Why (in John’s Gospel) does Jesus call his mother “Woman”?
March 26, 2012 § 2 Comments
Dedicated, with love, to Margie, who gave her final “Yes” to God on the Feast of the Annunciation.
Did you then pass on this “final gift” to me from your new abode? For first thing, that same morning, a question from John’s Gospel illumined my heart.
Who can plumb the depths of scripture? There is so much there. Poetic passages. Words and phrases and whole chapters which cause our hearts to burn or our minds to stretch and ponder. Especially does John’s Gospel do this.
For a long time I’ve been pondering the Foot Washing (more on that eventually..) Which happened at the Last Supper. But recently I shifted my attention from the “last” banquet to the “first”: The Marriage Feast of Cana. Where Jesus’ mother plays a role. Except that Jesus addresses her as “Woman” – a strikingly impersonal word. But why?
Then, in the very next story he cleanses the Temple (of the money-changers and the merchants of birds and animals), and refers to it as “my Father’s House.” Hmm….
What’s fascinating, here is that while these first two stories allude to the “parentage” of Jesus, in each case there is a startling aspect to the information. And what startles, of course, also draws our attention. When Jesus calls his mother “woman” instead of mother, we take notice and we wonder what that means. In the Temple story, when Jesus claims the Temple as my Father’s House, it startles us, for this contradicts what one disciple has already asserted is common knowledge: “Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” Here too, we take notice and we begin to wonder. Not only about Jesus but about his mother as well. What mystery surrounds her and his birth? For John’s Gospel does not tell us what we hear from Luke and Matthew, though its Prologue carries hints.
The mother of Jesus enters John’s Gospel only twice – near the beginning, at the wedding feast, and near the end, from the cross. On both occasions Jesus addresses her as “Woman”. And we have to assume this has meaning. Indeed, my commentaries tell me that everything in John’s Gospel is oriented to theological meaning.
So, why does Jesus address his mother as “Woman”? And what does this say theologically?
I know neither Greek or Hebrew. But I do have two books that look at Greek terms in the Four Gospels and at Hebrew terms in the Pentateuch. The Gospel index tells me that John uses woman (in Greek) only in John, both times when addressing his mother. The Pentateuch index tells me woman (in Hebrew) occurs in the second and third chapters of Genesis. Now, this is significant, for John’s Gospel begins immediately with allusions to Genesis, to creation, to the Word’s role in creation, together with the Word coming into the world – unrecognized until witnessed. (And indeed, Jesus has just promised, right before the story of the wedding feast, that the disciples will witness revelations more amazing than Jacob who said, after a theophanic dream: “God was in this place and I did not know it.”)
Now, maybe you’ve already looked up the story from Genesis to which I went the morning Margie died: the part where the first human (made from humus, soil) is all alone in the Garden and God decides to make him a “helper” – one of his own “flesh and bone”. The Hebrew term for “woman” means “helper” I am told. It is a generic term. One of those Hebrew words which can refer to a single individual and to a class, a people – at the same time. (Like Jacob who was renamed Israel, a term which stands for a man and a whole people.) Perhaps you recall the story, where after God has put the man to sleep and “fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman”:
Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.’
If this verse underlies Jesus calling his mother “Woman” in John’s Gospel, what then is its theological significance? Several things come to mind. In addition to underscoring that Jesus did indeed inherit from his mother flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone, the generic term “woman” (which links her with all of humanity) is an indicator that we too, her brothers and sisters, thereby share “flesh and bone” with Jesus. That we too are now transformed – like water into wine.
So it’s as if John’s Gospel, in its first two stories, introduces the Incarnation while theologically hinting at the way in which this Mystery elevates all of humanity at the same time. Forecasting, as well, the event at the foot of the cross – where the glorified Jesus joins his beloved disciple (each of us) with the one he again calls Woman.
So let us briefly consider Mary’s role at the wedding feast. Yes, she functions as “helper” – one who calls Jesus’ attention to the lack of wine and who instructs the servants to “Do whatever he tells you to do.” She is also specifically linked (by Jesus) to the first Woman in Genesis, thereby underscoring that her humanity is inherited by Jesus and so partaken of by us all. So that when Jesus first reveals his Glory (through the miraculous change of water into wine) he also reveals something about us.
And if I’m on the right track, then the cleansing of the Temple in John’s Gospel (which other evangelists place at the end of his ministry, but John places at the beginning) adds to the theological message. For in addition to manifesting his Divine parentage and thus his authority in the Temple, equating the Temple to his body – already linked to ours in the previous story – tells us that our bodies too are spiritual temples.
There is way more here, however. For our intimate connection to Jesus and our common humanity with Mary, his mother, speaks to the Divine illumination of the inspirited Mary ~ as our calling too. For Mary is a “type” for divinized humanity (Theotokos, “God Bearer”) – just as Jesus is a “type” for the Temple. Put them together. And consider: Within our own hearts, as in Mary’s womb, is the place of the Word’s conception (or birth, as Eckhart suggests). The place of our transformation ~ the Divinized Heart. I have more to say on this, indeed I intend to “show” what I mean – through a series of icons, but that is for another post.