The Mystery of the “Woman” at Cana

When it comes to Mary in the Gospels, John 2:4 is a real head-scratcher.

It’s the wedding at Cana and the wine has run out. When Mary informs Jesus, here is the startling reply: Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.

It doesn’t sound like any way to talk to your mother, let alone any ‘woman’ for that matter. But many interpreters, including many evangelical Protestants, take this verse on face value, concluding it is some kind of rebuke. One well-respected evangelical scholar, D.A. Carson, takes it this way, suggesting that Jesus is putting some distance between Himself and Mary and signaling that He starts His ministry on His initiative alone.

Mary is mediator at Cana

Not only does this reading grate against the Church’s teaching on Mary, it also is completely at odds with the context. There are two glaring facts that argue for another reading. First, Mary does not shrink back as if chastised. Instead, she boldly charges off to the servants telling them to do whatever Jesus tells them. Not only is this not the behavior of someone who has just been chastised but it indicates that Mary expected Jesus to take action: she took his statement as a positive response to her request.

Was Mary right?

Well, we next see Jesus changing water into wine. This confirms her reaction.

Far from diminishing the stature of Mary, this confirms her role as a mediator and intercessor on our behalf with Christ. As John Paul II puts it in his encyclical Redemptoris Mater:

Thus there is a mediation: Mary places herself between her Son and mankind in the reality of their wants, needs and sufferings. She puts herself ‘in the middle,’ that is to say she acts as a mediatrix not as an outsider, but in her position as mother. She knows that as such she can point out to her Son the needs of mankind, and in fact, she ‘has the right’ to do so. Her mediation is thus in the nature of intercession: Mary ‘intercedes’ for mankind.

Mary’s intercessory role is further confirmed in the very beginning of the Cana account. As John Paul II notes, Jesus’ appears to have been invited to the wedding by virtue of his association with Mary. Indeed, Jesus and his disciples are listed as guests after Mary. It is through Mary that Jesus comes to us. As radical as this may sound, it is simply a working out of the truth of the Incarnation itself.

And this is not just some random moment of John’s gospel. It is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

And there’s more.

Mary: from Cana to the Cross

The word that at first blush seems derogatory—woman—turns out to be steeped in meaning.

Our first clue comes in the second sentence, in which Jesus mentions that His ‘hour’ has not come. To the uninitiated reader, Jesus’ reference to timing might seem to reinforce the anti-Marian interpretation: Now is not really a good time. But ‘hour’ in the gospel of John, when not referring to a specific hour of the day (such as the “tenth hour” in John 1:39), is always a symbolic reference to Jesus’ death and hidden exaltation on the cross (His ‘last hour’ if you will).

(One can’t help but note that reference lends a Eucharistic context to the story. As the changing of the water into wine foreshadows how the substance of bread and wine is changed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood offered for us on the Cross. But that’s a topic for another time.)

The word ‘hour’ thus connects this moment—this beginning of His public life—to its climax on the Cross. Now, Mary’s intercession takes on even greater significance: it sets off the chain of events that lead right to the Cross. In John 19, we see Mary at the foot of the Cross—she has not receded into the background. She has not decreased as Christ as increased because she is not in competition with her son (as Catholic scholar Matthew Levering well notes in his new book Mary’s Bodily Assumption). Instead, at the foot of the cross, Mary’s connection with Christ’s saving work is confirmed.

And, at the crucifixion, Jesus happens to again address her as ‘woman’—this time in the context of making provisions for her to stay with the Beloved Disciple. (By the way, this tender moment further argues against taking ‘woman’ to be a derogatory term.) This reminds us again of Mary’s intercessory role at Cana. And it reminds us of this role at a crucially important moment.

Mary as the new Eve

But why is Mary addressed as ‘woman’ in the first place? Besides linking Cana to the cross, what does this form of address itself mean?

John Paul II notes that the word ‘woman’ recalls the prophecy in Genesis 3:15, in which Eve is described in similarly anonymous language:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel.

To call Mary ‘woman,’ then alludes back to this passage, which is sometimes called the protoevangelium—or proto-gospel—because it looks forward to Christ. As John Paul II notes, “By his redemptive death Jesus Christ conquers the evil of sin and death at its very roots.” But, as Genesis 3:15 makes clear, this cosmic drama between Christ and Satan also involves another person involved: ‘woman.’ In addressing Mary in this way, then, Christ is confirming her universal role is this conflict between heaven and hell.

Suffice it to say, in terms of Marian theology, this connection to Genesis 3:15 is enormously important. The typological connection between Mary as the new Eve has bearing upon just about every Marian teaching of the Church.

To take just one example, consider the Immaculate Conception, the dogma that Mary was spared the stain of original sin. How does her status as the new Eve figure into the picture here? As strange as it sounds, it is a biblical fact that Adam, Eve, and Mary are the only three human beings ever to have been born without original sin. Remember, original sin came after the first sin of Adam and Eve. Just as Eve was without the stain original sin, so also was Mary, thanks to the pre-emptive intervention of Christ.

The gospel of Genesis

But perhaps we are reading too much into one single word?

Another way of asking this question is: Are we right in thinking back to the beginning of Genesis when we read the Cana story?

The answer is that there are several clues in John 1 and 2 that tell us to read this gospel with Genesis in mind. Just take the first verse of the first chapter: “In the beginning….” Sound familiar? The Church has always recognized in this a Trinitarian retelling of the creation account in Genesis 1.

The next few verses continue with the creation theme: all things were made through the Word and the Word was the life that illuminated the human race (verse 4). Language about light and darkness also recalls the first moment of creation, although in John the divine Word is light, whereas in Genesis it is something created by God.

The parallels continue in the very structure of the first two chapters. In fact, scholars have noted that there are seven days hidden in the beginning of John, echoing the seven days of creation. Day 1 is marked off with the first verse. The second day begins in John 1:29 (“The next day…”). Incidentally, this is when we meet John the Baptist and in Genesis the second day was when the waters were separated from the sky. The third and fourth days are denoted in John 1:35 and 1:43 in similar fashion.

Then the Cana story begins with this chronological note: “On the third day there was a wedding…” Let’s do some quick math. Four days have already passed. Three more brings us to the seventh day—the day of God’s rest, Sunday. How fitting that a wedding feast, with water turned into wine (the Eucharistic feast) is recounted on this day.

The Gospel of John is sounding more and more like Genesis. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so surprising that we encounter a new Eve, along with the new Adam (Christ).

Far from being an embarrassment for Catholics, the wedding at Cana turns out to be one of the strongest biblical texts in support of what the Church teaches about Mary. With this renewed understanding of the story in mind, let us listen again to Mary as she speaks to us of her Son: Do whatever he tells you.

image: steve estvanik / Shutterstock.com

Stephen Beale

By

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • Mark Lajoie

    Wrote a song with my group based on this, and blogged many of the same points made here. (By the way, I was in on the ground floor of Sophia Institute for Teachers, whose Press I see wonderfully featured here!) Here is the blog entry:

    http://livingwatersblog-mlajoie2.blogspot.com/2014/07/do-what-he-tells-you-to-do-detail-from.html

  • Ralph Warth

    Can you give just one reference in ancient writing where the term :woman” is used as a term of respect rather than gender?

  • mollysdad

    The context of the Cana episode is that the nation of Israel and the human race as a whole, and the entire universe, were on the verge of being destroyed by God, the only alternative to which was that Jesus must go to the Cross in order to establish a new creation.

    There would have been no point in His blessing the married couple if they and their future children had only a few years to live. The fact that He was prepared to do so presupposes His intention to complete His mission.

    Mary would not have interceded with her Divine Son had she not known who He was, and she knew so only because the Holy Spirit was resting on her at full power and communicating supernatural truth to her.

  • gregoryvii

    I enjoyed this article, and thank you for writing it. Just one or two things: “It is a biblical fact that Adam, Eve, and Mary are the only three human beings ever to have been born without original sin.” Adam and Eve were not born without original sin. They were not born at all. They were created, and yes, they were created without original sin. Mary was not only born without original sin, She was conceived without original sin. And, though it is not Catholic dogma, I tend to side with those who believe that St. John the Baptist was cleansed from original sin in his mother’s womb at the moment she heard the greeting from the Mother of God. I am of the camp which believes that he, too, was born without original sin, as he was “Filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb.” Lk 1:15

  • noelfitz

    Ralph,

    I see in HG Liddell’s ‘Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon that Theocritus and Aeschylus used ‘woman’ in a respectful way.

    γῠνή —a woman, ….in voc. often as a term of respect, mistress, lady, Theocr.:—πρὸς γυναικός like a woman, Aesch…

  • pbecke

    I expect some of the traditionalists, at least on the UK Catholic Herald site, would censoriously refer Jesus to the catechism, explaining to him that, in view of his stricture that his time had not yet come, by acceding to his mother’s untimely plea, he was in fact condoning it, thereby devaluing his own authority and vitiating the coherence of his teaching. Alas, they might struggle to blame it on Vatican II, however.

    Actually, I wonder if Jesus might have acceded to his mother’s plea, because reminded of the precept that Charity is the only thing that brooks no delay.

  • Marie

    You’ve explained the “woman” part of the quote and the “my hour has not yet come” part of the quote, but it doesn’t look like you explained the part of it that is most problematic “what has your concern to do with me.” That’s the part that really sounds the most dismissive. You could subtract off the other two parts and you’d still be left with something that sounds like a rebuke or a brush-off. What are we to make of Jesus saying that her concern is none of his business?? Is there a kinder way to translate that? What are we missing?

  • As a mother of 3 sons, I have always considered this as Mary knowing that her son will do what she asks and proceeding to inform the servants that he will direct them. I see her as ignoring his comment as not being worth the argument, since she knows he fully intends to do as she asks.

  • Grn724

    As I understand it, the term “woman” was quiet normal in those times. In place of calling your mother, mom or mother, she was called “woman.” Another interesting observation, there were 6 containers of water changed into wine. Now we know, 7 is spiritual perfection, so why not 7 containers changed into wine? Well, the 7th container was the cup of wine used at the Last Supper. Thus, the full circle is complete in all of its spiritual perfection. Peace

  • noelfitz

    Hi Ralph Warth,
    did you see my post? Please let me know if it solved your problem.

    PS: As well as Mary, Adam and Eve having no original sin, I presume Jesus also was free of this stain.

  • Sacerdos0526

    One small correction for Mr. Beale, whether we can know which day of the week is referred to in this accounting of days, what is certain is that the “seventh” day is not, emphatically not, Sunday. Any Jew would know that the seventh day, the Sabbath day, is Saturday. I certainly agree with the connection to Genesis, but the day of God’s rest, the seventh day, is Saturday, not Sunday. Sunday is the “eighth” day according to many of the early Fathers, the day of the new Creation.

  • Paul K. Sulkowski

    The strange thing was I noted this as a kid about Mary going and saying “do whatever He tells you.” However, this led to my confusion since Jesus’ response did seem like a rebuke.

    As for Mary, I’ve heard claim that there is a tradition that Mary was hired to be the wedding planner for Saint Luke (The Evangelist’s) wedding. This explains why Mary had the authority to say “do whatever he tells you.”

    Fr. Barron explained the situation as (using modern day analogy) is like the host of a frat party admitting they are out of beer.

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