The Spousal Meaning of Mary's Last Words
by Edward P. Sri
Maryís command to the servants at Cana-"Do whatever he tells you" (Jn. 2:5)- represents her last recorded words in the Bible. And they serve as much more than an exhortation to obedience. They echo the Old Testament spousal covenant of love between Yahweh, the divine Bridegroom, and Israel, His bride.
Mary and Mount Sinai
First, Maryís words recall the typical response for covenant obedience in the Old Testament. For example, the theme of doing whatever God tells you appeared three times when Israel established its covenant with Yahweh at Mount Sinai. When Moses first announced to the Israelites their mission and the duties of being Godís chosen people, the whole congregation responded, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do" (Ex. 19:8). And when God established this covenant with Israel in a ritual ceremony at Sinai, Moses solemnly announced the words of the Lord to the people, and the congregation twice responded, "All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do" (Ex. 24:3, 7).
Similar words were repeated later in Israelís history when they renewed their covenant as they settled in the Promised Land (Josh. 24:24) and when they began to rebuild Jerusalem after their exile in Babylon (Neh. 5:12). Thus, at the pivotal moments in Israelís history-the covenant at Sinai, entering the Promised Land, the restoration of Jerusalem-doing whatever God says is paramount and is closely associated with covenant obedience.
This sheds light on Maryís words at the wedding feast of Cana. At the dawn of the messianic era, a new turning point in Israelís history has arrived. As the Messiah is about to perform His first miracle and thereby launch His public ministry, we once again encounter the theme of doing whatever God says. Mary tells the servants, "Do whatever he tells you," and with these words she echoes Israelís profession of faith at Sinai. Mary "personifies in a certain manner the people of Israel in the context of the covenant" and stands as a faithful representative of Israel.
Joseph and Jesus
Second, Maryís words find a close parallel with what Pharaoh said about Joseph in the Book of Genesis. During the severe famine in Egypt, Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of storing up the wheat harvest in the plentiful years before the famine and distributing it once the food crisis arrived. When the starving people cried for provisions, Pharaoh told them, "Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do" (Gen. 41:55)-an expression almost identical to what Mary would later say at Cana.
This Biblical connection between doing whatever Joseph says and doing whatever Jesus says is quite significant, for there are several parallels between Joseph and Jesus in these two scenes. Just as Joseph overcame a lack of food during the famine with his storehouses of grain, so Jesus overcomes a lack of wine at the wedding by changing a large volume of water into wine. Just as Joseph is presented as having the Spirit of God in him at the beginning of his work (Gen. 41:38), so Jesus is described as having the Spirit upon Him at the start of His ministry (Jn. 1:32). Just as Joseph was 30 years old when he began to store up the grain for the people (Gen. 41:46), so Jesus is 30 years old when He provides the wine for people at the wedding feast (see Lk. 3:23). And just as Pharaohís words about Joseph-"what he says to you, do"-came when Joseph enters into his reign, so Maryís words-"do whatever he tells you"-come when Jesus begins His public ministry with the first miracle in His kingly mission.
The Third Passover
Maryís words also contain Eucharistic significance. This can be seen when we consider how Johnís Gospel is structured around three Passover feasts that span the course of three years.
Each of the three Passovers in Johnís Gospel occasions a miracle involving bread or wine or both. The first Passover comes near the time of the wedding feast at Cana (see Jn. 2:13 and preceding verses), when Jesus changes water into wine in a time of need. The second Passover brings a second miracle in which Jesus provides an abundance in a time of need: the multiplication of loaves to feed the 5,000 (Jn. 6:4). In his general audience on March 5, 1997, John Paul II said these first two Passover miracles-involving wine at Cana and bread in the wilderness-anticipate the greatest miracle which would take place on the third Passover: the changing of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.
Jesus performed this miracle near the time of the Jewish feast of Passover (cf. Jn. 2:13), as he did in multiplying the loaves (cf. Jn. 6:4). He thus showed his intention to prepare the true paschal banquet, the Eucharist. His desire at the wedding in Cana seems to be emphasized further by the presence of wine, which alludes to the blood of the New Covenant, and by the context of a banquet. In this way . . . Mary obtained the miracle of the new wine which prefigures the Eucharist, the supreme sign of the presence of her risen Son among the disciples.
In the wider context of Johnís Gospel, therefore, Maryís command at Cana may have Eucharistic undertones, for the "good wine" that Mary leads the servants to is itself a foreshadowing of the supernatural wine of the Eucharist.
Trust Without Hesitation
Now letís consider how Maryís command "Do whatever he tells you" has profound effects on the servants, inspiring them to trust Jesus in a radical way. Just put yourself in the servantsí shoes. Jesus tells them to take the six stone jars for the Jewish rites of purification, fill them up with water, and draw some out to present to the steward of the feast. These stone jars would have been used for ritual washings of hands (and possibly feet). Astonishingly, Jesus tells the servants to fill up these very jars with water and then present their contents to their boss for serving as drink for the guests.
This would take a lot of faith! Imagine what the servants are thinking: "Fill up these jars? With water? And serve it to the guests? How is this going to solve the problem?" From a human perspective, Jesusí plan does not make any sense. Yet first and foremost, Jesus is asking the servants not to understand His plan, but to trust Him.
Similarly, we may not always grasp Jesusí work in our lives. We may not see clearly where the Lord is leading us. Yet, as John Paul II reminded us in his general audience on February 26, 1997, Maryís command "Do whatever he tells you" challenges us to trust Him without hesitation not only when it makes sense to us, but "especially when one does not understand the meaning or benefit of what Christ asks."
Mary Inspires Prompt Obedience
With this background, we can see how Maryís words "Do whatever he tells you" inspire the servants to tremendous faith. Johnís Gospel, in fact, highlights how the servants respond as faithful disciples, promptly following Christís commands, no matter how mysterious those commands might appear to be.
Jesus gives two orders to the servants. First, He tells them, "Fill the jars with water." Johnís Gospel immediately points out that the servants not only obeyed Christís command, but did so perfectly: "And they filled them up to the brim" (Jn. 2:7). Second, Jesus tells them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast," and Johnís Gospel notes "they took it" (Jn. 2:8). Notice how Johnís Gospel goes out of its way to tell us that the servants did exactly as they were told.
Jesus: "Fill the jars"
The Servants: "They filled them" (Jn. 2:7)
Jesus: "Take it to the steward"
The Servants: "They took it" (Jn. 2:8)
Clearly, these servants followed Maryís exhortation, "Do whatever he tells you." As such, they are portrayed as faithful disciples, obedient to Christís words.
The Return of the Bridegroom
Finally, Maryís words "Do whatever he tells you" spoken in the context of a wine miracle and a wedding feast help reveal Jesus as the messianic Bridegroom coming to renew His marriage covenant with His bride, Israel.
Consider the rich symbolism of wine for the ancient Jews. First, the prophets used wine imagery to foretell the restoration of Israel and the coming of the Messiah. In the future era when God would rescue Israel from its enemies, there would be a great feast of wine (Is. 25:6) with wine overflowing in abundance (Amos 9:13-14; Joel 2:24; 3:18). In light of this background, the large quantity of wine at the feast in Cana would signal that the Old Testament prophecies about the messianic era are coming to fulfillment.
Second, wine also had marital symbolism, as it celebrated the joyful union of bride and groom in the Song of Solomon (Song 1:2, 4; 4:10; 5:1; 7:9; 8:2). Thus the centrality of wine in the context of a wedding feast at Cana would bring to mind the love between husband and wife.
This has important implications, for in the Old Testament, Godís covenant with Israel was described as a marriage relationship. Yahweh was the divine Bridegroom, who married His bride, Israel, in the covenant at Sinai. When Israel was obedient to the covenant, she was described as a faithful spouse. But later, when Israel broke covenant with Yahweh and began worshipping other gods, she was seen as an unfaithful wife, an adulterer, or even a harlot (see Jer. 2:1-2; 3:1-12; Ezek. 16; Hos. 2).
Nevertheless, the prophet Hosea announced that Yahweh would remain faithful to Israel even though she was unfaithful to Him. In fact, God one day would woo Israelís heart back to Him and renew their relationship in a marriage covenant that would endure forever (Hos. 2:19-20).
In the first century, Jews were longing for their Messiah to come and for their divine bridegroom to heal and restore their covenant of love just as Hosea had foretold. That Jesus chose to have His first miracle provide an abundance of wine in the context of a wedding feast is intentional. It signals that the messianic Bridegroom has finally arrived to usher in the great feast and reunite Himself to His bride, the fallen people of Israel.
Mary and the Brideís Heart
Johnís Gospel goes out of its way to highlight this marriage symbolism, using the word "marriage" itself twice in the opening three verses of this story (Jn. 2:1-3). With this emphasis on the marriage, one would expect to read about the bride and groom. But strikingly, the narrative tells us nothing at all about the newlyweds themselves. Instead, the two main characters in the focus of this story are Mary and Jesus.
This is why some have suggested that Mary and Jesus serve as the symbolic bride and groom, heralding the restoration of the marriage covenant between Israel and Yahweh as Hosea once foretold. With Jesus, this is clear. Jesus is identified in the Gospel of John as the messianic Bridegroom (Jn. 3:29) and He is the main actor at the wedding at Cana, providing the messianic wine in the context of a marriage feast.
We already have seen how Mary represents Israel in this account, echoing Israelís loving response to Yahweh when the covenant was first established at Mount Sinai. By saying "Do whatever he tells you," Mary recalls Israelís original words of spousal covenant fidelity-vows that had been severely broken through centuries of sin and idolatry, but ones that are now being restored as the messianic Bridegroom begins His public ministry with His first miracle.
In this light, "Do whatever he tells you" should not be seen as a legalistic call to tediously obey an all-powerful master. Rather, Maryís words reflect the heart of a bride in love with her bridegroom. Representing the faithful of Israel, Mary invites the servants, the disciples, and all of us to run after our Bridegroomís desires, ardently seeking to fulfill whatever He wants of us.
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Edward P. Sri is a professor of theology and Scripture at the Augustine Institute
in Denver, Colorado. He is the author of or contributor to several Emmaus Road books, including his latest book, Queen Mother
, which is based on his doctoral dissertation. This article published in Lay Witness Magazine and reproduced with permission of Catholics United for the Faith
. All rights reserved.