Mary, Jesus, and his twelve disciples were all present at a wedding in Cana (John 2:1-12), five miles north of Nazareth. In ancient times, it was common for a Jewish wedding to be celebrated for an entire week or more.
The fact that Mary becomes concerned when the young couple runs out of wine implies that she was probably a relative of the newlyweds. The fact that ancient Near Eastern cultures were animated by dynamics of honor, shame, and “saving face,” means that this was more than just a moderately embarrassing situation; it was more like a crisis.
“They have no wine.” Sometimes wine is a symbol for the Holy Spirit in Scripture:
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit…” (Ephesians 5:18). After Pentecost had fully come and the 120 followers of Christ were baptized in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues, some observers mocked them saying, “They are filled with new wine.”
The Holy Spirit is also called the Spirit of Grace (Hebrews 10:29). To call Mary full of grace is also to call her full of the Spirit; to say that, by the grace of God, we have overcome some addiction, is to say that the Holy Spirit is filling that particular area of our lives now and that the Lordship of Christ is made real through the power and renewal of the Spirit.
Sometimes, in certain areas of our lives, we run out of wine and are left bereft of the grace of God. Scripture tells us that we can grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), quench the Spirit (I Thessalonians 5:19), and David prayed, after his sins of adultery and murder, that God would “take not your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51:11).
Our marriages can run out of wine, as can our relationships with immediate family and friendships. Suddenly there’s no grace in our vocations; our devotional life has become a desert and we are just going through the motions at Mass; we find ourselves drinking too much at night or overeating to numb some unidentified emotional pain.
I don’t want to read too much into the narrative, but why wasn’t Mary told about the impending crisis when the wine was 80% or 90% gone? Why did they wait until it was completely gone?
Several years in local church and campus ministry, and, in the shoe-leather of daily living, tells me that it’s because people have an amazing capacity for denial. This is part of our Adamic DNA: God confronted Adam and he denied his culpability and passed the buck to Eve; and, when Eve was confronted, she denied her guilt and shifted the blame to the serpent.
This denial is rooted in Pride and has been passed on to us in galactic proportions. The desire to look good eclipses the need to be real and can be exacerbated in religious contexts when we tell ourselves that “a practicing Catholic can’t have a terrible marriage, a pornography addiction, financial problems bordering on bankruptcy, a spiritual life that feels like the Mohave Desert, or a child with same-sex attraction, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, or an eating disorder.”
Humility is the root of our renewal: by the grace of God, we come to the end of ourselves, we run out of “self-effort fuel,” and the emotional fatigue from the problem we have supersedes our need to look good. We break the silence, admit that we are out of wine, and turn to Mary:
We, who are out of grace, turn to the one who is full of grace, who, then in turn, intercedes for us to Christ, the God of all grace. This is a wonderful picture of the heavenly intercession the Queen of Heaven is carrying on even now as we pray our Rosaries or embrace such devotional practices as the Unfailing Novena of Mary Undoer of Knots.
One of the goals of such practices is to produce fervent Catholics, who are poor in spirit and live in a radical, moment-by-moment dependence on the grace of God as mediated through Mary to the throne of God. Like Abba Anthony in the fourth century, they see the devil spreading all manner of snares all over the earth and cry out, “What can get through such snares?”; and they hear the answer: “Humility.”
Because Mary was full of grace, it follows that she was also full of humility, because humility is a magnet for grace. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).
Like Mother, like Son: in Christ’s baptism by John we see the dove, the Spirit of Grace, descending on the meek and lowly Lamb. In the Divine Mercy revelation, Christ told St. Faustina that “…the meek and humble souls and the souls of little children…most closely resemble My heart” (emphasis mine).
That’s why the biblical passages in the New Testament about Mary are redolent with an undeniable and radiant “soul beauty” or “beauty of holiness” (Psalm 27:4; 96:9), a kind of fragrant moral and spiritual aesthetic that points to and magnifies her Son: her heart is his heart and vice-versa. What passes for beauty in this Vale of Tears, by comparison, is exposed as ephemeral and meretricious, but only the eyes of the truly humble will see this.
In the wedding at Cana we see at least three aspects of the humility of the Mother of God that leave us an example to imitate. This is by no means an exhaustive list but merely a conversation starter that is complemented by other biblical references.
How fitting that Mary’s last words in the New Testament were at Cana when she said, “Do whatever he tells you.” She was always humbly submitted to the word of God, whether it came through the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation or in obeying her Son when he told his followers to tarry in the upper room in waiting for the promise of the Holy Spirit (She was already filled with the Holy Spirit, but like her Son at his baptism, was present at Pentecost “in order to fulfill all righteousness”).
Her Magnificat indicates a deep immersion in Scripture with many references to the Old Testament. And, at the presentation of Christ, Mary and Joseph “performed everything according to the law of the Lord…” (Luke 2:39).
It’s interesting to note that Mary meekly received the implanted word of God in her heart (James 1:21), and also humbly received the Word of God (Christ) in her womb. The two activities are inextricably linked and provide lessons for the practicing Catholic.
We receive the word of God through a divine metanarrative (Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium), by availing ourselves to a sacramental life, and by embracing spiritual disciplines. At the same time, Christ, the Word of God, is being formed in us (Galatians 4:19).
The former, the word of God, is like all the best foods for a pregnancy (e.g., salmon, whole grains, dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes, colorful fruits and veggies, lean meats, etc.) that produce robust health in the Word of God- i.e. the developing baby. This analogy has sobering implications for the “cafeteria” Catholic or the parishioner who has decided to go his own way and accommodate himself to the trends and fashions of the dominant culture.
A second feature of the humility of the Mother of God is her capacity of the Greater serving the Lesser. Again, like Mother, like Son: Christ himself said that he came to serve and not be served and has left a legacy of the Greater serving the Lesser in his washing of the feet of the twelve disciples, his crucifixion, and in his intercession for us in heaven as our merciful High Priest.
We see this profound humility of the Greater serving the Lesser in Mary’s visitation and service to Elizabeth, her intervention at the wedding at Cana, her maternal relationship to Saint John, and in her intercession in heaven for the believers on earth. Her life incarnates the directive: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
Mary is rightly said to have succeeded where Eve (and Adam) failed, but the same could also be said of the nation of Israel. We find out a lot about someone’s humility when their comfort and convenience is challenged and chronic complaining emerges that sends the message that “I’m too wonderful and special to have to endure such discomfort and inconvenience.”
We see this dynamic with the nation of Israel in their journey through the wilderness of Sin. Whether they are too hot or too cold, can’t find water and are thirsty, sick of eating the manna that falls from the sky every morning, or chafing under Moses’ authority, ingratitude is the hallmark of their lives.
We never see any of this in Mary’s life despite all the afflictions that she endured (e.g., the crisis at Cana, the flight to Egypt, giving birth in a manger, etc.) culminating in her sorrows at the foot of the cross. Instead, she turns all her humiliations into humility.
The compost of coffee grounds, eggs shells, rotting fruit, and other garbage were dumped on her garden, but were then, in time, transformed into an abundant harvest of the highest quality: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22, 23). She is like the silk worm who eats the mulberry leaves: the leaves represent all that happened to her that are then converted into one of the finest fabrics in the world.