Opening the Word: Signs and wonders

The Gospel of John contains some 17 direct references to “signs,” 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 “The Book of Signs” because they contain seven signs, or miracles, performed by Christ.

The first is the miracle at the wedding at Cana, which is found only in the Fourth Gospel. The exact location of Cana is unclear, but it was probably a few miles north of Nazareth. The identity of the bride and groom are unknown, although a later tradition states that Mary was the aunt of the bridegroom.

What is known 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 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 (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 2618, 1335, 963).

Jesus’ response is puzzling: “Woman, how does your concern affect me?” But the term “Woman” is not an insult; it is actually a formal title of respect (see Mt 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 (see 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 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 Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Redemptoris Mater (“Mother of the Redeemer”), “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’” (No. 21).

The Church sees the miracle at Cana as a “confirmation of the goodness of marriage” (Catechism, No. 1613). But there is also a connection to baptism, for the jars used in the miracle were for ceremonial washings. 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 (No. 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, these perceptible signs, we are changed, cleansed, fed — and wed. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of