Patrick Henry Reardon on a significant relationship
Alone among the evangelists, St John informs us that ‘standing by 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 nearby, 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 to his own home’ (19.25–27).
In the structure of the Johannine Gospel, this scene near the end of the narrative stands in correspondence to another scene near the beginning, namely, the wedding feast of Cana (John 2.1–12). In these two portrayals, both found only in John among the evangelists, we observe several common elements that provide the key to their interpretation.
First, Mary is not seen in John’s Gospel outside of these two places. She frames the work, as it were, appearing only at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and at the end. In both places she is called only ‘the Mother of Jesus.’
Second, in each place where Mary appears, mention is made of the ‘hour’. In the first instance John introduces her as instrumental in ‘the first of his signs’, wherein he ‘manifested his glory’ at Cana (John 2.11). In the dialogue that leads to this manifestation, Jesus seems at first to decline his mother’s hint that he should relieve the sudden shortage of wine at the wedding feast. He explains to her, ‘My hour has not yet come’ (2.4).
However these enigmatic words are fully to be explained, it is sufficient to observe that they do closely tie this scene at Cana to the scene at the cross later on. When the ‘hour’ of the Passion does finally come, it is in reference to the manifestation of Jesus’ glory: ‘Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may also glorify you’ (John 17.1).
With respect to Jesus’ mother at the Cross, then, John tells us, it was ‘from that hour the disciple took her to his own home’ (19.27).
The Man and the Woman
Third, in each of these two scenes in John, Jesus addresses his mother as ‘Woman’ (gyne). Though this bare expression strikes the modern ear as impolite, perhaps even harsh, it was in fact a formal and decorous way for women to be addressed in biblical times (Cf Matthew 15.28; Luke 13.12; John 4.21; 8.10; 20.13).
In the context of John’s Gospel the word ‘woman’ seems especially significant. Besides at Cana and at the Cross, the Lord elsewhere uses this same word ‘woman’ to portray the coming ‘hour’ of his own Passion: ‘When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a man has been born into the world’ (16.21).
Jesus likens this sorrow of the childbearing ‘woman’ to the sorrow experienced by the disciples of Jesus at his coming Passion: ‘I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. . . . So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you’ (16.20, 22). The ‘woman’ facing the hour of the Lord’s Passion, then, is identified with the messianic congregation itself, rather much as we find in Revelation 12.
The Woman and the Church
If the community of faith can symbolize the mother of the Messiah, then the physical mother of the Messiah can certainly symbolize the community of faith. Indeed, this symbolic development is hardly surprising. The mother of Jesus, after all, is portrayed in much of the New Testament as the model Christian. She it was, according to Luke, who ‘kept all these things and pondered them in her heart’ (Luke 2.19). It was she who declared herself ‘the maidservant of the Lord’ (1.38), and in the whole New Testament she is the first to speak of ‘God my Saviour’ (1.47). Consequently, John places the mother of Jesus within the company of Christian believers beside the Cross, herself even serving as a sign and symbol of the Church.
Fourth, in both places in John ‘new families’ are formed, in the first scene by the wedding itself, and in the second scene by a kind of adoption, in which the beloved disciple (who also remains anonymous, we should note) ‘took her to his own home’. This ‘home’ is, in fact, the Church.
Patrick Henry Reardon is a senior editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christanity. www.touchstonemag.com