I. Mary in the Gospel of John
A. A First Reading
In our first lesson we acknowledged the relative scarcity of direct references to Mary in the New Testament.
In this lesson and the next we will look at two of the three Gospel scenes in which Mary can be said to play a prominent role.
Many if not most of the stories in the Gospel have "parallels" - accounts of the same story or episode in another or in all of the other Gospels. For example, Matthew, Luke and John each report the story of Jesus’ Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. All four Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ Baptism.
The few stories involving Mary are much different. Each is unique to the Gospel that records it - with no parallels. Only Luke, for instance, tells the story we studied closely last week - the Annunciation. Matthew alludes to it, but gives no details. Mark and John pass over the scene entirely.
Likewise, the scene we study in this lesson - the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee - is only found in John’s Gospel (see John 2:1-12).
At first glance, it is a straightforward account of a miracle that Jesus performs - changing water into wine. Mary’s role in the story is apparently limited to calling Jesus’ attention to the fact that the wine has run short.
But again, as we saw in our last lesson, we will see that when it comes to Mary, there is more to Scripture than what first meets the eye.
B. Sign of a New Creation
The first clue that we should look for a deeper meaning is found in the story’s opening words - "on the third day." This points us to what has gone before in the Gospel.
The Cana story marks the conclusion of a series of events that begin in John’s first chapter. John begins his Gospel with a kind of recapping of the creation story found in the Bible’s first book. His first words are even the same as the first words of Genesis - "In the beginning…" (compare John 1:1; Genesis 1:1).
John’s opening verses are likely adapted from an early Christian hymn (see John 1:1-5,9-18).
There are striking similarities between John’s hymn and other "Christological" hymns or hymn excerpts identified in the New Testament. Like these, John’s hymn identifies Jesus as God, the One through whom all things were created, who manifests himself in the flesh in order to be exalted or to reveal His glory (compare John 1:1-5,9-18; Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-20; 1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 1:2-5).
As the first verses of Genesis describe God creating light and separating it from darkness, so in John’s first verses Jesus is described as a light shining in the darkness.
Genesis shows us, in the beginning, "the Spirit of God…moving over the face of the waters" (see Genesis 1:2. Note: the New American Bible translates this as "a mighty wind" but "Spirit of God" is a better, more literal translation). John, in turn, shows us the Spirit hovering above the waters of baptism (see John 1:32-33).
There are more parallels. Notice John’s Genesis-like repetitions of "the next day" (see 1:29; 1:35; 1:43). On the first day, John the Baptist is introduced, on the second day Jesus is baptized. Days three and four describe Jesus’ calling of disciples. The point to observe is that John’s is describing a seven-day "inaugural week."
John wants us to see the coming of Jesus into the world as a new creation. In this new creation, a new people of God is to be born by faith in Jesus and the power of water and the Spirit in Baptism (see John 1:12; 29-34; 3:5).
Mary makes her appearance on the seventh day of John’s new creation - that is, on the third day after the calling of Nathaniel on the fourth day.
In Genesis, the seventh day is the pinnacle of creation - when creation is completed, sanctified and perfected. The Sabbath is instituted on the seventh day as an "everlasting token" of God’s "perpetual covenant" with creation (see Exodus 31:16-17).
The same Greek word translated "token" to describe the Sabbath is also used in John’s Cana story. What Jesus does at Cana is described as the beginning of His "signs" (see John 2:11).
II. The Mother of Jesus
A. Scolding Mary?
Read in context, then, we see that Mary is present on the new Sabbath of God’s new creation. As the Sabbath was the sign of God’s first covenant, Mary is a part of the "sign" of God’s new and everlasting covenant with His creation.
In the creation story only the name of God is spoken. The first man and woman are identified not by name but as "the man" and "the woman."
The same is true in the Cana story. Notice that only Jesus is referred to by name. Mary is never named. John refers to her as "the mother of Jesus" and Jesus calls her "woman."
This is another indicator that John intends us to find a deeper, symbolic connection between what happens at Cana and the Genesis story.
And we should keep this deeper meaning in view as we try to understand the tricky or difficult passages in the account.
The most infamous of these is Jesus’ response to Mary: "Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come."
Quite often this text is used by non-Catholics to "prove" that Catholic devotion to Mary is "unscriptural." Jesus, they argue, is obviously distancing himself from Mary in this passage - He even seems to be scolding her.
This interpretation doesn’t hold up to careful study. It’s true that to our ears Jesus sounds like He is telling Mary to mind her own business and that He doesn’t care whether the wine has run out.
But we have to remember that the Gospel wasn’t written in English. It was written in Greek and recounts a dialogue that originally took place in a Hebrew dialect.
Actually, the words Jesus uses (literally, "what to me and you") were a figure of speech common in the Greek and Hebrew of His day.
The phrase has several shades of meaning in the Old and New Testaments.
However, in each biblical instance where it is found, the phrase expresses a situation similar to what’s going on at Cana: Someone is reluctant or refuses to do something and doesn’t agree that he has any business involving himself in the situation.
Sometimes the phrase implies a hostility between the two parties (see Judges 11:12; 2 Chronicles 35:21; 1 Kings 17:18; Mark 1:24; 5:7; Luke 8:28). Other times it expresses a simple disagreement or difference of opinion (see 2 Kings 3:13; Hosea 14:8).
With that background, how should we understand Jesus’ use of this idiom? First, there is no evidence anywhere in John or the rest of the New Testament to suggest that Jesus harbored hostility toward His mother.
Jesus was without sin (see Hebrews 4:15). Among other things that means He was faithful to the fourth commandment and honored and obeyed His parents (see Luke 2:51).
Nor do we find any evidence in the Cana episode that implies separation or tension between Mary and Jesus. In fact, four times in these twelve verses she is referred to as "the mother of Jesus."
Perhaps the best evidence for what Jesus meant is found in Mary’s reaction to His words. She turns to the servants and says: "Do whatever He tells you."
Certainly, she doesn’t take His words to be dismissive. And if Jesus had intended to reproach her, surely He wouldn’t have complied with her implied request.
B. Woman of Revelation
The real drama - and deeper significance - of the passage is found in Jesus’ addressing of Mary as "Woman."
In anti-Catholic polemics this too is often cited as evidence of Jesus’ lack of affection for His mother. Again there is no basis anywhere in John’s Gospel or elsewhere for drawing such a conclusion.
Jesus often addresses women this way (see Matthew 15:28; Luke 13:12; John 4:21; 8:10; 20:13). In every case this form of address is polite and respectful.
It is, however, most unusual that He would address His own mother this way. In fact, nowhere else in the Bible or in other literature of the time do we have an example of a son referring to his mother as "woman."
This strongly suggests the word has symbolic value for Jesus and John. In fact, this is the only way that Jesus refers to Mary in John’s Gospel. Note that on the cross, when the dying Jesus entrusts His mother to His beloved Apostle John, He also calls her "woman" (see John 19:26).
To understand what’s happening at Cana, we need to keep in mind John’s larger framework - the new creation.
In the first creation, "woman" was the name Adam gave to Eve (see Genesis 2:23). And as we will see, John wants us to see the "woman" at Cana as a New Eve and to see Jesus as a New Adam.
This reading is reinforced when we look at another work attributed to John, the Book of Revelation. There, a mysterious "woman" is at the center of a great cosmic battle, described as a "sign" that John sees in heaven (see Revelation 12:1).
As in John’s Gospel, the Book of Genesis lies behind the scene in Revelation 12. The drama there plays out a promise made by God in the Garden of Eden.
After Adam and Eve ate the fruit (see Genesis 3), God promised that throughout human history there would be an "enmity" between the serpent and the woman and between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent. He promised further there would be a decisive struggle and that the woman’s male child would crush the serpent’s head (see Genesis 3:15).
In Revelation, the "woman" plays out the role assigned to Eve. She travails to give birth to a male child while a huge serpent, explicitly identified as the serpent of Genesis (see Revelation 12:9), waits to devour him.
The woman’s offspring is described as the long awaited Messiah - a "male child" who would "rule all the nations" (compare Revelation 12:5 and Psalm 2:9). That could only be Jesus, so the woman could only be His mother, Mary.
When the child is born and is whisked up to heaven, the serpent makes war against the "the rest of her offspring." This can only be the Church, the people of God - " those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus" (see Revelation 12:17).
That’s why the woman from Revelation has from the earliest days of the Church been interpreted as both a symbol of Mary and of the Church.
How does this help us understand the story of Cana?
First, the creation story of Genesis is in the background at Cana as it was in Revelation. Mary is here, too, called "woman."
Also, Mary is presented at Cana as the mother of the Messiah, Jesus, as she is in Revelation.
She is also associated with Jesus’ disciples - as the woman in Revelation is the mother of those who "bear witness to Jesus." Indeed, at Cana, Mary is the catalyst for the miracle that manifests Christ’s glory and causes His disciples to begin to believe in Him (see John 2:2,11).
It is interesting to note that in Mary’s only other appearance in John - at the foot of the Cross - she is also portrayed as mother of the Church. Jesus designates her the "mother" of His beloved Apostle John and, by extension, mother of all his disciples (see John 19:26-27).
III. The New Eve
A. Mother of All Living
In his "new creation" story, then, John wants us to see Mary as the New Eve.
At Cana, the New Eve radically reverses the decision of the first Eve. The first woman led the first Adam to commit his first evil act in the garden. At Cana, the new woman leads the New Adam to perform His first glorious work.
The first Eve counseled Adam to defy God and eat the fruit. The New Eve brings the people’s needs to her Son and teaches the people to obey Him in faith - "Do whatever He tells you" (see John 2:5).
The first Eve was "the mother of all the living" (see Genesis 3:20). By teaching the disciples and servants to believe in Jesus, the new Eve becomes the mother of the Church - "the children of God" (see John 1:12; 19:26-27).
B. The Messiah’s Wedding
As the Sabbath was the sign of God’s first covenant with creation, the wedding feast of Cana - with its faithful servants and its miraculous abundance of wine - is the sign of God’s new covenant.
In the first covenant, we witness the marriage union of a man and a woman, Adam and Eve (see Genesis 2:23-24). And in the new covenant, we have a new man and a new woman present at a wedding feast.
True, Mary is Jesus’ mother, not His bride. But in order to understand the supernatural depths of biblical symbolism that John intends here, we need to set aside our "natural" ways of reading.
As the "woman," Mary becomes the locus of a host of biblical symbols and expectations - she is simultaneously: a daughter of Israel, the mother of the new people of God, and bride of God.
Notice who is not mentioned in John’s account. The couple being married. Isn’t it odd that a wedding feast would be described but not the bride and groom?
When the headwaiter tastes the wine, his remarks to the "bridegroom" seem to be addressed to Jesus - "You have kept the good wine until now" (see John 2:10). John stresses this reading by following the headwaiters’ word immediately with this: "Jesus did this as the beginning of His signs."
John is evoking a deep Old Testament tradition. The "sign" that he wants us to see here is that of God fulfilling His promise to come as a divine bridegroom to Israel and to be "wed" to His people in a new and everlasting covenant.
We see this promise of "messianic nuptials" with increasing intensity in the writings of the prophets (see Hosea 2:16-25; Jeremiah 2:1-2; 3:1, 6-12; Ezekiel 16; Isaiah 50:1; 54:4-8; 62:4-5), in certain Psalms (see for example Psalm 45) and other Old Testament writings (See Song of Songs).
In Hosea, we have the clearest description of God’s intentions. There, in language reminiscent of Genesis, God promises a new covenant with creation that will be capped by His marriage to Israel forever (see Hosea 2:20-21; Genesis 1:20-21,24-25).
In Hosea and elsewhere, the messianic blessings of the new covenant are accompanied or symbolized by "new wine" (see Hosea 2:23; Amos 9:13-14; Joel 2:19,24; 4:18; Zechariah 9:16-17; 10:7; Isaiah 25:6).
In the Song of Songs, which symbolically depicts the wedding of God to His people, wine is also the sign of their joyful union (see Song of Songs 1:2,4; 4:10; 5:1; 7:3,9; 8:2).
C. New Covenant Bride
At Cana, then, John is presenting Jesus as the Messiah, the divine bridegroom and provider of the new wine at the wedding feast of the new covenant.
Again our interpretation is helped by looking at John’s Revelation, which concludes with a cosmic wedding feast. It is the "wedding feast of the Lamb" - of Christ to His bride, the Church (see Revelation 19:9; 21:9; 22:17); there too, this wedding feast marks the pinnacle of a new creation - a new heaven and a new earth (see Revelation 21:1).
Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus is explicitly identified as both the "Lamb of God" (see John 1:29, 36) and the Bridegroom (see John 3:29).
Jesus is also shown at Cana to be a new Adam, the firstborn of a new creation.
What John implies is made clear elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul calls Jesus a "type" of Adam (see Romans 5:14) and the new or last Adam (see 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 45-49).
At Cana, Mary is the "bride" of the New Adam, the mother of the new creation.
It is significant that the only "vow" spoken at this wedding are the words Mary speaks to the servants - "Do whatever He tells you."
In Mary’s words we hear a distinct echo of Israel’s covenant traditions.
We find essentially the same phrase used to describe Israel’s ratification of the covenant at Mount Sinai: "Everything the Lord has said, we will do" (see Exodus 19:8; 34:3-7; Deuteronomy 5:27). It is also used in the accounts of Israel’s renewal of the covenant (see Joshua 24:24; Exodus 10:12; Nehemiah 5:12).
So the words Mary speaks at Cana are a sort of covenant vow that she speaks on behalf of the servants and the disciples - expressing their acceptance of Jesus and their willingness to live by faith in His words.
That the servants share her faith is reflected in their decision is reflected in John’s detail - told by Jesus to fill the jars, they filled them "to the brim" (see John 2:7).
IV. Discussion Questions
• How does John describe the coming of Jesus as a "new creation" in the first chapter of his Gospel?
• On what day of John’s new creation does Mary appear?
• When Jesus says, "Woman how does your concern affect me?" is He scolding His mother? Explain your answer.
• What does Jesus mean in addressing His mother as "woman"?
• What biblical story forms the background for Revelation 12? Give some examples to explain your answer.
• What does the "woman" in Revelation 12 symbolize?
• How does Mary as the "New Eve" reverse the work of the first Eve?
• What Old Testament tradition is evoked by the "wedding feast" at Cana?