John 2:1-11 is a particularly intriguing, often misunderstood text of Scripture:
On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. . . . Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples. When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification. . . . Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” . . . He said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the steward of the feast.” So they took it. When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from. . . [he] said . . . ”Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
I find two essential keys to understanding this text. First, we have to understand the allusions to Jesus and Mary as the New Adam and the New Eve, recapitulating all that was lost in the Garden of Eden. Second, we have to understand the Marian emphases that are specific to salvation.
For the New Eve . . .
- John begins his Gospel with words that anyone familiar with the Old Testament would connect with Genesis 1: “In the beginning was the Word.”
- It is no coincidence that St. John sets the wedding feast on “day seven” of seven conspicuous “days” he lays out in John 1-2. Hearkening back to the seven days of the first creation, day one goes from 1:6 to 1:28. Day two runs from 29 to 34, day three from 35 to 42, day four from 43 through 51. And then day seven begins in 2:1 as “the third day” after the fourth day, wherein Jesus would begin his ministry that would “make all things new,” or bring about a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1,5).
- Jesus uses the term woman for his mother, which is a reference to Mary as the prophetic “woman” of Genesis 3:15 and Jeremiah 31:22, the mother of the Messiah, who along with her “seed” (Christ) would crush the head of Satan (Gen. 3:15) and inaugurate the New Covenant (Jer. 31:22-34).
- Through Mary’s intercession, Jesus performs his first sign, manifests his glory as the Messiah, the anointed one of God, and brings the apostles to faith (John 2:11). The New Eve is integral to the mission of the New Adam.
Then there are the points specific to salvation:
- Because of the work done through Mary’s intercession, the text says, the disciples believed in Jesus. Thus, Mary is instrumental not only in “giving birth” to Christ’s ministry, in which he would “make all things new” (Rev. 21:5), but also in “giving birth” to the disciples’ faith—a faith apart from which it is “impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6).
- Mary intercedes for the people at the wedding feast, who symbolize the entire people of God—who, elsewhere in John’s writing, are invited to a much greater “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:7-9).
- Jesus’ first sign, or miracle, as a result of Mary’s intercession, is the transformation of “six stone jars” of purification waters—these would be the baptismoi, or baptismal waters of the Old Covenant—into wine, a prophetic symbol of New Covenant perfection. (In Mark 7:4, we find these purification waters referred to as “baptismous” in Greek. And in Isa. 25:6; Jer. 31:12; Joel 2:19, 24; Luke 5:37-39; etc. we find “wine” to be a symbol of the New Covenant. This is not to mention the importance of the symbol of wine used in our New Covenant Eucharistic sacrifice.) There is no separating Mary from the ministry of her son inaugurating the New Covenant from its beginning to the very end, as we will see when we get to the Crucifixion in John 19.
There has been a whole lot of ink spilled over the language of John 2:5: “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” There can be little doubt that this is language expressing animosity between two parties, or even a rebuke. On the surface, it seems almost scandalous. So what is going on here?
Scripture scholar Fr. William Leonard says somewhat euphemistically that this language indicates “a divergence of viewpoints between the two parties concerned.” He shows how this phrase is a Hebraism—a Hebrew phrase transliterated into Greek—used in multiple texts in the Old Testament, always portending a similar meaning of “divergence” or rebuke (see Judg. 11:12; 2 Sam. 16:10, 19:22; 2 Kings 3:13; 2 Chron. 35:21).
This idiomatic Greek expression, ti emoi kai soi—“what have you to do with me”—is the same expression used by the demons possessing the demoniacs of Gadara in Matthew 8:28-29:
And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?”
However, here is the crucial point: Fr. Leonard explains that what seems to be a refusal on the surface is actually “a refusal ad mentem”—a refusal “to a purpose,” or “with a purpose in mind.” (See Fr. William Leonard, A Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, p. 984.)
We have another well known “refusal ad mentem” in Matthew 15:22-28, where Jesus rebukes a Canaanite woman three times as she comes to ask him to heal her demon-possessed daughter. Jesus’ initial refusals to that woman and to his mother serve to underscore the essential nature of her intercession in the matter. The Canaanite woman’s daughter is eventually healed, but not until she has persisted in her intercession for her daughter. Likewise, Mary’s divine son eventually performs his first miracle, brings the apostles to faith, and launches his ministry that will bring all of God’s—and Mary’s—children eternal life. But just as with the Canaanite woman, it would not happen without Mary’s determined intercession, even in the face of an apparent refusal.
Both of these great women are icons for all and teach by example the perennial truth: it has pleased God to involve our cooperation in his work of salvation. The Catechism says, “God has freely chosen to associate [all Christians] with the work of his grace” (2008)—and to associate Mary with that work to a singular and preeminent degree.