Wine in the Gospel of John

Gerard David, “The Marriage at Cana”

The discussion of wine in the Old Testament provides the background for the Wedding at Cana in John 2, which is rich in OT imagery made new in Christ.

The Evangelist tells us that Jesus has come to a wedding: a time of joy and celebration where wine would play a crucial role. But the wine has run out, and the celebration cannot continue. In the same way, the spirit of the Jews had been drained by the burden of excessive legalities, and there was no wine left to renew them. As Raymond Brown observes: “Mary’s statement ‘They have no wine,’ becomes a poignant reflection on the barrenness of Jewish purifications.”

Indeed, the jars used for ritual washing are empty. Has the water already been used for purification, or has the practice been neglected? The scripture does not indicate either way, but the symbolism of the dry jars points to a ritual life that is coming to an end. The time has come for God to replace the water of purification with the new wine of the messianic age.

As an interesting aside, wine is called “the blood of the grape” twice in the Old Testament (Gen. 49:11 and Deut. 32:14), suggesting the sacrificial and sacramental meaning wine shall assume after the Resurrection.

St. Augustine points to a scriptural meaning in the miracle at Cana, saying that “the good wine— namely, the gospel— Christ has kept until now.”

Most importantly for Augustine, Christ validated the Old Testament promises by insisting that the water jugs be filled. Christ was certainly capable of producing wine without the water being poured into the jugs first, but “had He done this, He would appear to have rejected the Old Scriptures.”

Rather than merely ignoring the jugs or the water, Christ integrates them into His work to show how the Old Testament is becoming the New. By filling the jugs first, Christ is saying that the old covenant was His work, but that unless it is mediated through him—as shown in his command to fill the jugs and his transformation of the water into wine—it will remain little more than the colorless, flavorless water.

Christ multiplied the food for the five thousand, producing it (in the words of Stephen B. Clark in Catholics and the Eucharist: A Scriptural Introduction) like a “fountain of bread” from where it was not, much like God’s rain of manna. But at Cana he changes the accident of the water. This water—symbolic of the rituals of the Old Testament—was once essential to the law, but is now replaced with abundant new wine; indeed, the finest wine. Christ is not rejecting the old covenant: he is incarnating it. In fulfilling the material promises of the old covenant, Christ creates a new covenant.

This wine is used to continue a marital feast, but also serves as a potent indication of the nature of this new covenant. No longer will the people need ritual washings to become pure. Instead, they become pure by drinking the “new wine.” The wine becomes a symbol of the Holy Spirit, who alone can make us pure and sanctify us. (Mt 9: 14-17, Mk 2:15-22, Luke 5:33-39). Indeed, when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Apostles on the first Pentecost, people say they are “filled with new wine.” (Acts 2: 13) The bystanders intend this has a taunt, but they have unwittingly spoken a greater truth.

Jesus was the Word from whom the old covenant flowed. In producing abundant bread and wine, he takes things from the old covenant and makes them a vehicle for new realities. His miracles indicate that he was not here to just give physical life, but also spiritual life. This was the promise of a new covenant, which ushered in the new life of the messianic age.

Thus does Christ mediate between the old and new covenants. He works with symbols that have deep and resonant meaning for the Jews. They recognize the feeding of the five thousand as an example of “bread from heaven.” Likewise, the scriptural promises of wine and its role in celebrations indicate a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. These are the manifestations of the power of God, yet this power is wielded by a man. For this reason, they proclaim him the Christ.

Bread is needed to survive, while wine is needed to celebrate. Bread feeds the body, but wine feeds the spirit. Jesus, true God and true man, sees to both the physical and spiritual needs of the people by giving them the food of life and the drink of joy. In doing so, he shows mankind that he wants us to “have life, and have it abundantly.” This abundance transcends time and space, becoming the spiritual food of the Eucharist. That which once fed the Israelites as bread and gave joy as wine now provides us with the spiritual nourishment for eternal life.

References to “wine” in the New Testament.