The Virgin Mary only appears in the Gospel of John twice. One might be tempted to believe that the limited appearances of the mother of Jesus indicates a lack of importance in the theological import of John’s gospel as it pertains to Mary, but this is not so. John’s gospel must be read with attention to the literary structure and narrative devices in order to grasp the Johannine theology. By framing the public ministry of Jesus with Mary’s only two appearances, John gives a broader emphasis to the theological meaning behind Mary’s role. A careful examination and exegesis of the Wedding at Cana and the crucifixion of Jesus, reveals the mother of Jesus as the “New Eve” and Mother of all the living.
Among the various Marian typologies in the Old Testament, the Church puts a special emphasis on Genesis 3:15, also known as the Protoevangelium, or first gospel. Genesis 3:15 reads:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
The protoevangelium is the first good news of redemption for mankind; despite the disobedience of Adam and Eve, the mercy of God would see to it that a New Adam and New Eve would reverse the events of the garden. With regard to Genesis 3:15, Dr. Mark Miravalle asserts that Genesis 3:15 is to be considered:
“so rich in Mariological content as to be, despite a paucity of words, a true and proper mariologia in nuce (Mariology in a nutshell), one in which it is possible to grasp the substance of the person and of the extraordinary mission of Mary as the New Eve aside the New Adam.”
The protoevangelium, as has been read by the Magisterium of the Church, contains the foundation of Mariology in seed form.
A basic understanding of the parallels that exist between Mary and Eve, lay the groundwork for a fruitful exegetical reading of Mary’s appearances in John. The first of these appearances happens at Cana in Galilee where Mary is said to be present at a wedding feast. From the beginning, John’s placement of Mary in the structure of the passage as the first person mentioned, hints at her importance in the narrative:
“And on the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples. When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
It should be noted that John never refers to Mary by her name, rather he refers to her as “the mother of Jesus”; culturally speaking, this title can be seen as one of honor.
While scholarly opinions vary greatly as to the nature of Jesus’ response to his mother, the end remains the same: after the dialogue between Jesus and his mother, Jesus manifests his glory (Greek doxa) by turning water into wine.
“Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast.” So they took it. When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first; and when all have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
The Wedding at Cana is loaded with the theological symbolism that pervades John’s gospel, and this symbolism is key in understanding Mary as the New Eve. By changing water into wine, Jesus reveals his glory in such a way that is representative of the restoration of Israel. Wine in the prophetic tradition, signified the abundance of God’s provision (Isaiah 25:6-8, Amos 9:11, 13, Joel 3:18), and Jesus’s actions would have been perceived with messianic overtones as well as having significance to a wider Greco-Roman audience. The universal nature of Jesus’ mission is hinted at with his first sign, and thus Mary’s intercession must be seen to be of a universal scope as well.
The universal nature of Mary’s role as seen at the Wedding at Cana is also exemplified by Jesus referring to her as “Woman” (Greek gynai), which harkens back to Genesis where Eve is referred to as “Woman”. This point is further manifested by the fact that Jesus uses this title for Mary in both of her appearances in John, of which are bookends to John’s gospel, further hinting at a Marian theology that is universal in scope. Some have suggested that Jesus’ response to Mary, and specifically referring to her as “Woman” is a disrespectful rebuke, but this is easily dismissed. Jesus refers to other women in the gospel as “Woman” and in a context of which cannot claim to be disrespectful (see John 4:21 and 20:13).
Further emphasizing this point, Fr. Raymond Brown points out that although the title is mysterious…
“…it is not an attempt to reject or devalue the mother-son relationship, for Mary is called the “mother of Jesus” four times in vss. 1–12 (twice after Jesus has addressed her as “Woman”). All of this leads us to suspect that there is symbolic import in the title, ‘Woman.'”
Clearly, any exegesis that seeks to diminish the role of Mary through a solitary reading of the passage, fails to examine the narrative with an eye to the whole. Although exegesis through the lens of both scripture and tradition may be considered less ecumenical and credible by contemporary scholars, the academic pedigree of men like Fulton Sheen and his interpretation cannot be simply dismissed as mere piety.
Fulton Sheen, basing his commentary on the English translation of the Latin Vulgate (Quid mihi et tibi, Mulier?), saw great importance in Mary’s title “Woman” as being the first explicit reference made to Eve. The Wedding at Cana, and Mary as the New Eve, must be understood in light of Genesis with a particular emphasis on the Protoevangelium. A broad scriptural exegesis with an eye to the whole of salvation history, as understood by scholars such as Fulton Sheen, and will be seen with Bernard of Clairveaux, reveals that Mary as the New Eve is substantiated by Jesus as the New Adam.
To understand Mary as New Eve, one must understand Christ as New Adam. The primary emphasis of the Wedding at Cana, as understood from the literary structure and theological motifs present therein, do not emphasize the miracle itself or even Mary’s role in it, rather the primary emphasis is on the manifestation of Jesus’s divinity and relationship to the Father.
The Wedding at Cana is Christocentric and the narrative points toward the nature of Jesus’ identity, but does not mitigate Mary’s role in the passage, as evidenced by the literary structure and her placement at the beginning of the scene. The logical preparation that precedes an instance of Jesus’ revelation as found through Mary’s role at Cana may be applied elsewhere as with John the Baptist’s recognition (1:29) and Nathanael’s confession (1:49). Mary’s supporting role illustrates her as the New Eve whom God made to be a helper fit for Adam (Genesis 2:18).
Bernard of Clairveux, referencing Genesis 2:28 as it pertains to Mary, writes, “It seemed more congruous that as both sexes contributed to the ruin of our race, so should both have a part in the work of reparation.” Bernard’s understanding of Mary as New Eve is affirmed by her presence at the Wedding at Cana, especially when the passage is viewed as permeated by what Fr. Raymond Brown refers to as a subordinate theological motif.
The context of John 2:1-12 as a wedding feast has obvious theological symbolism where Jesus, as the manifestation of God’s presence, is thus presented in the role of groom who will be wedded to his people. Mary, functioning in both a leading and supporting role, is as a representative figure of the people of Israel and a link between God and Man. Mary is both mother and bride.
Not only must one start in the beginning with a careful reading of Genesis, reference must also be made to Exodus. Mary’s role is clarified with a reading of Exodus 19:8 when Moses brings God’s commands to the people. At the Wedding at Cana, Jesus as an anti-type of Moses, gives his command to the people, but its fruitful reception is preceded by Mary’s implicit faith in her son which is seen through her maternal guidance and call to obedience: “Do whatever he tells you.” And as Aristotle Serra states, “As once the debarīm (words) of the Law offered life to a people, here the mother of Jesus trusts that the dabar (word) of her son will do likewise.” Regardless of one’s opinion of where the mother of Jesus fits in the scope of salvation history, the literary structure of the passage presents an objective truth with regard to the ordering of the miracle.
To simply dismiss John’s placement of Mary’s statement, “Do whatever he tells you”, as being at best, superfluous to the miracle, or at worst, of no consequence, would be to disregard the theology being presented by John. Rather, what is needed is an exegetical approach that is objective.
Drawing upon the theology of John, the Cana event, which foreshadows the sealing of the New Covenant, is typified by the Old Covenant and alludes to the Sinai event: “The solemnity of the language recalls the revelation of the glory of YHWH manifested “on the third day” at Sinai (Exod 19:16), surpassed in the manifestation of the doxa of Jesus “on the third day” at Cana (John 2:1).” Cana thus points toward the familial aspect that is essential to a covenant bond through the manifestation of Mary’s maternal intercession, response, and subsequent call to obedience. Note, the call to obedience on Mary’s part is in stark contrast to Eve, exemplifying the theme of recapitulation present within the Johannine narrative.
Essential to the recapitulation theology found in John’s gospel, is the theme of Jesus’ “hour” (Greek hōra), of which he cites in his response to Mary: “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” In order to properly understand Jesus’ response to Mary, the text must be interpreted in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As some scholars have noted, the response of Jesus seems disproportionate to Mary’s seemingly meek, “They have no wine.” As Brant Pitre notes, “…his declaration that his “hour” has not yet come is, to say the least, a strange way to react to Mary’s observation that the wine has run out.” In response to Jesus’ seemingly obscure response, Fr. Raymond Brown concludes, “This sequence of the events at Cana is obviously incomplete: what seems to be a purely natural request on Mary’s part is met by a refusal on Jesus’ part, as if the request somehow affected the substance of his ministry.” The incomplete nature of the Wedding at Cana must be interpreted in light of Mary’s second appearance in John’s gospel, at the foot of the cross.
Fulton Sheen emphasized the Johannine structure of Mary’s appearances when he referred to the period of Jesus’ life from Cana to the Cross as one of the two great periods as it relates to the relationship between Jesus and Mary. According to Sheen, the framing by John of Jesus’ public ministry via Cana to the Cross represents the beginning of Mary’s maternal relationship with all who would be united to her son through his redemption. Having been foreshadowed at Cana, the cross is where God consummates his marriage to mankind.
Tying Cana to the Cross is akin to connecting two pieces of a puzzle so as to see an intelligible picture. Joseph Ratzinger, building upon this theme, states “Cana had been an anticipation of the definitive marriage feast – of the new wine that the Lord wanted to bestow. What had then been merely a prophetic sign now becomes a reality.” Having firmly established the inseparable nature of the Wedding at Cana and the cross in John’s gospel, one may conclude with the logical and essential role of Mary as New Eve.
The crucifixion narrative can be viewed as having a chiastic structure which emphasizes the gift of Mary to mankind. The center piece of the chiastic structure reads as follows:
“When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”
The central theme at the foot of the cross is bound up with the literary structure and Johannine use of symbols, and to deny the importance of it would disregard the modes of critical interpretation to this point.
The parallels between the cross and Eden are too numerous to deny and the generative effect of the cross is unquestionable: “TWO Eves—two sinless virgins—from the sides of two Adams, approached by two angels, struggle in two gardens under two trees, experience the labor of two births, bringing about two humanities in two creations, with two sinless Adams “born” directly from God who experience two deaths because of one sin.” The spousal imagery of John’s text reaches its peak on the cross and there can be no doubt that Christ crucified thus begets new life. The abundance signified at Cana is brought to fulfillment with the pouring forth of the wine of the New Covenant as symbolized by the pierced side of Christ.
Finally, “Jesus’ mother is the New Eve who, in imitation of her prototype, the “woman” of Gen 2–4, can say: “With the help of the Lord I have begotten a man” (cf. Gen 4:1—Feuillet, “Les adieux,” pp. 474–77). John’s gospel presents a Christology “from above”, but necessarily emphasizes the incarnational reality of “God with us” (Emmauel) and is thus unintelligible apart from Mary, the New Eve and mother of all the living.
- Bernard of Clairveaux, In Dominica infra Octavan Assumptionis B. V. Mariae Sermo, PL 183, 429-430; CF. St. Bernard’s Sermons for the Seasons & Principal Festivals of the Year, vol. 3, trans. Anon., Westminster, MD: Carroll Press, 1950.
- Brown, Raymond E., Donfried, Karl P., Fitzmyer, Joseph A., and Reumann, John, eds. Mary in the New Testament. A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars., Philadelphia: Fortress Press; and New York: Paulist Press, 1978.
- Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 29, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008.
- Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain), The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition., New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994.
- Howard, Peter J., The Woman: The Mystery of Mary as Mediatrix in the Teaching of Fulton J. Sheen, Leonine Publishers LLC, 2014.
- John Paul II, Theotokos: Woman, Mother, Disciple- A Catechesis on Mary, Mother of God, Vol. 5., Pauline Books & Media, 1999.
- Koester, Craig R., Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community, Second Edition., Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003.
- Maloney, Francis J., The Gospel of John, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 4, Sacra Pagina Series Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998.
- Pitre, Brant, Jesus the Bridegroom: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told, New York: Image New York, 2014.
- Miravalle, Mark, Mariology: A Guide for Priests, Deacons, and Religious, Goleta, CA: Queenship Publishing, 2007.
- Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week; From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2011., 221.
- Ray, Stephen K., St. John’s Gospel: A Bible Study Guide and Commentary; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002.
- Sheen, Fulton, The World’s First Love: Mary, Mother of God, San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1996.