By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
Mary is never named in the Gospel of John. In the only scenes featuring her, the beloved disciple refers to her simply as “the mother of Jesus.” Those two episodes act as bookends to John’s presentation of Jesus’ ministry, and highlight the role of Mary as mother both of the Church and of every individual Christian.
In response to his mother’s statement that the wine at the Cana wedding feast has run out, Jesus gives an apparently flippant reply: “What is this to me and to you, woman? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). There are limits, in fact, to the imitation of Christ; had I dared in my youth to call my mother “woman” after she requested something of me, I would have deserved a slap on the cheek, and certainly would have been afflicted with the scarring maternal glare-stare. (It is important to note that Jesus is not insulting his mother with his blunt address; different cultural customs explain our shock at his reply.)
The mother of Jesus inaugurates her son’s public ministry, alerting him to the need for more wine and directing the waiters to “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). The superabundance of wine generated from Jesus’ conversion of water (120-180 gallons, according to John 2:6), a clear sign of his Messianic identity, reveals Jesus’ glory for the first time. Yet Jesus is aware that the end of his ministry is already visible at the beginning.
John, a narrator of supreme skill, brilliantly ties together the first and final stories in which Mary participates. Both the wedding at Cana and the crucifixion scenes in John (19:25-27) contain the words “woman,” “mother,” and “hour.” Throughout the Gospel, Jesus and the narrator allude to his suffering and death as his “hour,” the moment of paradoxical triumph for the king whose reign is not of this world. The beloved disciple himself makes an unforgettable appearance at the foot of the cross; he, alone among the inner circle, remains faithful to the end:
“Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.”
Jesus had turned water into wine at Cana. Before blood and water pour forth from his pierced side (John 19:34), he entrusts his mother to the care of the disciple whom he loved. Some of the earliest Christian theologians perceived John to symbolize the entire Church of the redeemed, who receive Jesus’ mother as their own; according to the fourth century Saint Ephrem of Syria, “Christ gave to John Mary as his Church.”
Origen of Alexandria, writing around the year 230AD, offers a beautiful meditation explaining why every Christian must call Mary his or her mother. No one, he writes, can understand the Gospel of John “who has not leaned on Jesus’ breast (see John 13:23), nor received Mary from Jesus to be his mother also […] If Mary had no son except Jesus, in accordance with those who hold a sound opinion of her, and Jesus says to his mother, ‘Behold, your son,’ and not ‘Behold, this man also is your son,’ he has said equally, ‘Behold, this is Jesus whom you bore.’ For indeed everyone who has been perfected ‘no longer lives, but Christ lives’ in them (see Galatians 2:20).”
To be the children of Mary is a glorious and undeserved vocation to which Jesus calls every single Christian, every beloved disciple, from the cross. Her motherhood, mirrored in the nurturing life of the Church, is meant to be a comfort for us; her love and perseverance encourage us, and remind us of the beautiful summons to life in abundance, which we are called by God to embrace joyfully.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas.