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Cana, Signs, and Sacraments

The Gospel Reading for Sunday, January 16th, indicates how we, through the sacraments, are changed, cleansed, fed—and wed.

'Marriage at Cana' [c. 1304] by Giotto di Bondone (

• Is 62:1-5
• Ps 96:1-2, 2-3, 7-8, 9-10
• 1 Cor 12:4-11
• Jn 2:1-11

The Gospel of John contains some seventeen direct references to signs (semeia), which is St. John’s term for the miraculous deeds of Jesus. St. John is especially interested in how these various signs are manifestations of God’s new and transforming intervention in human history through the Word, the Logos. His Gospel is a profound reflection on the fact and mystery that God became man and dwelt among us, “full of grace and truth” (see Jn 1:1-14).

Chapters 2 through 12 of John’s Gospel are sometimes called collectively “The Book of Signs,” for they contain seven signs, or miracles, performed by Christ. These signs include the healing of the official’s son (Jn 4), the healing of the paralytic (Jn 5), the multiplication of the loaves (Jn 6), walking on water (Jn 6), the restoration of the blind man (Jn 9), and the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11).

The first sign, however, is the miracle at the wedding at Cana, proclaimed in today’s Gospel, which is found only in the Fourth Gospel. The exact location of Cana is unclear, but it was probably just a few miles north of Nazareth. The identity of the bride and groom are unknown, although a later tradition from about the third century states that Mary was the aunt of the bridegroom.

What is known, for it forms the crux of the story, is that something embarrassing had taken place: the wedding party ran out of wine. Mary, ever attentive to the needs of others, intercedes on behalf of the bride and groom, telling her son, “They have no wine.” She prays—that is, entreats—in faith, for the needs of those gathered for the feast. This foreshadows her prayers, as “Mother of all the living” and Mother of the Church, at the foot of the Cross, the saving way to the marriage feast of the Lamb (cf.Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2618, 1335, 963).

Jesus’ response is puzzling, perhaps even perplexing: “Woman, how does your concern affect me?” But the term “Woman” is not an insult, as some have argued incorrectly; it is actually a formal title of respect (cf. Matt 15:28). What is unusual is how Jesus, in speaking to his mother, uses the term without any qualifier. It indicates a changed relationship between son and mother (cf. Jn 19:26). Further, in using it, Jesus identifies Mary as the new Eve, whose obedience and faith will be an essential part of the new creation and a new family, the Church.

Jesus stated that his hour—the time of his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension (Jn 13:1)—had not yet arrived. Mary does not question him, or protest. Her words to the servers are words of invitation to all of us: “Do whatever he tells you.” She trusts her son, knowing he will do what is right and necessary. “The Mother of Christ presents herself as the spokeswoman of her Son’s will,” observed Saint Pope John Paul II in Redemptoris Mater, “pointing out those things which must be done so that the salvific power of the Messiah may be manifested. At Cana, thanks to the intercession of Mary and the obedience of the servants, Jesus begins ‘his hour.’” (par 21).

The Church sees the miracle at Cana as a “confirmation of the goodness of marriage” (CCC 1613). But there is also a connection to baptism, for the jars used in the miracle were for ceremonial washings, for ritual purification from defilement. In the waters of baptism, we are cleansed by God’s grace and transformed by his power. Through baptism we become members of the Church, the bride of Christ, and are invited to partake of the blood of the bridegroom (CCC 1335).

“Now we all partake at the banquet in the church,” wrote the sixth-century saint, Romanus Melodus, “For Christ’s blood is changed into wine/And we drink it with holy joy/Praising the great bridegroom.”

First water, then wine; first baptism, then Eucharist. By these sacraments, perceptible signs, we are changed, cleansed, fed—and wed.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the January 17, 2010, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. John tells us, Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Approximately 150 gallons of miraculous wine for a wedding celebration invokes vision of lots of people enjoying the festivity, and liberally enjoying lots of wine. Christ took no issue with very human innocent conviviality.
    Or was there as often happens with Christ some other hidden meaning? We know the waiter addresses it to the bridegroom, But you have saved the best wine until now! And we know it refers to our knowledge of God as he is in the beatific vision. Whatever we might experience in this life, mundane or spiritual delight will be far surpassed.
    It doesn’t appear that this enormous amount of wine was meant to be consumed that very night [Biblical Scholar Abbe Constant Fouard The Life of Christ wrote Jewish wedding ceremonies at the time could last days], that the overabundance was again a reference to the beatific vision, That we will have life, and have it in abundance. Christ our Light and Our life reveals the fullness of his divinity completing our happiness beyond what the human mind can construct, but somehow understands this through faith. We realize, as Carl Olson intuitively ends his essay, that in this supreme intimacy we are actually bonded, that we are wed.

    • It very easy to read into gospels ideas of what is mentioned to mean or what we think it means. Two thousand years have passed and many have put pen to paper saying this means this or that. If fact we don’t know we guess what Jesus’s intentions where or what they where at that moment in time. Remember Jesus said my thoughts are not your thoughts or my ways are not your ways. We can only guess or assume these things. At the last super when he said do this in memory of me did he mean daily, weekly or monthly it was an annual celebration did he or could it mean annually as it was the annual festival celebration being celebrated as had been for years before and after. Have we assumed or presumed rightfully or wrongly after ass we don’t or didn’t know the intentions.

    • “But you have saved the best wine until now! And we know it refers to our knowledge of God as he is in the beatific vision.” Thank you. Now I know. I always tried to figure out just what the best wine is—I thought does it mean the blood Christ shed on the cross, and so I pondered. Your entire comment is very helpful to the understanding of the Cana narrative.

      Addressing a recent comment in you post about responding to Mr. Olson’s presentations:
      Mr. Carl Olson’s instructions on weekly scripture are much appreciated. He is correct in stating that likely people use his insight for reflection. I ponder them in my heart — in silence. Silence is sometimes a greater response, especially from someone like myself, being that others represent the filled bowl and I am kin to the small cup full.

  2. I read (I cannot pinpoint where exactly I read it, but it was a Catholic writer of significance….Edward Siri…perhaps), that another layer of this miracle is that the jars…used for ritual purification/cleansing according to the laws of the Jewish faith at the time were empty. Christ uses them for a new wine/new Covenant giving these empty jars new meaning. There are so many wonder FULL layers to this miracle.

  3. Beautiful commentary. And we can well imagine that the water flowing into the containers to be transformed into wine FIT for the marriage feast – the altar of the lamb – was a tributory to the Jorden. Literally, logically. Beautiful.

  4. Thank you Carl, beautiful poetic writing: “cleansed, fed and wed.” The first miracle of Jesus at a wedding, then at the Last Supper the divine wedding feast; He unites us to Himself and transforms us into His children. The Prince of God by His Sacred Humanity pays the price tag by His precious Blood on the cross. You can’t make this up, how good God is; may He be praised and loved by the hearts of men now and forever

  5. Not only did Christ show forth miracles. His apostles did likewise, following his example. (Acts 2.22,43) Here is a missing element in the modern Church. We ought to meet with God in private, and seek to bring forth knowledge of His presence into the world through revelations — through signs. Signs that are brought forth in the name of the Holy Spirit are the kind of signs that this generation needs right now. Is that possible? You’d best believe it. Well, no snow here in Columbia County, Oregon this season until late Christmas Night. The approximately four inches that we received at the lower elevations lasted until the night following New Year’s Day. Please don’t try to tell me that this was just a coincidence.

    • Your comment surprised me a little bit as just today I read MEDIATOR DEI


      23. The worship rendered by the Church to God must be, in its entirety, interior as well as exterior.
      24. But the chief element of divine worship must be interior. For we must always live in Christ and give ourselves to Him completely, so that in Him, with Him and through Him the heavenly Father may be duly glorified. The sacred liturgy requires, however, that both of these elements be intimately linked with each another. This recommendation the liturgy itself is careful to repeat, as often as it prescribes an exterior act of worship. Thus we are urged, when there is question of fasting, for example, “to give interior effect to our outward observance.”[28] Otherwise religion clearly amounts to mere formalism, without meaning and without content.

      Periods of silence during the Mass in this day are scant. I think from my experience the cause lies in general lack of piety and a lack of catechesis on the Mystery which is unfolding at Mass. This, to me at least, seems evident when loud conversation and laughter inhabit the foyer and people enter the nave before Mass waving to each other and conversing — even husbands and wives sometimes chatter until the opening hymn. Wonder if they never talk at home, or what. The remedy seems to be to spend preparation time with closed eyes and deaf ears or hide with the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.

      What is really more beautiful than profound celebration of the Mass and the graces poured out?

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