When I was a small boy I thought that if you were able to go back in time to meet Jesus and the apostles they would have had visible haloes around them, as they did in the pictures I saw in books. I later learned that this was an artist’s depiction of something called “glory.”
Glory meant a person’s honor and reputation. The glory of the Lord was understood to be visible, a kind of radiance that surrounded God and was reflected in God’s messengers the angels, and even in those who came close to God, so for example Moses was surrounded by a glow when he came down from Mt. Sinai. Jesus himself is referred to as the glory of God as in the verse from Hebrews where it says that, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” (Hebrews 1:3)
But there is more to glory than the visible; glory is a power that makes things happen. In John’s Gospel glory means both the “radiant brightness” of God and the “powerful activity” of God. So how do the disciples see Jesus’ glory in the miracle at Cana and come to believe in him?
In John’s Gospel we see a distinct pattern in which Jesus shows by actions and words that he is the fulfillment and replacement of Jewish institutions and views. So now Jesus is the real Temple; the Spirit he gives will replace the necessity of worshipping at Jerusalem; his teaching and his flesh and blood will give life in a way that the manna associated with the Exodus did not; at the Feast of Tabernacles, no longer the rain–making ceremony but Jesus himself supplies the living water; not the illumination in the temple court but Jesus himself is now the real light; on the Feast of the Dedication, not the temple altar but Jesus himself is consecrated by God.” (See Raymond F. Brown, John, p 104)
In each of these cases, Jesus himself replaces the former practices. And not only replaces them in an adequate manner but in an abundant manner. But what about the wedding feast of Cana, where Jesus performs his first miracle, one of the three traditional Epiphany events (along with the Magi and the Baptism of Jesus)? What institution is Jesus replacing in the miracle of turning the water into wine? Recall that the water that Jesus turned into the finest wine was there for the purification rites. The miracle is a sign of that Jesus is the one sent by the Father who is now the only way to the Father. Not just the purification rites but all previous religious institutions, customs and feasts lose their meaning in Jesus’ presence.
The disciples would have recognized some of the rich symbolism in the episode. First of all, it was a wedding, which in the Old Testament was often used as a symbol of the messianic days. And Jesus himself frequently used both the wedding and the banquet to talk about himself and the kingdom of God. Indeed, Jesus often spoke of himself as “the bridegroom.”
The disciples would have had understood the miracle of the wine as a sign of the end time, for the Old Testament employed the figure of abundant wine as a symbol of the final days. We see this in Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah. And in Second Baruch we find a lavish description of this abundance: the earth shall yield its fruit ten-thousandfold; each vine shall have a thousand branches; each branch a thousand clusters; and each grape about 120 gallons of wine. It is an oenophile’s idea of heaven.
The disciples then would have seen this miracle as a sign of the messianic times and the new dispensation. The disciples knew that when the messiah came, he would reveal his glory. They would have been well-acquainted with verses such as Psalm 102:16 which says, “For the Lord will build up Zion; he will appear in his glory” and Psalm 97:6 which says, “The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all the people’s behold his glory.”
But John is not only interested in our seeing that Jesus’ first miracle is to be connected to all that will follow; he also wants us to see how it relates to what has come before, chiefly the calling of the disciples and their decision to follow Jesus. After all, the reason that Jesus’ glory is revealed is that people may believe in him, that they“ may have life and have it in abundance.”
In the previous chapter in John before the story of Cana, two of John the Baptist’s disciples heard John say of Jesus, “Behold, the lamb of God” and they followed him. And in the story of the calling of Nathanial, Jesus promises Nathanial “You will see greater things than these.”
I think John’s Gospel is particularly helpful to us who live in a time of widespread disbelief, because for John, “seeing” Christ’s glory is by no means a universal event. John gives us an interesting cast of characters who have trouble with believing: Nicodemus, the Pharisee who comes by night to interview Jesus, the woman at the well, Thomas the empiricist who wants evidence before he will believe, and Mary Magdalene, so caught up in her own grief that she mistakes the risen Christ for the gardener. These are people like us, men and women for whom belief comes hard. So in John’s Gospel many people do not see, and even in this story the miracle is not a public event, so that the wine steward clearly regards the miracle as the bridegroom’s social ignorance in serving the good wine after the inferior stuff.
In Luke’s Gospel, which so dominates the Christmas season, the shepherds see the glory of the Lord shining round the angels. The other evangelists report various transfigurations, glimpses of the divine glory in Jesus before the resurrection, an elevation of Jesus into some heavenly mode of being. But in John we can only see the glory with the eyes of faith for now. And why is that?
Because John takes the Incarnation so seriously that the veil of the glory is never removed, and the divine glory of Jesus is never seen except by the eyes of faith. The direct view of Jesus divine glory, that is, his heavenly brightness, is reserved for the future, to the time when the believer will be there where Jesus has gone before.
Which reminds us that we walk by faith and not by sight, and even Jesus’ glory, so often defined as visible radiance, is seen only by the eyes of faith. Someday the glory will be visible to all, so much so that it will be the new light which will replace the heavenly lights of sun and moon in the city of God. So St. John the Divine says:
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day —and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. (Rev. 21:23–26)
That’s pretty glorious. “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to miss it! Amen.
(I delivered this homily at the closing Service of Word and Sacrament for the annual meeting of Confessing Christ in the United Church of Christ, held at First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on January 8, 1998)