Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, as well as commemorating the Second Sunday after Epiphany. Devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus was very popular in the middle ages in England. This feast was eventually placed on the Second Sunday after Epiphany in the eighteenth century. The devotion, though medieval in its present form, is biblical in origin, as is shown by the narrative of the apostles preaching that there is salvation to be found only in the name of Jesus, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved. The Gospel recounts how the name Jesus was given to the Saviour on the occasion of his circumcision, which he had been called by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
The Gospel for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (which we are commemorating today) is the third of the three great themes which we mark at the Feast of the Epiphany. The first (which we commemorated on the feast day itself) is the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles shown by the coming of the Magi to worship the new born Saviour. The second is the manifestation of the three Persons of the Trinity at the Baptism of the Saviour (which we celebrated on the Octave Day of the Epiphany). The third is the changing of water into wine, the first sign which Jesus wrought at Cana in Galilee (which we recall today on the Second Sunday after Epiphany).
After his baptism in the Jordan and the gathering of his first disciples from the following of St. John the Baptist, Jesus returned to Galilee. He was invited to a wedding with his mother, and his newly gathered disciples. When the wine was in danger of running out his mother said to Jesus that they have no wine. Jesus replied, “Woman, what is that to me and to thee? My hour is not yet come.” His mother said to the waiters to do whatever Jesus told them. Now there were set there six water pots of stone, according to the manner of the purifying of the Jews. Jesus told the waiters to fill the water pots with water. He then told them to draw them out and carry them to the chief steward of the feast. When the chief steward had tasted the water made wine, he said that every man sets forth the good wine first and then that which is worse, but on this occasion the best wine had been kept until last. This was the first sign which Jesus did at Cana in Galilee. He thus manifested his glory and his disciples believed in him.
What is the meaning of this mysterious story? At first sight it may seem something more fitting for Dionysius, the Greek god of wine, to perform, than Jesus. But it is clearly seen by St. John as a sign that shows forth the glory of Christ and thus of a piece with the Gospel message as a whole. How can this be?
It would be advisable to examine the place of miracles in the gospel narrative as a whole before addressing the interpretation of this particular miracle or sign. Classically there are two ways of understanding the miracles in the Gospels. The first is to see them as evidence of the divinity of Jesus. They showed, as the celebrated Tome of Pope Leo the Great put it, that he is divine as well as human. That he hungered, he was weary and he suffered showed his humanity, but that he worked miracles showed his divinity. He is therefore rightly seen as the Word incarnate, true God and true man. But against this it has been rightly pointed out that miracles do not of themselves suggest divinity. There were miracles wrought through Moses, through the prophets Elijah and Elisha in the time of the old covenant and also there have been miracles in the lives of the saints in the subsequent history of the Church. It also seems that Jesus discouraged people putting too much faith in the evidential value of his miracles. When asked for a sign he said that it was a wicked and adulterous generation that looked for a miraculous sign. Indeed, it was the devil who tempted him in the wilderness to perform such a miraculous sign to show himself to the world as the Son of God. Yet he rejected such a display of power as the work of the devil.
At the opposite extreme the second understanding of the miracles in the Gospels seeks to either deny them or to explain them away. It is said that the miracles in the gospels are products of a pre-scientific age which only accepted them because the people at the time did not understand that the world was a closed continuum of cause and effect. It is sometimes also suggested that whereas the healing miracles can be accepted as the result of the impact of a charismatic personality on the lives of people, the so called nature miracles cannot be accepted. Against this view it can be said that it is far from clear that the world is a closed continuum of cause and effect. The older mechanistic view of science is increasingly being called into question by scientists themselves and it has been said that the universe is better understood in terms of clouds rather than clocks. The world can now be seen to be the result of constantly changing possibilities rather than a clock like mechanism that once it has started cannot change. In this context extraordinary events or miracles can indeed be said to happen. It is also not a sound historical method to try to evaluate ancient sources by what may seem to us to be most fitting in ordinary circumstances. The whole point of the Gospels is that the circumstances of the life of Jesus were not ordinary and the miracles of the Gospels testify to this.
But if the miracles are not to be seen as either incontrovertible evidence of the divinity of Jesus or to be arbitrarily rationalised and explained away, how should we understand them? It is best to begin from the ancient Jewish worldview that God had created the world good and made man in his own image. But the human race had fallen into sin and had distorted the God given image that it had been created to reflect. In some mysterious way this fallen state extended to the whole creation. Nature was red in tooth and claw, a world in which the strong triumph over the weak. But God had chosen one people in whose seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. He had delivered them from slavery in Egypt and given them the Law through Moses. But they had remained fallen and sinful and far from as they ought to be. The prophets who called them back to faithfulness to the covenant looked forward to a time when the seemingly insoluble tension between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be would finally be resolved and the wolf would dwell with the lamb. This would be the coming of the Kingdom of God among men, when his will would finally be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Now Jesus proclaimed that this coming Kingdom of God, though still future in its fullness, was now breaking into history, in his words and mighty works. In his parables he explained the nature of the kingdom of God that was now breaking into history, in his miracles he acted out the nature of the kingdom of God in restoring the broken relations between God and man. Understood in this way the miracles in the Gospels are not simply evidence of the divinity of Jesus nor to be rationalised and explained away, but rather an integral part of the coming of the Kingdom of God into history. They are signs, as St. John calls them, that show forth the glory of God in the face of Jesus. In this sense they do manifest the divinity of Jesus, not by the type of open display of divine power that Jesus repudiated as the work of the devil, but rather as signs of the true nature of the Kingdom of God that was now breaking into history in his person and ministry.
One of the symbols of the coming Kingdom of God was that of a great feast or banquet. In attending the wedding at Cana in Galilee and changing water into wine, Jesus is proclaiming that the time of preparation is over. It is now the age of fulfilment. The water pots that were used for the purifying of the Jews stand for the old order that is now giving way to the wine of the wedding banquet of the messianic age. It marked the inauguration of a new order between God and man and showed forth the glory of the Saviour and his disciples put their faith in him.
The placing of some of the more noteworthy of Jesus’ miracles as the Gospels for these Sundays after the Epiphany is an excellent way of helping us to understand their true purpose. They are neither the extraordinary deeds of a wonder worker, nor to be rationalised and explained away, but rather to be understood as signs of how the Kingdom of God came to men in the person and ministry of Jesus. The changing of water into wine at Cana in Galilee was the first sign that Jesus performed. He thus revealed his glory and his disciples put their faith in him.