Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
John is careful to note that Jesus’ first miracle (at Cana) is done in response to Mary’s intercession ( John 2:1–11). Mary, the icon of the bride and the counterpoint to Jesus the groom, is exactly the importunate supplicant Jesus tells us he is looking for in the Parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1–8). She doesn’t take “no” for an answer, but first taps Jesus on the shoulder and says, “They have no wine” and, after a seeming rebuff, goes with perfect trust to the servants and tells them, “Do whatever he tells you.”
There is a strong tendency in Evangelical circles to read this story as yet another example of Jesus “rebuking” Mary. But the longer I contemplated it, the more problematic that way of seeing it became. For instance, if Mary is being “rebuked,” the question is, “Why?” For her “faithlessness?” That makes no sense. She obviously expects Jesus to be able to do something about the wine. But such an expectation is clearly an act of faith in him as Messiah since there’s no reason, humanly speaking, to think a poor carpenter would be able to do anything. So she’s obviously expecting something supernatural here.
At this point, many an Evangelical replies, “Yes, she had faith, of a sort. But it was a worldly faith. She wanted Jesus to perform wonders, but didn’t understand the depth of what his mission would ultimately mean. That’s why Jesus rebuked her with the words, ‘O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come’” (John 2:4).
But this makes no sense either. If Jesus is displeased with her allegedly worldly faith and her supposed hankering after mere publicity stunts, why does he grant her request? Everybody else who comes to him with worldly demands and requests for publicity stunts is invariably refused. Whether it’s Herod Antipas (Luke 23:8–9), or the man who wanted Jesus to adjudicate an inheritance dispute with his brother (Luke 12:13–21), or a mob who wanted to crown him king ( John 6:15), or Pharisees seeking a cool special effect from heaven (Matt. 16:1–4), or his own disciples wanting a dazzling display of divine artillery against the Samaritans (Luke 9:51–56), all such crude demands for worldly power and selfish stunts are flatly refused. Yet, according to a common Evangelical take on this story, Jesus allegedly “rebukes” Mary’s supposed crude desire for a publicity stunt—and then capitulates completely and does the stunt anyway!
Once again, this picture of Mary as pushy stage mother and of Jesus as a sort of sullen young actor shoved—whining about his unreadiness—on to the stage of history tells us far more about some Evangelicals’ attitudes toward Mary than it tells us about the actual events at Cana. Once again the specter of Mary as Mommie Dearest is conjured, but now with the added absurdity of an omnipotent divine Son too wimpy to stand up to his domineering Jewish mom. It is simply insupportable to anyone of common sense. So are there other alternatives?
Rev. Sam Harris at Evangelical John Ankerberg’s ministry offers a less harsh, but still unsatisfactory take. After noting (accurately) that the address “Woman” (Greek: gunai) is perfectly polite and does not have the cold ring in Jesus’ native language that it has in English, he continues:
“What have I to do with you” was a common conversational phrase. Again, it meant no disrespect. Jesus answers Mary’s request, not because she is His mother, but as part of His work as the Messiah. According to a footnote in the New Geneva Study Bible, “This indicates that Mary’s special role as Jesus’ mother gives her no authority to intervene in Christ’s messianic career.” Barclay suggests that Jesus was saying: “Don’t worry, you don’t quite understand what is going on; leaves things to Me, and I will settle them in my own way.” It must always be understood that Jesus was respectful of His mother, but He was beginning to distance Himself from His previous role as a dutiful son.
This reading also fails for a number of reasons. To begin with, it is difficult to see why Jesus’ first miracle, done in direct response to Mary’s request and even over his apparent protests, signifies Mary is powerless to intervene in Christ’s messianic career. It would appear, judging from the end of the story, that Mary’s intervention here had a rather pronounced impact on Jesus’ messianic career.
Second, it is not at all clear that Mary “doesn’t quite understand what is going on.” Still less is it clear that Jesus thinks Mary doesn’t quite understand what is going on. On the contrary, Jesus’ response shows he thinks Mary knows perfectly well what is going on: He’s the Messiah and she wants him to manifest himself to Israel.
And finally, it’s difficult to see in the text just what is compelling Jesus to “distance himself from his previous role as a dutiful son.” The subtext of that statement is that Mary (again) has some sort of false or worldly notion of what “Messiah” means (i.e., military hero, or miraculous stunt man, etc.) and so Jesus must “distance himself” from her false expectations to pursue his true mission. But, in fact, nothing in the text of the story justifies the assumption that Mary has false expectations of the Messiah. On the contrary, this assumption about Mary originates, not with the text of Scripture, but with a prejudice brought to the text by Harris and the sources he cites.
A Catholic reading would urge us to move away from the assumption that Jesus and Mary are in conflict at all. Indeed, my former pastor, Fr. Michael Sweeney, O.P., now the president of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, has repeatedly remarked to me that it is legitimate to note a certain playfulness in their exchange. What we’re seeing here is not Jesus the Teenage Messiah hagridden by mom and her neurotic need to impress the ladies from the Women’s Auxiliary with “My son, the Miracle Worker.” Nor are we seeing Jesus politely trying to escape the false expectations of a well-meaning but dim disciple. Rather, we’re seeing a piece of conversation—almost banter— between two people who are both acutely aware of who Jesus is and what he is called to do. Mary, after all, is no fool. She knows her Bible. She knows the meaning of the mission of Israel. And most of all, she knows her Son. A quick read of her Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55) shows that she has spent a long time pondering how, in the coming of Jesus, God “has helped his servant Israel, / in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, / to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.” Every word both Jesus and Mary speak is spoken in light of their shared awareness of that messianic mission and of the words of the prophets who taught Israel to await his coming. With all that as the backdrop of their conversation, Mary is revealed to be using language laden with double meaning to lovingly call Jesus to get on with his mission, not to impress the neighbors with a special effect or publicity stunt. Her point is not simply that the wedding guests have no wine. It’s that the whole nation has no wine. All Israel is waiting for the coming of the Messianic Son of David when:
. . . the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken (Is. 25:6–8).
This image of the “new wine” of the messianic age is not unfamiliar to Jesus. He has read the prophets, too, and their imagery is his own. Indeed, Mary was one of the people who taught him to read the prophets. And so he announces the dawn of the Messianic Age in language that once again links the image of a wedding with the image of wine:
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. And no one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (Matt 9:14–17).
So Jesus acknowledges Mary’s messianic expectation by replying that his “hour” has not yet come (a reply that makes no sense unless he knows Mary is calling him to begin his messianic mission). More subtly still, he acknowledges his messianic mission by calling her “Woman.” This is more than simply a polite address. It is, like all the rest of their exchange, as allusive to larger Old Testament prophetic realities as Mary’s request is. For in addressing her so, he is reminding us of another woman and the promise she and her seed were given long ago (Gen. 3:15) to “crush the serpent’s head.” The whole conversation makes it clear that Mary believes it’s time for Jesus to announce his identity as Messiah and inaugurate the final decisive battle, not with Rome, but with “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan” (Rev. 12:9); that Jesus knows perfectly well this is what she means; and that she knows he knows it. Rather than some inane request for drinks all round followed by a meaningless “rebuke,” what we’re really looking at here is a profound conversation in which Jesus and Mary know and understand each other perfectly.
Which is why Mary doesn’t back down, and Jesus doesn’t expect her to. The bride—the second Eve confronting the second Adam —seeks the new wine of the kingdom. Indeed, she does so with just the brass and stick-to-itiveness her Son urges all his disciples to have. And the result is precisely what she sought: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him” ( John 2:11). Mary, standing as a kind of icon of the whole Church in persistent and importunate prayer, chases Jesus until he catches her, and the courtship of Jesus and his bride the Church begins with Mary as the consecrated icon of the consecrated bride saying, in effect, “Maranatha! Show yourself, O Lord!”