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Second Sunday of the Year

The Best is Kept 'til Last

Who then is chief butler of God? The priest who offers libations to him, the truly great High Priest, who, having received a draught of everlasting graces, offers himself in return, pouring in an entire libation full of unmixed wine.

In this text a Jewish writer called Philo, who lived just after the time of Jesus, contrasts the faithless butler of Pharaoh with the faithful steward of God, the High Priest. Elsewhere the same writer identifies the faithful steward and eternal High Priest as the 'First-born divine Word'. These thoughts have obvious links with the New Testament. They are traditions which appear in the New Testament. In John's Gospel especially, Jesus is identified with the divine Word of God, the Word who becomes flesh and dwells amongst us. In the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is the true High Priest, the one who has entered the Holy of Holies, heaven, bearing his own blood as an atoning sacrifice, 'thus securing an eternal redemption.'(Heb 9:12)

In sacred Scripture, wine or a cup of wine can stand for God's wrath (Jer 25:15), but it can also describe or stand for joy, plenty and salvation: 'How can I repay the Lord's goodness to me? The cup of salvation I will raise, I will call upon the name of the Lord.' (Ps 116:12,13) In Psalm 23 David's cup runs over at a festive table which has been set by God. Elsewhere, wine is described as 'gladdening the heart of man'(Ps 104:15). Jesus draws on the richness of this imagery at the Last Supper, where he identifies the cup of the New Covenant with the cup of his blood. The blood of the grape becomes the blood of Christ.

All of this hovers in the background as we read today's Gospel, the wedding feast at Cana. Although it is a very straightforward event, an invitation to a wedding feast, everything that Jesus and his mother do are charged with much deeper significance. Details mentioned in passing can yield a prayerful harvest. As, within the story, good things get better, water into wine, the good wine kept 'til last, so within the life of Christ as a whole the good gets better. Here, at the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus works the miracle of water into wine. Towards the end of his life he works the greater miracle of wine becoming his blood. The blood of the grape becomes the blood of Christ; the best wine is kept 'til last. The Word who takes flesh at the beginning of the Gospel goes through death to hell and emerges victorious on the other side, in the Resurrection, with that same flesh no longer subject to death and sin; the best is kept 'til last.

Consider one of the details: 'Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification.' Why only six? As some commentators point out, in a Gospel so full of symbolism, why not the mystical number seven? As we consider the scene, though, it becomes clear that there are really seven: the seventh is the Lord himself. Our Lord is the one who contains the best wine, the real wine of salvation and the water for purification. That wine is his blood, which poured from his side on the cross; the water is that which poured with it. 'But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.' Remember, the best is kept 'til last, the seventh jar is not broached until Christ’s death, later in the story, late on the Day of Preparation: ‘My hour has not yet come.’

St Catherine of Siena dwells on this when she talks of the wine of Christ's charity being broached on the cross by ‘the fiery hands of the cellarer, the Holy Spirit'.

O pierced wine-cask, with the wine you offer you intoxicate every loving desire...

At Cana then, Jesus acts out in an earthly way his heavenly role as God’s butler and High Priest. Cana shows us in miniature what happens on a cosmic scale. Jesus, our High priest, keeps the best wine 'til last, the blood which takes away the sins of the world.

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