St. John tells us that the changing of water into wine at Cana was “the beginning of miracles that Jesus did.” The Greek word for miracle here means something more like, “sign.” This was the first sign that manifested forth Jesus’ glory as the Son of God. The very idea of what a miracle is can be misunderstood. It is often assumed that the world is governed by certain natural processes or laws that operate on their own. A miracle is thought to occur when those laws or processes are suspended or altered. The misunderstanding is the belief there is such a thing as a “natural” process that exists independently of God’s word and will.
For example, we tend to think of child-birth as a natural process. Man and woman come together and conceive; then a child grows naturally in the womb. The Virgin Birth of Jesus is seen as a miracle because no human father was involved in the conceiving. However, the truth is that every conception and birth is a miracle. There is no good explanation for why that series of things produces a human baby other than God wills that it be so—each and every time. (This is an argument that G.K. Chesterton develops it in his book Orthodoxy.)
The making of wine could be understood as a natural process. However, it could also be understood as a miracle. There is no particular reason that grapes, harvested and crushed, should ferment and age into such an enjoyable beverage. You might say, “Well, it takes a lot of human effort to create this miracle.” That’s true enough, but it might just as well be true that all the human effort in the world would produce nothing remotely like wine.
Hebrews says: “In these last days God has spoken to us through his Son, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power” (Heb 1:2-3). The last words are instructive: “Upholding all things by the word of his power.” This suggests that things like wine making are not “natural processes” but things willed by the word of God each and every time they occur. God wills that the same actions will normally produce the same miraculous result, but there is no law that says it must be so.
The miracle at Cana was not that water was changed into wine, for that is always how wine is made. The sign at Cana was that the miracle was instantaneous rather than a result of a longer sequence mediated by the grape vine and human labor. It should be noted that there was human labor even in this sign. Jesus commanded the servants to “Fill the water pots with water.” The divine word combined with human obedience results in a miraculous transformation from ordinary water into extraordinary wine—sometimes over a period of years, but here in an instant.
The correspondence between natural processes and miracles helps us to understand the work that God is doing in our lives. Many people desire extraordinary miracles but discount ordinary miracles. Many people miss the miraculous daily presence of God in life because they want some special “sign.” The biggest miracle of our lives is God’s daily redemptive presence in all things. St. Paul tells us that “God works in all things for good for those who love him and are the called according to this purpose” (Romans 8:28). When we look back at what has happened in our lives, we discover that God has continually brought his good out of our brokenness and evil. The biggest miracle is not some singular intervention; it is God’s continuous work of new creation. He keeps bringing his order and beauty out of our chaos.
The main difference between the ordinary and extraordinary miracle is the element of time. It would have been no big deal for Jesus to change water into wine over a two year period. The amazing thing is that he did it in a moment. The growth of a tree is not a noteworthy miracle—unless someone speaks and a seed becomes a tree instantaneously.
The Christian hope is described in extraordinary terms. Christ will appear, the dead will be raised and we will be changed, as 1 Corinthians says, “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (15:52). That will be a noteworthy miracle. Yet, St. Paul tells us that “though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). What is the difference between the Resurrection on the Last Day and what happening to us right now day by day? The answer is time. God will then accomplish in a moment what he is now accomplishing in us gradually. I do not think it is possible to fully embrace the future hope unless we experience the current miracle—for they are the same thing.
It is part and parcel of the sacramental view of life not only to see God’s miraculous presence in the ordinary, but also to prefer it to the spectacular. The spectacular miracle is a sign that is designed to make us aware of the presence of Christ in everything. This is why Jesus got so impatient and angry with those continually demanded miracles and signs. We betray our spiritual blindness when we demand extraordinary miracles but miss the ordinary miracles of creation and redemption that surround us each day.
We come to church and hear “This is my Body, which is given for you” and “This is my blood of the New Testament.” Perhaps we pay less attention to this miracle because it recurs so frequently. But this is always the manifestation or epiphany of the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection of our Lord.
When we feed on this miracle food, our bodies are cleansed and our souls are washed. This change is not always immediately evident because ordinary miracles require time. As we live in Christ for months, years and decades, the change becomes more visible. For example, the epistle instructs us how to respond to evil:
Avenge not yourselves, but give place unto wrath…if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink…Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
As we live in Christ over time, we learn to respond to evil this way. God heals our wounds with the medicine of immortality, fills us with himself, teaches how to forgive and enables us to love. This change is no less of a miracle because it takes a long time to see it and because our wills play some role in it. We hope for the day when Jesus will change us “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” But, for now, Jesus manifests forth his glory through the ordinary miracle of restoring the image of God in us by his grace and power, through prayer, over time.