The small eatery in Kafr Canna is abuzz with life. Some folks are take-awayers. Others, like Hani and me, dine in. Or out, I suppose.
We sit at a table out front. Between us is a spread of delights: round pita bread, golden falafel balls, and a variety of Arabic “chip dips.” We dig in.
Tour busses rumble by as we dine. What attracts foreigners to this dusty place, however, is not the food. It is the drink. The aftertaste has lingered here for more than a millennium. Like the variety of “chip dips” on my table, signboards use color and texture to announce the village’s market niche: “Cana Wedding Wine,” “The First Miracle Sovner Store,” and “Wine’s Shop and Souviners.”
Travelers searching for a bottle of wine to complement a carved wooden camel need not look further. The fruit of the vine, oinos (Gk), yayin (Heb), or nabeeth (Arab) is intrinsic to life in Kafr Canna. It has been a part of this place for a long time.
Literary residues (Amarna Letters) suggest that “Reed Town” has rested beside these marshy vales since the Late Bronze Age. (Incidentally, the term kanna is derived from a root meaning “reed,” “rod,” or “measure.” Elsewhere, it gives us our word “canon,” as in “a literary canon.” Kafr is just the standard semitic term for “village.”) Archaeological excavation in private plots show that Kafr Canna was inhabited from the Neolithic period to the present. It is an extremely old site in good grape country overlooking the Turan Valley.
The event that puts the place on the map though, is a wedding miracle. The story is told by John alone (2:1-11) and has familiar edges. Jesus and family (from nearby Nazareth) attend a party where the wine runs out. With the festivities in jeopardy and the honor of the family at risk, Jesus directs the servants to fill six large stone jars (normally used for Jewish ritual purification) with water. When sampled, somehow, the water has turned to wine! The feast continues! The dim-witted party-master acknowledges the surprise: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now” (Jn 2:10).
Other than this exclamation of reversal (and its identity as Jesus’s first “sign”), no additional commentary is issued. The reader is left scratching. Is this a “good trick,” a “luxury miracle,” or something more? (Our teetotaling friends would prefer that the miracle it be censured in some way; turning wine to water might be more to their liking!) One thing is certain though: the account cannot be ignored. It sits there, fermenting at the front end of John’s Gospel.
Hani and I sit at the table, sharing events from more recent memory. I tell him how I was scared by dogs outside of Nazareth and got lost inside of Mashhad. He laughs. He tells me about his car troubles and growing family. Now we both laugh. He is truly my Arab brother.
Behind the cafe where Hani and I are eating is a structure commemorating Jesus’s wedding miracle. Known as the “Franciscan Wedding Church,” it is perhaps the most visited place in town. Six large stone jars rest in the building’s apse. Tourists often stop here to renew their wedding vows or to rest up before shopping. The tradition linking this site to the miracle is old (8th c. AD), but not ancient.
John’s story of the wedding miracle communicates many ideas. Among them are Jesus’s endorsement of marriage, his willingness to engage the community, or even his concern for an embarrassed family. However, an even more profound preachment should not be overlooked.
John weaves the words of the party-master into the account in a way that addresses the larger trajectory of Israel’s history. Wine has been served in the past, no doubt. Traditional ablutions (using stone jars) have been practiced in the past, no doubt. But with the coming of Jesus, the very best now sits at the table. Some, like the party-master, have no idea who is among them or what is going on! Others, like the disciples, dare to believe. Might this story be telling us that the embodiment of Israel’s hopes and fears has arrived at last, and that the long-awaited wedding party of God is about to begin?