What we can learn about Mary from the wedding at Cana

John's Gospel makes quite a feature of the wedding at Cana. As in most eras, weddings were great celebrations, occasions of congeniality and lavish hospitality. We don't know where this wedding was, but the indications are that it was in a vibrant, busy community, where families lived close to each other and knew one another. Archaeologists have identified Khirbet Qana, 8 miles north-west of Nazareth and 12 miles west of the Sea of Galilee, as the most probable ancient site where the wedding took place.

We have no idea whose wedding it was, or how many people attended. But we do know the guest list was inclusive. Mary the mother of Jesus was present, as was Jesus. The disciples had also been invited. It is more than likely, too, that Jesus' brothers and sisters would have been there, older ones perhaps bringing families of their own. It appears that the hosts had extended a welcome to many people to celebrate and enjoy the marriage festivities for as long as they continued. In some cultures this could be for hours, even days, so we can guess that huge amounts of food and drink would be needed to keep the guests happy. Killing a fatted calf would have been no exaggeration.

As a guest, Mary clearly had no responsibilities for this lavish hospitality, yet it is clear that when the crisis came she shared some of the anxiety of those providing it. The eating and drinking was well underway when Mary picked up the muttered conversation between the stewards and hosts. The wine had run out. There probably had been just too much thirst to quench. To run out of wine in a wedding celebration was no small faux pas. It was a major social embarrassment, little short of an insult to the guests. And although few people seemed yet aware of the problem, it would soon become very evident as the crowd of guests sat around, waiting for the servants to serve more drink.

It appears that Mary was on close terms with those throwing the wedding banquet, for she saw it as her responsibility to help. She experienced immediate empathy for the bridegroom and his family; their humiliation would have been intense. So she did what she would probably often have done in her own family routine: she turned to Jesus. John briefly records her observation, quite likely no more than a low murmur: 'They have no more wine.'

What was Mary expecting of Jesus? It was clear that her comment was intended to do more than pass on information and indicate her concern. Jesus himself certainly interpreted it as more than that. She was trying to involve him in finding a solution. But what was she asking him to do? It was unlikely that he would be able to go and buy the amount of wine needed for the guests, and it certainly was not a 'bring a bottle' event. Jesus had not, at this stage, become publicly identified with producing miracles, yet Mary seems to have known something that others didn't. Whatever she was asking, it seems that she believed implicitly that Jesus could save the day for the wedding hosts.

Jesus' own response to her has been the subject of much speculation. 'Why are you trying to involve me? My time is not yet come.' This has even been interpreted by some as being something of a family joke: Jesus pointing out that he's not the bridegroom, so his time to take responsibility for restocking wedding wine hasn't come yet! This idea is not unlikely. We can imagine that there was often teasing and banter between Mary and her sons. Yet phrases very similar to this occur in different places in the Gospel of John ('my time is not yet' comes three times in chapter 7) and they usually indicate something more serious. Each time, Jesus seems to be pointing to a direction set for his life, where God's own timing will overrule current situations. But each signals a pause, for that time is not yet.

Whichever way we hear it, however, Jesus' reply to Mary does not sound to us to be very hopeful. With regard to the looming social crisis, it sounds like a very definite 'no'. And in most situations that would be the end of the matter. There would be no more wine, people would be offered water, and there would be some disappointment and disapproval. For ever afterwards, that wedding would be remembered partly for its inadequate hospitality. But what happens next is somewhat extraordinary. Mary completely ignores Jesus' implicit refusal, takes the matter into her own hands and starts instructing the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to.

There are few, if any, incidents in the Gospels where Jesus is overruled by family or friends. He more often rebukes them for not understanding that he takes his authority from God and not from human beings. On another occasion, when Jesus is teaching and someone brings a message that his mother and brothers are outside, he dismisses this, insisting that his mother and brothers are those who know the word of God and keep it. Here, however, having first implicitly refused, he falls into complete compliance with Mary. He orders the servants to fill the huge ceremonial water jars with water and then serve some to the chief guest. Water was itself a luxury in a parched land, and few would refuse it, even if disappointed. So, no real surprises there. The surprise was that when this guest drank the water it had become wine. The hosts and stewards 'in the know' must have been astonished. Not only had the hospitality crisis been averted, but Jesus had enhanced the celebrations with luxury and abundance. The chief guest's warm compliments to the bridegroom ('you have saved the best wine until now') affirmed the generosity and fullness of the miracle.

It is fairly clear what Gospel writer John wants us to learn about Jesus from this incident at the wedding. It is that Jesus cares about people's material needs as well as their spiritual state. He has concern for the whole person and the whole community, bringing the reality of God's love into the everyday-ness of people's lives. But more than that, John wants us to see Jesus fulfilling signs that he is sent by God; he has power and authority over the elements of the earth; the very water is his creation. Jesus is the abundant miracle-maker in whom the glory of God is revealed.

Mary's part in all this is very significant. She has had many challenges since an angel first appeared to her and told her she would give birth to a child. She had then been involved in an arduous journey while pregnant, a precarious delivery, the search for a missing son at the age of 12 and constant anxiety over his welfare. Far more challenges were to come. But the angel had called this child the 'Son of the Most High', and she has glimpsed many times what that might mean. At this time of joy and celebration, it is no surprise, then, that her awareness and initiative bring into action Jesus' first miracle.

Many aspects of Mary's character stand out in this story. It's clear that she was directed towards the welfare of other people. This gave her a level of shrewd observation towards details. She wanted the wedding to go well and, like many women, she put herself effectively 'on guard' to identify any potential problems. In fact, had she not seen the impending predicament, the outcome might well have been very different.

Second, she had prophetic insight. She knew the Hebrew Scriptures and saw in her oldest son the embodiment of the messianic hope that all Israel had been waiting for. She had nurtured him, watched him grow into adulthood and knew him well. Despite what Jesus said to her, she knew his ministry was about to begin. Of course, she could not have known this was how it would start, or where it would go. But she was confident it would be a ministry of blessing and healing.

She also had enormous trust in Jesus. She knew, instinctively, that he would respond to the crisis with generous love from God. Producing the very best wine from basic water didn't only save the face of the hosts. It also replaced their poverty with God's abundant riches and enabled them to use their resources to bless others.

It is also obvious that she was audacious in her confidence. To hear Jesus disavow the task she has put before him, yet still instruct the servants to do what he says, gives us a glimpse of her assurance that she rightly understood the will of God. She believed that God wanted to bless the start of this young couple's married life and encourage the families, and that Jesus was the one who would bring God's will to fruition. She met the challenge with faith. She interceded with her son, spoke authoritatively to the servants, and left Jesus to do whatever he would.

Facing our challenges today

Often, in our time, we wish that we had Jesus with us in body so we could call on him to exercise miraculous power. Inevitably, our experience of Christ is different from that of Mary. Yet many aspects of her attitudes and reactions are helpful to us in the way we grow in faith today. We can learn from her own boldness and trust, that Jesus is willing to work with any of us, in both mundane and global contexts. We can pray meaningfully into the most difficult areas of the world. Whether it's the fundamental challenge of providing food and shelter for the dispossessed, the need to combat climate change or to contest the build-up of war, we can call upon Christ's help and guidance. For we know we are working with the vision God gives us for humanity, not against it.

We can learn from Mary's confidence that prayer puts us in deeper contact with God's love. Mary's comment to Jesus was a prayer that she did not need to repeat or build up, but simply needed to leave with him to bring whatever outcome was right. We too can intercede for people in situations where others might simply shrug their shoulders and say things are impossible. But we know that, even when the odds are stacked up high against a different outcome, God can intervene and change things.

Mary's empathy was a valuable gift from God. The ability to experience the pain of others, to feel their anxiety or distress, is a gift in short supply. For their pain becomes ours, and most of us would rather not have extra emotional burdens. Yet Mary had empathy in abundance, and her later suffering would become great. Today, God still gives the gift of feeling to those who ask. When we too stand alongside others in need, God can use us to bring encouragement and hope, so they know that the crisis is never too big to bear.

We don't have to elevate Mary as the mother of Jesus to appreciate what she has to teach us. For, like us, she was human and subject to the same frailty and weaknesses. But we can allow her realization that God is in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, to shape our own outlook. And we can receive her prophetic insight into Christ's saving and healing power as part of our lives also. At the very least, Mary's story can inspire us to face, with faith, whatever the future has in store.

An extract from 'Women in a Patriarchal World' by Elaine Storkey, out now from SPCK Publishing priced £9.99.