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.