The Mother of Jesus in the Gospel of John
By Merle Salazar, O.L.S.H.
Merle Salazar, O.L.S.H. holds a BS in Business Administration from the University of the Philippines, Quezon City, and an MA in Theological Studies from the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies, Manila, where she teaches Systematic Theology. She also teaches Systematic Theology at Maryhill School of Theology, Manila and is a frequent contributor to the EAPR. Her previous publication was Confident Hope in the Forgiving Love of Yahweh: A Reading of Hosea 3:1-5
In this article, we shall be looking at the portrait of Mary in the "most symbolic gospel" (Lee 2002:3): the Gospel of John.1 Interestingly, Mary is never mentioned by name in the gospel, she is simply referred to as "the mother of Jesus." She appears only twice in the whole gospel and is mentioned or alluded to in only two other instances.
The gospel of John, labeled by Clement of Alexandria as the "spiritual gospel," is primarily christological. "The gospel of John fundamentally contains but a single theme: The Person of Jesus. The entire gospel is concerned with the fact of his presence, the nature of his claim, where he comes and whither he goes, and how men [and women] relate themselves to him" (Bultmann 1971:5). The general theological theme is that in Jesus, the Word became flesh in order to reveal the Father. Jesus is Redeemer because as the revealer of the Father, he brings life to those who believe. Redemption takes place through the response of faith in Jesus as the Revealer (Culpepper 1998:94). "All other aspects that the theology (John’s gospel) presents are secondary to its Christology" (Culpepper, 89). One such aspect is marian theology. Yet, the mother of Jesus, though unnamed, and secondary, plays a prominent role. The two scenes in which she appears are key episodes in the gospel: The story of the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-12) contains the first of the signs ever performed by the Johanine Jesus while the story at the foot of cross (Jn 19:25-37) is the last episode in his earthly life. In both stories, his mother is present.
Before we proceed to the study of the marian texts in the gospel, it is important to note that "the most important literary-theological feature of John’s gospel is symbolism" (Schneiders 1999:36). The gospel does not only contain symbols, "it is itself symbolic" (ibid.). Symbols and metaphors are central to the understanding of the gospel and thus central to the encounter with the Johanine Jesus and ultimately with the Father whom Jesus reveals. "Understanding what a symbol is and how symbols function is crucial to understanding John’s gospel" because for John, "Jesus is the symbol of God" and the "gospel is the symbol of Jesus" (36-37). Since the gospel of John is intrinsically symbolic, "a non-symbolic interpretation is not literal, it is inadequate" (65). A study of symbolism in the gospel is thus essential to the study of the Gospel of John. Lee puts it so clearly: "If the Johanine text is to acquire new power, the symbols of the gospel need to be highlighted, given prominence, and drawn into the center of the theological discourse." In this article, the stories in which the mother of Jesus appears will be studied in detail. Particular attention will be given to the symbol of Jesus’ flesh and the symbol of motherhood because both have a direct bearing on the portrait of the Mother of Jesus in the Gospel of John.
The Mother of Jesus at the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12)
Chapter 2 of the gospel of John sees the beginning of the revelation of the glory of Jesus in two events: the wedding at Cana and the cleansing of the temple. According to Rudolf Bultmann (1971:115-21), these two stories form a prelude or a diptych which represents Jesus’ ministry symbolically: The miracle of the wine in Jn 2:1-12 is specifically designated the "first of his signs" and the cleansing of the temple in Jn 2:13-22 symbolizes the end, the death and resurrection of Jesus. The miracle of the changing of the wine is an epiphany miracle. The evangelist then took the story of the cleansing of the temple, which in the older tradition was placed at the end of Jesus’ ministry, and put it at the beginning alongside the epiphany such that in Jn 2, the gospel has both a picture of the beginning and the end of Jesus’ ministry.
As to form, scholars see in this pericope a typical miracle story with the following sections: (I) Setting – verses 1 to 2; (II) Preparation of the Miracle – verses 3 to 5; (III) The Miracle itself – verses 6 to 8; and (IV) Conclusion – verses 9 to 11. Verse 12 is a transition verse that connects this story to the one that follows it.
Setting: verses 1 and 2
On the third day, there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.
This section provides the setting of the story: temporal, local, and situational. The story happens "on the third day" at "Cana of Galilee" and there is a "wedding." Bultmann believed that the dating ("on the third day") was added by the evangelist himself. Literally, this is the third day from Jesus’ conversation with Nathanael (Jn 1: 43-51). Probably, the evangelist did not intend to date the Cana story historically but simply to bring out the sequence of events (Bultmann, 114). Symbolically, "the third day" reminds any Christian of Jesus’ resurrection and the day of the resurrection is the day of glory. In starting the story with "on the third day," the evangelist already raises the expectations of the hearers/readers, making them anticipate that what will follow is a "moment of glory."
The situation is that of a "wedding." Again, this is loaded with symbolism. "The wedding feast is a well-known symbol of the messianic days" (Grassi 1988:84). The mention of "a wedding" "on the third day" simply confirms and even heightens the readers’ expectation that a moment of glory is about to come.
The wedding happens in Cana of Galilee. There is another Cana in Palestine and this is probably the reason why the evangelist specified that this is the one in Galilee. Since this is connected to the previous scene, the calling of Philip and Nathanael, one gets a glimpse of the evangelist’s familiarity with the geography of Palestine. First, he knows that there is more than one "Cana" in the land. Second, he situates the last call of the disciples at the Jordan Valley. The setting in chapter 2 implies that Jesus went up to Cana from the Jordan and probably spent the intervening two days traveling up to Cana and this makes perfect sense.
Finally, the setting also establishes the characters of the story. Contrary to expectation, the reader is not told who the bridegroom and the bride are. Instead one is told that "the mother of Jesus" is there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited. Only Jesus, obviously the main character in the story, is named. All the other characters are unnamed. It is known from the other gospels that his mother’s name is Mary. With regard to the disciples, it is not known who the evangelist is referring to. If a synchronic reading of the text is done, then, one would say that at this point, "disciples" would simply refer to those whom Jesus has already called, namely, Andrew, John, Philip, Nathanael, and an unnamed disciple (probably the beloved disciple?).
Preparation of the Miracle (verses 3 to 5)
When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."
This section contains the only words that the mother of Jesus uttered in the whole gospel of John, "They have no wine" and "Do whatever he tells you," and these words have been interpreted in so many ways over the years. In the past, the interpretation of these words tended towards two extremes. One interpretation says that these words show "Mary’s power of intercession and they are meant to teach the reader to pray to Jesus through Mary." Another says that Mary’s insistence after Jesus’ refusal (i.e., "Do whatever he tells you") proves that Mary "did not really believe in Jesus" and thus she is a "model of unbelief." Today, most scholars would avoid these two extremes (Brown et al. 1978:193).
Elizabeth Johnson offers another interpretation. For Johnson, "her words and deeds offer an intriguing portrait of a woman as a leader and catalyst in the mission of Jesus’ life with implications for women’s empowerment" (2003:288). Mary sees that wine has run out and so "acting in a decisive and confident manner, Mary named the need and took the initiative to seek a solution":
Far from silent, she speaks; far from passive, she acts; far from receptive to the orders of the male, she goes counter to his wishes, finally bringing him along with her; far from yielding to a grievous situation, she takes charge of it, organizing matters to bring about benefit to those in need, including herself (289).
Seen from this perspective, then, Mary stands in solidarity with women around the world who struggle for social justice for themselves and their children (290). In addition, this "challenging plea" from Mary "addresses the conscience of the body of Christ today, especially the rich nations on earth. ‘They have no wine, no food, no clean drinking water: You need to act!" (291).
When the wine runs out, Jesus’ mother brings it to his notice; of course she does it with the aim of getting him to perform a miracle and Jesus understood her statement correctly. Mary’s statement, "they have no wine," is not just a statement of fact; it is an "implied request." The question why it is Mary in particular (and not any other character in the story) who asks Jesus can best be answered not by wondering what particular position Mary had in the marriage feast (e.g., Was she a relative of the bride or the groom? Was she in the kitchen? How come she knew that they ran out of wine already?) but by pointing out that "the narrative probably comes from circles in which a certain authority was already ascribed to the mother of the Lord, as a matter of course" (Bultmann, 116 #2). Using this interpretation, this scene can actually be used as an indication that Mary was really part of the post-resurrection church and the source of this story apparently knew this tradition. In addition, neither the bride nor the groom is shown making the request, either to Jesus or to Mary. Mary is shown, out of her own freedom, seeing the problem and directing Jesus’ attention to it.
Jesus initially refuses his mother’s implied request. Bultmann says, "There is no room here for psychological interpretations (because)… the conversation between Mary and Jesus is expected from the style of a miracle story and must be understood in relation to this point" (ibid.). The purpose of this section of the miracle story is precisely to bring out the character of the miracle by raising the tension and this is done by Jesus first refusing the request in such a way as to keep the expectation still alive.
What is more surprising here is not that Jesus refused his mother but that he addressed her as "Woman" instead of "Mother." First of all, this address is not disrespectful or scornful. It is how Jesus addresses other women in the gospel (e.g., the Samaritan woman at the well, the sinful woman caught in adultery, and Mary Magdalene, see Jn 4:21; 8:10, and 20:13). In fact, with the other women, it can even be interpreted as a term of endearment communicating affection towards the woman being addressed. Yet, even if it is not disrespectful, it still sets a peculiar distance between Jesus and his mother. It is a gross exaggeration to say that Jesus disowns his mother with this form of address. Scholars interpret this to mean that "human ties and obligations in no way influence Jesus’ action." Others have seen in this address a symbolic meaning. Jesus, is not addressing his mother simply as his mother but as a woman of faith making a request. He is not disowning his mother, but indicating rather that a different kind of relationship, a relationship of faith, is being called upon.
In his answer, Jesus, for the first time, referred to his "hour" saying, "My hour has not yet come." The "hour" is one of the key symbolic terms in the gospel of John and it refers to the moment of Jesus’ return to the Father. The reference to Jesus’ "hour" connects this episode to the second book of the gospel, the book of glory when Jesus knew that his "hour" had come (Jn 13:1). Consequently, the second scene where the mother of Jesus appears is also pointed to. The crucifixion is Jesus’ hour and his mother was present in his "hour." The preparation for the miracle is concluded by verse 5 where Mary says to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." The mother has understood her son; all she can do now is to await the commands of the miracle worker and so she directs the servants to do whatever he tells them. What attitude of Mary comes out from this command? This command, though short, expresses the mother’s faith, trust and confidence in the miracle worker, Jesus. It shows that Mary did not doubt that Jesus will, in the end, intervene. In Mary, the evangelist is able to demonstrate the disciple’s openness to whatever may be revealed. As a result, the disciples themselves believed. So, instead of reading this verse to mean Mary’s power of intercession or seeing her as a model of unbelief, scholars today read this story and see the mother of Jesus as falling into "a general category of those who, despite their good intentions, misunderstood Jesus." Her implied request for a sign shows both "naive trust and a lack of comprehension which ultimately leads to solid faith" (Brown et al., 193).
The Miracle (verses 6-8)
Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding 20 or 30 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 chief steward." So they took it.
After all the details are provided, the story does not tell the reader how the miracle happened. The miracle itself was just mentioned in passing. No ritual, no prayers; the water simply turned into wine. "It is in accordance with the style of the miracle stories that the miraculous process itself is not described: the divine action remains a mystery" (Bultmann, 118). Again, like any typical Johanine text, this text has been interpreted symbolically. The six water jars that contain water for the Jewish rites of purification were interpreted to symbolize Judaism and its incompleteness. With the miracle, "abundance" has resulted. By the word of Jesus and the obedience of the servants, a miracle happened. The focus is on the resulting abundance because "abundance of wine (has always been) a consistent figure for the joy of the last days" (Johnson, 288).
Conclusion (verses 9-11)
When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." Jesus did this the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
The water had turned into the most excellent wine and the steward proclaimed this in public. The hand of the Johanine redactor is seen in the parenthetical comment that the servants knew where the wine came from, as if saying a miracle really happened, the servants are witnesses to it. As a result of this epiphany miracle, the glory of Jesus is revealed and his disciples believed. "For the evangelist, the meaning of the story is not contained simply in the miraculous event, the story itself is a revelation of the glory of Jesus. As understood by the evangelist, this is not the power of the miracle worker but the Divinity of Jesus as the Revealer" (Bultmann, 119).
After this, he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples and they remained there for a few days.
This transition verse functions much like the setting and closes the scene. Here, Jesus is seen going home with his family (i.e., his mother and his brothers) and his disciples. Note that the portrait of the mother of Jesus one gets from the Cana story is largely incomplete. At the end of the story, the evangelist says that "the disciples believed." Nothing is said about the mother of Jesus. "It is almost universally recognized that Mary’s role at Cana cannot be understood by itself, but only in relationship to the coming hour of Jesus’ death and glorification of which he spoke in Jn 2:4" (Grassi, 71). It is now time to turn attention to this "hour."
The Mother of Jesus at the Foot of the Cross
After the Cana episode in chapter 2, the next time the reader meets the mother of Jesus is already at the foot of the cross of Jesus, on death watch. Here in this scene, the mother of Jesus does not say anything. But this scene is very significant, it does not only complete the account of Jesus’ life here on earth, it also completes the Cana scene for it is the "hour" referred to in Jn 2.
The Adoption Ceremony at the Foot of the Cross
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 presence of the women in the crucifixion scene is something that John might have taken from tradition yet, it is only John’s gospel that includes the mother of Jesus in the list of women and it is only John’s gospel that records the "adoption scene" that follows. Most probably, this scene is not historical and is symbolic. In this scene, the mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple, act as representative figures. Today, most scholars agree that at the cross, Jesus constitutes a new community of believing disciples, the pioneering members of which are represented by the two people closest to him, his mother and his beloved disciple. "At the foot of the cross, Jesus gives his physical mother a spiritual role as mother of the disciple par excellence, and the disciple a role as her son. Thus, there emerges a familial relationship in terms of discipleship" (Brown et al., 213). If at the end of the Cana story, it was not clear whether the mother of Jesus became a disciple or not, at the foot of the cross, this is clearly established. "The fact that there is one clear marian passage in the last half of the gospel is significant" because in this part of the gospel "there is more instruction and care for those whom Jesus would consider his disciples. To introduce the mother of Jesus into this atmosphere is to bring her into the context of discipleship" (ibid., 206). "Mary now becomes the mother of the disciple par excellence and so, becomes herself a model of belief and discipleship" (289).
Other scholars offer other creative views and the ones that this researcher found most interesting are Elizabeth Johnson’s feminist interpretation (Johnson, 293-97) and Dorothy Lee’s symbolic interpretation.2 For Johnson, Mary, in this episode, is the suffering Jewish mother who belongs to the countless Jewish mothers who lament their cruelly murdered children. The pain she experiences places her in solidarity with mothers of children dead by state violence everywhere. This portrait of Mary can be used to promote non-violent action (instead of violence) as "the only appropriate expression of faith."
Dorothy Lee offers an interesting and enlightening symbolic interpretation. For Lee, the mother of Jesus is one of the symbols of motherhood in the fourth gospel. In fact, she is the only overtly named maternal figure in the gospel. She is unnamed and is introduced with very minimal description but her importance is established by her presence in the two narratives of defining importance in John’s theological vision, the beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry. In the Cana story, the narrative presents the mother of Jesus as establishing Jesus’ humanity and this is important, because for Lee, the humanity of Jesus is central in John’s symbolic world. It is Jesus’ flesh that reveals divine glory. But for Lee, the Cana story also indicates that her role is not limited to the physical sphere. There is more to her than being a biological mother and this "more" is revealed at the foot of the cross.
Lee asserts that the scene at the foot of the cross is difficult to understand at the literal level. She asks, "Why would Jesus instigate a kind of adoption ceremony to provide his mother with a son when the Johanine text has made it perfectly plain that Jesus already has brothers capable of taking responsibility for their mother?" For her, the majority view that at the foot of the cross, Jesus constituted a new family of disciples does not explain the adoption ceremony completely. "How come they were not given to each other as brother and sister and how come the other women, who were also standing near the cross, were not incorporated?" She asserts that the need for the adoption ceremony implied that Mary was losing a son and that the disciple was losing a mother. Jesus is the son that Mary was losing but who is the mother that the beloved disciple is losing? Lee believes that it is also "Jesus who is the ‘mother’ the beloved disciple is to lose and yet also in a symbolic sense, regain." Motherhood has its location in Jesus himself and Lee explains this by going back to the bread of life discourse in John 6 where Jesus says "those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me" (Jn 6:56) and "whoever eats me will live because of me" (Jn 6:57b). Jesus here is not referring to cannibalism but to feeding on a living person. What is this but the image of a mother breastfeeding a child. So for Lee, the mother of Jesus symbolizes Jesus’ spiritual motherhood. The motherhood that gives of its own flesh and blood that others may live. Individually, the two representative figures become the founding figures of the community and their mother-son relationship symbolizes the maternal and filial nature of the community itself. This mother-son relation implies that with Jesus’ departure, the "motherhood" of Jesus, symbolized by Mary, is now located within the community of faith itself.
The Death of Jesus (Jn 19:1-22)
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there… When Jesus had received the wine he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
The death of Jesus happens while his mother and his beloved disciple are still at the foot of the cross. This scene is often read as a parallel to Acts 1:14 and Pentecost when the scared disciples at the upper room received God’s spirit manifested by the tongues of fire that settled on their heads. In John, the giving of the Spirit to the disciples happened at the foot of the cross when Jesus "gave up his spirit." It is interesting to note that the mother of Jesus was there when this happened.
The Piercing of Jesus’ side ( Jn 19:31-37)
Since it was the day of preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the Sabbath, especially because that Sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So, they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed… when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear and at once blood and water came out… These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled "None of his bones shall be broken." And again, another passage of scripture says, "They will look on the one whom they have pierced."
The Johanine Mary was a witness not only to the death of her son but even to the piercing of his side. "This is the climax of Jesus "hour," the piercing of his side and the unusual flow of blood and water from his (pierced) side" (Grassi, 81). This scene too is interpreted symbolically, especially in relation to the lines in the Old Testament that are being fulfilled. In this scene, a twofold prophecy is fulfilled: First, that which says "No bones of his will be broken" and the other, which says "They will look on him whom they have pierced." The double fulfillment plainly shows that God’s plan of salvation is fulfilled in this event, and that the crucified Jesus is the promised bringer of salvation. For the fourth evangelist, Jesus is the true Passover Lamb whose blood flowed out for humankind and whose dying has brought new life (Bultmann, 677). For Dorothy Lee, the piercing of Jesus’ side and the flow of blood and water is the final maternal image in the gospel of John. "The mingling of water and blood is particularly evocative of childbirth in which both elements flow" (Lee, 158). In this scene, Jesus’ death can be read as the "sorrowful labor that brings forth the joy of life" and "his wounded side is also the ‘womb’ that produces life" (ibid., 158). The ones who gaze on him whom they have pierced reveal themselves then to be children of God, born of divine love through the labor of Jesus and the Spirit.
Summary of the Portrait of the Mother of Jesus in the Gospel of John: An Exercise in Characterization3
This characterization is not to be read historically. It employs a literary reading of the texts based on the stories, the characters and their movements within the stories as they appear in the gospel narrative.
The mother of Jesus appears in only two scenes in the gospel of John, one scene in the book of signs (Jn 2:1-12) and one scene in the book of glory (Jn 19:25-27). In addition to these appearances, the mother of Jesus is also referred to in Jn 6:42. In the whole gospel, she is not named and simply referred to as the "mother of Jesus" or "his mother." Aside from "mother," the other title given to her is "Woman" which is used by Jesus in speaking to her in the two scenes where she appears. In the gospel, there is no reference to the father of Jesus or his mother’s husband, and the gospel does not give any information why this is so. This could mean that Jesus’ mother is already a widow. There is a reference to the "brothers" of Jesus in Jn 2:12 and in Jn 7:1-10. This might mean that these "brothers" are the other sons of his mother or their relatives. As to place of residence, no clear information is given but the reference in Jn 2:12 that "Jesus went down to Capernaum with his mother, brothers, and disciples" might indicate that she is from Capernaum. A summary of this general information from the gospel of John makes it clear that the evangelist was not interested in giving general information. The only thing that is certain is that this woman is the mother of Jesus.
The Narrator’s Portrayal of the Character
It is striking to note that, basically, the narrator portrays the mother of Jesus as being "present." At the wedding at Cana, "the mother of Jesus was there," and later, "she was standing near the cross of Jesus." She was not simply present, she was present in two defining moments in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. She "was there" when he performed the first of his signs and revealed his glory, "she was also there" when he was lifted up on the cross, gave up his spirit and his side was pierced and blood and water flowed out. What is the narrator implying in placing the mother of Jesus in these significant scenes? This researcher proposes that the narrator is implying that she plays a significant role, in the life of Jesus and in the life of the Church after Jesus’ death. She herself is a significant character and her significance is in her "presence." In addition to this, when the narrator gave a listing of the people standing near the cross of Jesus, his mother was the first in the list implying that of all those near the cross, she was the most significant. The same can be said at the wedding at Cana. Of all people present in the wedding, she was the first one named. At the end of the Cana scene, Jesus is shown by the narrator going down to Capernaum "with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples." Again, one is given a list of people and Jesus’ mother is first in the list confirming her significance and primary position compared to the other characters aside from Jesus. The narrator establishes the significance of the mother of Jesus at the very outset of Jesus’ ministry and the leading role she plays even until Jesus’ death. Her "presence" in these significant moments is definitive of her character.
From this perspective, it is significant that she is not mentioned in the conclusion of the Cana scene. The Cana scene concludes by saying, "Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him." How about his mother? Did the narrator forget her—apparently not, because she is again mentioned (and the first in the list) in the next verse. What is the response of Jesus’ mother to the first of his signs, belief or unbelief? The disciples believed! Of the mother of Jesus, nothing is said. The answer to this question is revealed in chapter 19. There, she is shown standing near the cross of Jesus with the other women and Jesus’ beloved disciple. Apparently, the response of the mother of Jesus, like that of the disciples, was also belief.
Actions and Speech of the Character
The narrator also reveals Mary’s character through her own actions, reactions, and words. At the wedding feast at Cana, the mother of Jesus is portrayed as actively present. She begins a conversation with Jesus by telling him that "they have no wine" when the wine has run out. What does this say about her? First, that she is one who is sensitively present to the situation. Apparently, she is not just there, she knows what is happening around her. Second, she is shown as one who acts according to what she knows. She did not stop at being aware of the problem, she did something about it by telling Jesus. Third, scholars agree that Mary did not just give a statement of fact, she actually expressed an implied request. In telling Jesus about the lack of wine, she was implicitly asking Jesus to do something about it. The ease by which she made this request gives one a clue as to the nature of Mary’s relationship with her son. Here, a certain level of intimacy between Jesus and his mother is felt. Mary is shown here as being comfortable with her son, comfortable enough to make the request.
After her implied request, Jesus answers with a refusal, and the story does not say how she reacts to Jesus’ answer. Instead, she turns her attention to the servants and instructs them to do whatever Jesus tells them. This shows a picture of the mother of Jesus being unaffected by Jesus’ answer and yet she understood Jesus perfectly because the next scene shows Jesus actually telling the servants what to do. Here again, one sees her sensitive to the situation and to Jesus’ sentiment and again she acted appropriately: Not telling Jesus what to do but simply telling the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them giving Jesus room to do whatever he sees fit. She is not only sensitive to the situation, she is also sensitive to her position relative to her son.
Finally, in the scene at the foot of the cross, the mother does not say or do anything. She is simply there, standing near the cross, witnessing the death of her own son. What one has is a picture of a suffering mother who bravely stands near the cross of her dying son.
The Reactions of Other Characters to the Character Being Examined
In the two scenes where Mary appears, there are three characters or sets of characters who are shown reacting to her: Jesus, the servants, and the beloved disciple. The reactions of Jesus to her at the wedding feast at Cana confirm what is already known about her from the narrator and her own speech and actions. First, in answer to her implied request, Jesus gave a refusal saying, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." Here, Jesus establishes that his "hour" takes precedence over Mary and her request. This is consistent with the portrait one sees of Mary when she says, "Do whatever he tells you." Second, again, the intimacy between mother and son is demonstrated. The grown-up Jesus does not seem to feel obliged to do whatever his mother asks of him, he was free enough to refuse her. Contrary to what others see, I see in this scene a healthy and comfortable relationship between mother and son.
Jesus then tells the servants what to do and turns the water into wine. He actually fulfills his mother’s implied request. This is not really in obedience to his mother because he has in reality refused his mother. When Jesus performed the miracle, it was to "reveal his glory." Given this interpretation, this scene then demonstrates that Mary’s request is actually, in fact, consistent with Jesus’ intention, a confirmation that she is "sensitively present" to the situation and to her son.
At the foot of the cross, Jesus initiates an adoption scene. He gives his mother to the beloved disciple as a mother, and gives the beloved disciple to her as son. Here, Jesus confirms that she is his mother, and as he dies he provides a family for her. Maybe, this is also consistent with the possibility inferred from the general information that Mary was already a widow at the time of Jesus’ death. Then the beloved disciple "took her into his own home." The mother of Jesus, after the death of her son, was not left alone. She had a family in the person of the beloved disciple.
One more significant point is how Jesus addresses his mother ("Woman"). What does this reveal about the mother of Jesus? Scholars note that this is how the Johanine Jesus typically addresses women. It is not disrespectful nor dishonoring. Scholars note that this implies that in addressing his mother as "woman," Jesus sees her as a woman of faith or as a disciple. This researcher believes that with this address, the evangelist wants the readers to see the mother of Jesus in the same light as the other women in the gospel, particularly the Samaritan woman at the well who encountered Jesus and then believed, the woman caught in adultery who at the end also believed in Jesus, and Mary Magdalene who encountered the risen Lord and also believed. The Cana scene ends without the reader knowing whether the mother of Jesus believed or not. She then reappears at the foot of the cross showing the reader that she, in fact, believed. The address "woman" is a further confirmation of this reading. Like the other three that Jesus called "woman," his mother also became a "believer."
Movement of the Character within the Text
The mother of Jesus appears first when Jesus performs the first of his signs and next at the foot of the cross, at the hour of Jesus’ exultation. At first she is mother, who is present to the situation and to her son, a mother who has an intimate and comfortable relationship with her son Jesus. In the scene at Cana, Jesus begins to invite her to move beyond her role of being mother by calling her "woman" and refusing her request. The scene ends without the reader knowing whether she said "yes" to that invitation or not. One only knows that she remained to be a mother to Jesus and that Jesus went back home with her. At the foot of the cross, Jesus’ invitation became very clear. Again, he calls her "woman" and gives her to the beloved disciple. She will no longer be Jesus’ mother only, she is "woman," one who believes, and the mother of the "beloved disciple" and all those who like him, believe in Jesus. She stood at the foot of the cross, bravely suffering the death and loss of her son and in this context of pain, she said "yes" to the invitation, and the beloved disciple took her into his home. In the gospel of John, one sees the movement of Mary from being simply the mother of Jesus to being Jesus’ mother-disciple.
From John’s gospel, Christianity received the picture of Mary as mother and later as disciple. In John’s gospel, she is first of all the mother of Jesus who later moved from motherhood to discipleship without abandoning the role of being mother to Jesus. In fact, her motherhood role even expanded and she became mother of the beloved disciple and mother in the community of believing disciples. We therefore see a picture of Mary as mother-disciple. She was not just Jesus’ mother who later became his disciple nor was she Jesus’ disciple who happened to be his mother. Mary, is mother-disciple, both, at the same time. These two portraits are two sides of the same coin. She is not one without the other—she is mother-disciple. The mother of Jesus (Mary as mother) is also at the same time the "woman" (disciple) at Cana and at the foot of the cross.
1. We recognize that the question of the authorship of the fourth Gospel continues to be debated upon but for purposes of convenience, all throughout this article, the fourth Gospel will be referred to as the Gospel of John.
2. See Lee, Chapter 8: Giving birth, Symbols of Motherhood, pages 135-65.
3. This Exercise in Characterization entails investigating the text of the Johanine narrative to see what the narrative says about a certain character. The characterization contains some general information about the character being studied (e.g., location and number of appearances, titles given, gender, age, marital status, occupation, place of residence, relatives, other pertinent information); the narrator’s portrayal of the character; the character’s self revelation through his/her own speech and actions; the reactions of the other characters to the character being examined; and the movement of the character within the gospel as a whole. In the previous section, an investigation of the texts where the mother of Jesus appears has already been done. What follows is this researcher’s personal interpretation of Mary’s characterization in the gospel.
Brown, Raymond et al.
1978 Mary in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press).
1971 The Gospel of John: A Commentary, translated by G.R. Beasley-Murray (Basic Blackened, Oxford).
Culpepper, Alan R.
1998 The Gospel and Letters of John (Nashville: Abingdon Press).
Grassi, Joseph A.
1988 Mary: Mother and Disciple (Welmington: Michael Glazier Inc.).
2003 Truly Our Sister (New York: Continuum).
2002 Flesh and Glory (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company).
1999 Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York: Herder and Herder Book, The Crossroad Publishing Company).