The miracle at Cana

The cult of Jesus may have been grafted on to that of Dionysus

The biblical story recounting the first miracle of Jesus - the transformation of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana - contains a curious detail. It is Mary, mother of Jesus, who draws his attention to the dearth of wine, and he responds with a groan of reluctance. He had not intended to reveal his divine nature so soon. But, faced with a shortage of drink, all scruples vanish.

There is a strange contingency about this story, which shows the Son of God caught at an awkward social moment, and slipping out of it by the back door of a miracle. And it is the first of the many connections between Jesus and wine that have led anthropologists to wonder whether, in those confused years when the pagan gods were drifting ineluctably away from us and calling from across the abyss to be remembered, the cult of Jesus was not somehow grafted on to that of Dionysus.

Whatever the explanation, there is no doubt that Christianity has learned from its founder's first miracle, and said a huge "yes" to wine. We should be grateful for this, seeing what a cock-up has been made by Islam, which promises wine in paradise while forbidding it on earth, so asking us to live a contradiction.

Jesus did not only begin his mission with a gift of wine: he offered it to his disciples at the Last Supper, describing it as the blood of the New Testament and asking them to drink it, then and for all time, "in remembrance of me". Never before or since has wine had such an endorsement, and its subsequent transformation into the symbol of the Passion completes the hidden story of the Gospels, which is the story of wine itself.

The wine produced at Cana astonished the guests by its quality, and showed that Jesus had a prior acquaintance with the stuff that he made. Viticulture aspires with partial success towards the Divine Idea of wine, but there, in Cana, it found a perfect instance. And every now and then, in the ordinary life of you and me, the miracle is re-enacted when the liquid in the glass is suddenly revealed as the presence, here and now, of the Platonic Form of wine. All the crap that we wine writers produce about palate and nose, length and depth, fruit and aroma, arises from the vain attempt to record this revelation, which can no more be captured in words than can the meaning of a Beethoven quartet.

All the same, it would not be fair to withhold the source of these reflections. Before me, radiating belief in itself and endorsement of me, is a glass of white Rhône - a 1999 Saint-Joseph Les Oliviers, from the firm of Ferraton Père et Fils, shipped some time ago by Berry Bros & Rudd. I shall not describe it. Instead, I shall drink it, meditating on the miracle from which our civilisation began.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.