by Dr. Edward Sri | May 8, 2012 12:01 am
To run out of refreshments at a party or to not have enough hamburgers for a summer cookout might be an embarrassing moment for a modern-day host. However, to run short of wine at an ancient Jewish wedding feast would represent a social catastrophe that would severely damage a family’s reputation for years.
According to customs of the time, a first-century Jewish wedding would not have been a private family celebration, but a public event recognizing the union of the bride and groom as well as the joining of the two families. The celebration typically took place in the groom’s own home, which was made open to guests for several days and thus open to public scrutiny.
It was the responsibility of the groom’s family to ensure there was enough food and drink for all the guests. To fulfill this public social role, most families needed to draw not only on their own family resources, but also on the help of colleagues from their social group. How well the feast went communicated to guests the family’s social status and honor. To run out of wine at a wedding feast, therefore, would have inflicted grave humiliation on the groom’s family, signaling that they were unable to fulfill their role adequately and that they lacked the social connections to preserve their honor.
This social context sheds much light on the crisis facing the bride and groom at the wedding feast of Cana. But it also gives us insight into Mary’s role in this scene. Mary is the first to notice the impending disaster. She alone is aware of what is about to unfold, and she brings this crisis to the one person who can solve the problem: Jesus.
The Catholic tradition has pointed out how this scene expresses Mary’s compassion and attentiveness to others’ needs. Lumen Gentium describes Mary at Cana being “moved with pity.” Pope John Paul II said Mary was “prompted by her merciful heart” to help this family by bringing her concern for them to Jesus: “Having sensed the eventual disappointment of the newly married couple and guests because of the lack of wine, the Blessed Virgin compassionately suggested to Jesus that he intervene with his messianic power.”
This scene also serves as a pattern for Marian intercession. Just as Mary at Cana noticed the family’s needs before anyone else did, so Mary in heaven continues to notice our needs before we do. And just as Mary at Cana brought those needs to Christ, so does she continue to bring our needs to her Son through her intercession for us. In Redemptoris Mater, John Paul II wrote that this scene at Cana exemplifies “Mary’s solicitude for human beings, her coming to them in the wide variety of their wants and needs.” He continues:
At Cana in Galilee there is shown only one concrete aspect of human need, apparently a small one of little importance (“They have no wine”). But it has a symbolic value: this coming to the aid of human needs means, at the same time, bringing those needs within the radius of Christ’s messianic mission and salvific power. . . . Mary places herself between her Son and mankind in the reality of their wants, needs and sufferings.
Mary’s statement to Jesus – “They have no wine” (Jn. 2:3) – also reveals her great faith. Jesus is simply a guest at the wedding. He is not responsible for the festivities, and He does not have any wine at His disposal. From a human perspective, therefore, Jesus is not the person one would turn to for help. A more natural choice would be the steward in charge of the feast, the servants, or the bride and groom’s family.
Nevertheless, Mary’s instinct is to turn to Jesus with this predicament. In this moment of crisis, Mary seeks out Jesus and says to Him, “They have no wine.” This indicates that she believes Jesus can do something about the catastrophe at hand. And since Jesus is not in charge of the feast and does not have a large quantity of wine with Him, Mary seems to be asking for more than natural help. She hopes Jesus will perform some kind of extraordinary work to solve the problem.
What makes Mary’s faith in Jesus even more striking is the fact that up to this point in the Gospel story, Jesus has yet to perform any public miracles. Though Mary has not witnessed Jesus do miraculous works before, she still has faith in His supernatural power and believes He can help. In this way, Mary anticipates the great faith Jesus spoke of to Doubting Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn. 20:29). As one commentator expressed, “Our Lord’s words to Thomas apply exactly to Mary’s attitude at the wedding feast of Cana; she had never seen a miracle, but she believed.”
And as John Paul II pointed out, Mary here also anticipates the faith of the disciples who will come to believe in Jesus only after they have witnessed the miracle of water being changed into wine (Jn. 2:11). Mary, on the other hand, believed in Jesus’ supernatural power before she ever saw it manifested.
Next, we come to one of the most perplexing verses regarding Mary in the Bible. After Mary tells Jesus, “They have no wine,” Jesus responds, saying, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come” (Jn. 2:4).
At first glance, these words seem harsh – as if Jesus is pushing His mother away. Imagine a mother calling her 14-year-old son to the dinner table for supper, and the son responding by saying, “Woman, what do you have to do with me? My hour has not yet come!” To our modern ears, these words sound more like those of a rebellious teenager than of the holy Son of God!
However, if we consider this verse in light of ancient Jewish culture and in the wider context of the story of the wedding feast at Cana, it becomes abundantly clear that these words reflect no opposition between Jesus and Mary, but rather something positive, indeed something beautiful, about their relationship.
First, in John’s Gospel, Jesus uses the title “woman” to politely address other women with whom he has a positive relationship. This is seen, for example, when Jesus tenderly appears to Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday (Jn. 20:15), when He forgives the sins of the woman who committed adultery (Jn. 8:10), and when He draws the Samaritan woman to faith in the Messiah (Jn. 4:21). Given the positive way this address appears in John’s Gospel, Jesus calling Mary “woman” would not indicate a rebuke or lack of affection.
Second, in Biblical times a man might address a female as “woman,” but nowhere else in the ancient Greco-Roman world or in ancient Israel do we have a known example of a son addressing his mother with this title. Jesus addressing His own mother as “woman” would be unique in all of antiquity. This suggests that Jesus has some particular purpose in calling His mother “woman” – a purpose that goes beyond the normal, congenial way He addresses other women. When applied to Mary, this title likely has some important, symbolic purpose (which will be considered below).
Third, consider how Mary herself interprets Jesus’ words: Does she walk away from the scene feeling sad, hurt, or rejected in any way? Just the opposite: She hears Jesus’ words and immediately says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn. 2:5). Mary interprets Christ’s response so positively that she confidently believes Jesus is going to fulfill her request, and she tells the servants to be ready to do whatever her Son commands.
Finally, Jesus’ own actions indicate that He looks with favor on Mary’s petition. And He supplies much more wine than Mary or anyone at the feast would have imagined. The six stone jars used for ritual purification (Jn. 2:6) each would have held 15–24 gallons of water. Thus, when Jesus has those jars filled and changes all that water into wine, He ends up providing some 120 gallons’ worth for the wedding party. Now, if that tremendous overabundance is meant to be a rejection of Mary’s request, it is hard to imagine what fulfillment would look like! Far from denying Mary’s petition, Jesus provides in a way that exceeds all expectations.
Therefore, whatever Jesus’ words “woman, what have you to do with me . . . ” may mean, they do not imply a negative relationship between Jesus and Mary. Now let us consider the positive significance that the title “woman” has for Mary in light of the opening two chapters in John’s Gospel.
The Gospel of John starts with the words “In the beginning . . . ,” which hearken back to Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the next four verses, John goes on to write of light, life, creation, and light shining in darkness – once again, images taken right out of the creation story (Jn. 1:2–5). By drawing on these themes from Genesis, John introduces the story of Jesus against the backdrop of the story of creation, highlighting how Jesus comes to bring about a renewal of all creation.
Some scholars have noted how John’s Gospel continues this creation theme by setting up a series of days that establishes a new creation week. The sequence begins in 1:1 with the phrase “In the beginning.” John then demarcates a second day in 1:29 with the words “The next day . . . ” He then uses the same phrase to note a third day in 1:35 and a fourth day in 1:43. Finally, after the succession of these first four days, the story of the Wedding at Cana is introduced as taking place three days after the fourth day: “On the third day there was a marriage at Cana . . . ” (2:1). The third day after the fourth day would represent the seventh day in the Gospel of John. Consequently, the wedding at Cana comes at the climax of the new creation week, the seventh day.
Now we are ready to understand the profound meaning of Jesus calling His mother “woman” at the wedding feast of Cana. Highlighting how this scene takes place on the seventh day of the new creation week, John’s Gospel leads us to view Jesus and Mary in light of the creation story. And in this context, Jesus calls Mary “woman.” With the Genesis themes in the background, this title would bring to mind the “woman” of Genesis, Eve (Gen. 2:23; 3:20).
This woman of Genesis played an important part in the first prophecy given to humanity. After the fall, God confronted the serpent and announced his eventual defeat, saying:
“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.” (Gen. 3:15)
Given at the dawn of creation, these words, known as the Protoevangelium (“First Gospel”), foretell how the woman one day will have a seed, a son, who will crush the head of the serpent (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 410). Centuries later, at the wedding feast of Cana, this prophecy begins to be fulfilled. By calling Mary “woman” with the creation story in the background, Jesus in the narrative of John’s Gospel is not merely addressing her politely as He does Mary Magdalene or the Samaritan woman. Rather, He is identifying Mary as the woman of Genesis 3:15.
Far from rebuking His mother or distancing Himself from her, Jesus, in calling Mary “woman,” honors her in a way no woman had ever been honored before. She is the New Eve, the woman whose long-awaited Son will defeat the devil and fulfill the prophecy of Genesis.
Reprinted with permission from the July/August 2007 issue of Lay Witness magazine. © 2007 Catholics United for the Faith / www.cuf.org/Laywitness/index.asp
Dr. Sri’s latest book is A Biblical Walk through the Mass.
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