Kieran Fenn fms
This is the last of our reflections on Mary in the gospels.John’s Gospel gives two key places to the mother of Jesus: Cana, where Jesus officially starts his public life with his first sign, of the best wine, and the final sign of the cross and the flow of blood and water.
Mary at Cana
In John 2:1-11, amid the celebration of the wedding, the wine gives out. The mother of Jesus brings this to his attention but he declines to get involved for ‘my hour has not yet come’.
Disregarding his hesitation, she bids the servants to follow his word, and they filled six stone water jars with a capacity of more than 90 litres.
The story of Cana has all the earmarks of a popular folktale, originally circulating to express people’s interest in the early, hidden life of Jesus. But, to quote R E Brown: ‘The evangelist is not responsible for the origin or historicity of a story; he is responsible for the message it serves to vocalise.’
Clearly the main purpose of the Cana narrative is Christological, to reveal the person of Jesus.
The huge quantity of wine signifies the abundant salvation for which light, water and food are other Johannine symbols. With such rich symbolism it is not surprising that the mother of Jesus is never given her personal name but functions as an image of the true believer because of her faith in Jesus.
Grounded in history
Nevertheless, the Cana story is grounded in the historical reality of its time. A festive wedding supper with friends and relatives lasted through the night and the stone water jars add another authentic note, being preferable to clay pots.
That ‘they have no wine’ is more than an embarrassment to the providers of the feast and the couple. It is a painful reminder of the precarious economic situation in which the wedding guests all lived.
Mary named the need and took initiative to seek a solution. Because she persisted, a bountiful abundance soon flowed among the guests.
In John’s gospel women play surprisingly significant roles, both in the number of incidents recounted and their theological consequence: the Samaritan woman, Martha of Bethany, Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene. The mother of Jesus gives her instruction – ‘Do whatever he tells you’ – and alerts the servants to listen to his word and follow his way.
All humanity and Judaism had to offer was six water jars for ritual cleansing, insufficient for a wedding feast. It is only through Jesus’ death and resurrection that the mundane and ordinary is transformed into the glorious new wine of God’s promised fulfilment. The meaning of the whole of this gospel is prefigured in this first sign.
Mary at the cross
Death as an act of violence causes unnameable grief in the hearts of those who love and lose another.
In shorthand, John 19:25-27 gives us the scene:
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
The gospel never describes Mary holding the body of her dead son when he is taken down from the cross, yet the artistic image of the pieta captures the inexpressible sadness at the heart of this event.
The presence of women at the cross is attested in all four gospels. There is no mention of the mother at the cross; Luke places her in Jerusalem with the community at Pentecost.
The gospels stress that all the male disciples fled. The unnamed beloved disciple, probably not one of the 12, plays a role peculiar to John’s gospel: his witness guarantees the validity of the Johannine community’s understanding of Jesus.
Symbols of discipleship
The mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple are historical figures but are not named because they function as symbols of discipleship. Standing by the cross, they are turned toward each other by Jesus’ words and given into each other’s care.
Henceforth, they represent the community of true believers that Jesus’ mission is to establish. Jesus reinterprets family in terms of discipleship. There is symmetry between the woman and the man, the mother and son. Both are equal partners in the family of disciples as representatives of a larger group – the church.
By uncovering the symbolism of the mother/beloved disciple scene, we link Jesus’ death to the gift of the Spirit and the foundation of the Christian community.
Perceiving Mary as a precious symbolic figure has the unfortunate effect of deleting her human reality as a historical woman with a crucified son, which has continued for much of church history.
Even if she did not stand at the foot of the cross in three gospels, news would soon have reached her. Her grief would be no less, and she joins the many women who experience such loss at the hands of the powers that rule, among the women who cry out: ‘No more killing of other people’s children!’
Addressing the four leaders of the Marist orders, Pope John Paul II said, ‘It is up to you to show in original ways the presence of Mary in the life of the Church and in the life of people.’
Both Cana and Calvary in John demand our attention. In Cana, we are given Mary’s last recorded words, ‘Do whatever he tells you’.
Calvary and the flow of blood and water remind us of baptism and eucharist.
Scripture and sacrament are the heart of our existence as Church, the source of renewal and new life, of unity in our divisions, of renewal in weariness, of new life in stagnation.
Mary, our caring mother, points this out to us.
References: R E Brown, Mary, the First Disciple; E A Johnson, Truly Our Sister.