. 4:1), were the ones to whom Mary directed her advice to do “whatever he tells you.” At Jesus’ command, therefore, the five newly called disciples filled and then provided the chief steward of the feast, with a cup of water now turned wine.
The “master of the table” was more than a typical wine steward. He was the chief steward, the symposiarch who presided over the arrangements of the entire feast. The large number of water pots of considerable magnitude suggests in part, a large number of guests and the great attention given to ceremonial purity. The alabaster jugs may have been different in shape according to their particular ceremonial purpose. The transformation of water into wine provided much more than a supply of drink for the wedding couple and their guests, but - as we will discuss in more detail in the second portion of this presentation – the water become wine provided the couple with an ample dowry of Sacramental Grace for their future family.
The ninth Proverb of Solomon unites wisdom, marriage and wine. “Wisdom has built her house, She has hewn out her seven pillars; she has prepared her food, she has mixed her wine; She has also set her table; She has sent out her maidens, she calls from the tops of the heights of the city: "Whoever is naive, let him turn in here!" To him who lacks understanding she says, "Come, eat of my food and drink of the wine I have mixed” (Proverbs 9:1-5). The Church Fathers followed a similar pattern by interpreting the miraculous transformation of water into wine at Cana in sacramental terms. The water become wine was a sign of anticipation - of the sacred transformation of the bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood at the Eucharist. For them, the Eucharistic gathering is the Eternal Marriage Feast of True Wisdom – and consequently the living Icon of the Great Mystery – Christ the Bridegroom and His Bride, His Family - the Church.
Characteristic of this understanding, Clement of Alexandria suggests that “Christ turned water into wine at the marriage of Cana in order to “infuse life into the water of a lukewarm heart.” Clement continues by asserting that through this sign Jesus was “pouring the blood of the vine into the whole world and thereby supplying piety within a drink of Truth, a mixture of the Old Law and the New World, until the fulfillment of time.” However, while mankind has at every period of its experience enjoyed a degree of God’s Grace, the very best vintage is realized in Christ and in the Church that he has inaugurated for this present age. He is the choicest Wine! As such, the enlargement of our experience of Him through the Praxis of marital Agape will progressively infuse more and more grace upon the family.
But what exactly do we mean by the societal designation “the family?” Is the family a biological entity, comprised of those who are genetically related to one another? Is it a legal designation of those that are related by law? Is the family primarily an economic relationship in which persons pay the expenses for each other or provide inheritance? Is it a place to draw upon the social capital of reputation? Is the Christian Family different from families who practice other religions or have no religion at all? The unfortunate consequence of the aforementioned deficient definitions of marriage is an overly pragmatic management of family life. Our understanding of the intrinsic sacramental nature of marriage and family would greatly benefit from a structure that would follow a theological scheme of placing the sanctifying grace of the Church squarely at the center of each!
The miracle of Cana may be used to illustrate how our efforts to sustain the notion of Christian family are slender and soon exhausted when offered without the transformative presence of Christ. As symposiarchs of the Wine of Sacred Tradition, it is important that our efforts to protect the sacred character of Christian marriage and family follow the process implicit in Jesus’ first sign. Today, the Christian family should, like Mary, continue to direct its attention to the commands of her Son. Divine manifestation is always associated with serving need in love. Families express their intrinsic sacramental nature when as servants its members understand their relationship to one another, to the community and the world as primarily a stewardship of the vine. Married couples and their respective families must strive to hearken to the direction of Mary and obediently “do whatever the Lord commands.” To be obedient to our Lord’s Word as expressed through Sacred Tradition, parents should employ every effort to provide their children with catechetical opportunities for the Holy Spirit to establish wisdom, illumination, and most importantly, love in their hearts and souls.
The most valuable gift that was offered to the wedding couple at the marriage at Cana was the One provided by the Theotokos. By contributing the Gift of her Son, Mary provides the Sacred Marriage-Feast of the Church the greatest Dowry one could ever receive. Jesus is the Wine of Life that every family inaugurated by the sacrament of Holy Marriage throughout history should strive to receive and in turn offer the guests of the Bridegroom. This, in the final analysis, is the sacred trust of every family. As such, if we truly desire to honor the guests who are invited to attend the contemporary marriage feast of the Church each family would do well to make certain that we provide the “good wine first.”
Understood in this fashion, the miracle of Cana is not a miracle of luxury. It is, rather, a miracle of selfless love. It is a mystalogical miracle, a divine sign that provides a Praxis of sacramentality that every Christian family would do well to emulate.