"There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth."
- G. K. Chesterton, from his book Orthodoxy
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After Nazareth, the road took us down toward nearby Cana. The traditional site for this location in the Gospels is one of several possibilities, so it numbers among those many sites in the Holy Land in which we’re just not sure if this is exactly where Jesus performed his works. But it might be. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches mark adjacent sites in Cana as the location of the Savior’s famous act of turning the water into wine. The town itself is just a few miles down the road from Nazareth, which makes good sense of the fact that Jesus and his family were friends of the celebrants of the wedding at Cana.
To get to the churches of Cana today, one needs to navigate a rather bewildering array of old cobblestone alleys. Even our guide needed to refresh her bearings once or twice to get us there. Once we arrived, we squeezed into the courtyard of the Catholic church. (As a general rule, the Catholic churches in the Holy Land tend to be more open to pilgrims, whereas the Orthodox ones reserve their facilities for the ministry and service of their local parishes.) I say that we “squeezed” into the courtyard because not only was it a bit tighter than the spacious courts of Nazareth’s basilica, but this site was also thronged with massive groups of other pilgrims. Once again I was struck with the reality of the vast global fellowship of the Body of Christ—worshipers from many different nations, all brought together here by their united love for the Savior from Galilee. This site appeared to attract a tremendous number of Ethiopian Christians, for whom (I’m told) the story of the wedding at Cana has always had a special resonance.
There was a celebratory air to the throng gathered there; I saw many smiles in Cana. It seemed like an echo of that first celebration still clung to the air, even two millennia later. In my work on my Gospel-poetry project that year, I had the experience (as often happens) of a line coming to me as if out of the blue: in telling the story of Cana, there wasn’t quite enough substance from John’s account to fill out one of the lines, and I needed a few more beats and a word that could serve as a near-rhyme for “wine.” All of the sudden, a certain description of Jesus and his friends popped into my head: “They laughed and they sang.” I had never before really imagined Jesus as laughing and singing; although I always pictured him as full of love, he also had an unshakable, otherworldly composure in my mind’s eye. But he was at a Jewish wedding, a celebration of the love of his friends; of course he laughed and sang! That realization, connected to the story of Cana, helped to fill out my understanding of Jesus’ full human nature, and even, I would say, helped his personality become ever more real to me.
We walked first into one of the adjoining courtyards, looking for a quieter spot to have our little mini-service before we entered the church. We gathered in a quiet nook beside the shade of a lemon tree, and there went through our comfortable little liturgy: one participant would do a recitation of the Gospel story, and we would all sing a song together. Here, though, there was an added element: an option to do a “renewing of the vows” for any married couples in the group, in honor of Christ’s celebration of marriage at that very spot. As it happened, we only had one couple in our group: many of us were married, but most had, for one reason or another, embarked on this trip without our spouses. But we had a lovely little service for one of our older couples, members of Onus’ church, and it was, I think, a deeply meaningful experience for them and for their daughter, who was also a fellow pilgrim on that trip. (Incidentally, I much appreciated Onus’ decision to phrase it as a “reaffirmation” of their vows rather than a “renewing,” for the very simple reason that marriage vows don’t expire.) I thought of my wife and wished, not for the first time, that she could have been there with me at that moment—not that it would have been either sensible or practical to have us both there in our current circumstances, but simply that I missed her.
With our service done, we did a quick circuit around the church of Cana. It was interesting, but not among the more remarkable churches we visited in Israel. The one significant point of interest, in addition to a general atmosphere of being in the middle of an Ethiopian marriage festival, was that they had an authentic first-century water container there, of the exact sort described in the Gospel story, which had been excavated from that very site. It’s not anything close to an indication that the site is authentic, since such containers were among the commonest of items in the ancient world, but it was a fascinating connection to the story nonetheless. That story, of the empty wineskins replaced with water-jars now brimming with the best of wines at the word of the Lord, has always reminded me that we serve a God who can take our emptiness and fill us up with his goodness in ways we cannot even imagine.
After a few minutes in a nearby gift shop, we re-boarded Najji’s bus and were on our way further east: down toward the shining waters of the Sea of Galilee, where our next few days would be spent.