Appeared in Vol. 3 No. 3 Download PDF here

The maternity of Mary is extremely important to the salvation of men, and no understanding of redemption is complete without a consideration of her role. Donna Marie Sticco takes up the challenge of explicating Mary’s motherhood in terms which adequately reflect the depth of her relationship to both God and men. Through a comparison of passages in Genesis, the Gospels and Revelation, and by drawing upon patristic, medieval and modern exegesis, the author displays a precious grasp of what Mary must mean to Christians today, and of what she truly is in the eyes of Christ.

Near the cross of Jesus there stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Seeing His mother there with the disciple whom He loved, Jesus said to His mother, `Woman, there is your son.’ In turn he said to the disciple, `There is your mother.’ From that hour onward, the disciple took her into his care. After, Jesus, realizing that everything was finished, said to fulfill the Scripture, `I am thirsty.’

It will be the purpose here to examine the above passage in the hope of shedding light on its Mariological content. To do this it will be necessary to briefly examine early Christian reflections on the matter, which will include summary statements of the Fathers. It will also be helpful to make comparisons between Genesis 3 and Calvary, Eve and Mary. Finally, I intend to discuss those aspects of Calvary which are latent in the Cana narrative, before concluding with a direct statement of Mary’s spiritual motherhood as it relates to the Church.


The primitive reflections of the Church on the scene beneath the Cross leaned to pious, filial interpretation of the events which transpired between Jesus, Mary and John. Ambrose, Chrysostom and Augustine offer us in their writings samples of thought which prevailed in the earliest centuries of Christianity. The following comments of Chrysostom are representative of this tradition. In reference to Mary he wrote:

Because as His mother she would naturally be grief stricken and need a protector, with good reason He placed her in the keeping of His beloved disciple. To him He said `Behold thy mother.’ He uttered these words to unite them in love of one another, and therefore, as the disciple was aware of this, `he took her into his home.'(1) … He himself, though crucified, gave His mother to His disciple’s keeping, to instruct us to take every care of our parents, even to our last breath. … it was of itself no small thing that he [John] was deemed worthy of such an honor as this, and thus received the reward for his fidelity. (2)

The purpose of such teaching was to impress on the early Church the humanity of Christ, and to use that humanity to instruct the faithful in imitation of Christ. Chrysostom (4th century) was writing against the backdrop of the Marcion heresy (2nd century), among others, which rejected Christ in His humanity and dismissed not only the infancy narratives, but the fact of any childhood at all.(3) Chrysostom also used the text to demonstrate the extent to which one should love and care for one’s parents, especially one’s mother, citing the filial actions of Christ in His dying moments as the supreme example of filial devotion, noting this action is in marked contrast to John 2:4 and Mt. 12:48, commonly interpreted to be in the line of rebuke. (4)

The sentiment which concerns itself with the “expression of a son’s devotion” is commented on by Lucien Deiss. Deiss does not dismiss this interpretation as mere piety; however, he would have us penetrate more deeply into the mind of Christ as John sees it because it is not John’s style to be familial (e.g., he fails to mention Mary or the infancy in the opening of his Gospel). Quoting P. Dubarle, Deiss argues:

This was an act that concerned the whole world, not simply a manifestation of a son’s devotion to alleviate the loneliness of a widowed mother. Jesus is portrayed as lucidly aware of the significance of events (Jn. 13:1-3; 18:4; 19:28). How can we believe that at that solemn moment He, who is from above and who was about to return whence He had come, would have spoken only of the realities of this world (cf. 3:11), and not of divine mysteries? Without denying the immediate objective of His words, we are compelled to attribute to them a more profound meaning.(5)

Deiss reminds us that it is John who is entrusted to Mary first (v. 26, “Woman, there is your son”) and not primarily Mary to John. Deiss’ observation makes it clear that much more is involved than provision for Mary’s earthly security. For if this were Christ’s primary concern, He would certainly have made previous arrangements for her with family or friends. One who had predicted His death on at least three occasions would surely have attended to so simple a matter beforehand.


The Jerome Bible Commentary records that while humanly speaking Christ’s action toward Mary was an act of filial piety, it is even more a sign of the spiritual motherhood of Mary, the new Eve, the mother of the faithful.(6) The Eve-Mary parallel is firmly rooted in the tradition of Patristic teaching, the most notable commentators on the topic being Sts. Justin and Ireneus.

John describes the scene at Calvary with the Genesis account in mind: Mary is the woman of Gen. 3:15; her sufferings, as mother of the Church, can be read into verse 16; the tree of life is the Cross; the promised offspring of v. 15 is Christ. It is even interesting to note that the place of execution is described by John in 19:17 as `The Place of the Skull’, a reference to the Jewish tradition that the site was the burial place of Adam.(7)

Justin and Irenaeus make an extensive comparison between Eve and Mary.(8) Both were espoused virgins; one was addressed by a fallen angel, the other by a messenger of God; the former conceived the word of the serpent bringing forth disobedience and death; the latter conceived the Incarnate Word, and through her obedience and faith brought forth Eternal Life. Christ is likewise compared to Adam: a man to save all men, immortality restoring the mortal, the first-born of God repairing the damage wrought by the first-born of men.

Such was the teaching of the early Church, of the Patristic Tradition firmly rooted in the direct descendents of the Apostles.


Exegesis has come to show that the woman of Genesis, the woman of Calvary and the woman of Cana are one. This is best illustrated through the study of the Johannine texts.

John sees Mary in terms of her function in salvation history. Crucial also to Johannine thinking is the hour, the significance of which can only be understood in light of the Paschal mystery of the sufferings and death of Christ. At both Cana and Calvary Mary functions prominently in view of the hour.

In his Commentary on the Gospels from the Fathers, Aquinas recapitulates the early teachings of the prominent theologians on the significance of Cana. As has been observed earlier concerning primitive writings, the emphasis is usually on a human interpretation. Chrysostom sees Mary approaching Christ after her confidence in Him has been increased by the testimony of the Baptist (Jn. 1:29f); Jesus responds out of respect to her and also to indicate He is not yet under subjection to the “hour”.(9) Bede sees her actions in light of her understanding of His mercy and pity.(10) Augustine, on the other hand, interprets Christ’s response to her as a rebuke-she is not mother to the Divinity which will work the miracle, but only to His humanity, and so, Augustine explains, He addresses her more solicitously on Calvary where she beholds Him in the infirm humanity of which she is part.(11)

Modern exegesis goes beyond these confines, perhaps because it is the need of our day to establish anew a firm belief in the Redemption, and the part Mary plays in the salvation of souls. Our goal must be to understand Mary’s presence at the wedding feast in Cana in light of her function, her role in the economy of salvation. There is ample material, again, in the standard Biblical commentaries. Cana is commonly understood to be the line of demarcation between the private and public lives of Christ, the event which ends His “childhood” and indicates His adult messianic activity. John refers to it as the first of his “signs”. Many parallels can be drawn between the “incidentals” of Cana and Calvary: the first of Christ’s signs of glory, it occurs on the “third day” (Jn. 2:1) as did the Resurrection, the final glory of Calvary; the celebration marks a wedding-a reminder of the bridal language used throughout the Old Testament in reference to Yahweh and His people; the water made wine is symbolic of the New Covenant Christ brings, a covenant which is sealed by His Blood on the Cross. And Mary is there in both instances.

Mary is addressed on both occasions by her Son as “Woman”, a common term of respect, even affection, but, nonetheless one which was not usually used in reference to one’s mother. Christ’s response in v. 4, variously translated as a question and again as a statement, poses no problem if one concentrates on what is being implied, for it serves no constructive purpose whatsoever to prove that Christ is at odds with Mary! Rather, in light of the “hour”, which is present if only by way of a foreshadowing, we are directed to look at Mary as she is cast in a new role, no longer merely the mother of Jesus, but rather the “Woman”. In the words of the Jerome Bible Commentary, Christ, by His address, “reminds her of the only title under which she may command His intervention.” And it is only in view of the “hour” of which He speaks that her intercession is efficacious.(12)

Gerald Vann very ably describes the confluence of the Cana-Calvary episodes:

Thus for mother as for Son, Calvary is the culmination of what was initiated at Cana: the `beginning of the signs’, the initia of the messianic mysterion is also the moment of separation (itself proclaimed long beforehand in the synoptic losing and finding story of the Child in the temple when the Word must leave mother and home behind him and embark on His journey as a homeless wanderer …) as Jesus with the performing of His first sign, passes from the status of child to that of Son of Man, a role which in Jn. 19:26 is as it were formally promulgated.(13)

Cana is the action which inverts the hourglass, so to speak, beginning the slow, steady flow of sand which would pour out over the course of almost three years of ministry, emptying itself in the final mad rush of the Passion. Vann describes that scene at Calvary with a fresh perspective:

When the hour came for the Son to return to His Father, this end was a beginning: not the falling of the curtain when the drama was over, but the rising of the curtain on a new scene, the rending of the temple veil for the new approach to the newly accessible God. In the same way, when Mary’s days were accomplished, and she brought forth her Son, this was a beginning; and when His childhood ended at Cana, this was a beginning, the `beginning of miracles’, the initia of the mysteries; and when on the Cross, He told her, `Woman, that is your son’, this was for her yet another beginning.(14)


The development of a theology of Mary’s universal maternity follows a consistent pattern. Always revered as the mother of the Savior, her position, as well as the divinity and humanity of Christ, was defended and clarified by the early Councils. By 784 she was already addressed as the mater electorum, the mater credentium, the matergentium.(15) In the llth century, Fulbert of Chartres gave her the title of Mother of the Whole World, and by the 13th, it was the common belief that she was not only Mater Dei but Mater nostra as well.(16)

It can only be ascribed to the work of the Holy Spirit that the events of Calvary should be seen to have such widespread implications as far as Mary is concerned. Mary’s spiritual motherhood was not invented on Calvary. On the contrary, it began over thirty years earlier with the message of an angel. Such is the mystery of the Incarnation which as yet was not apparent to the Fathers, but which in our time has led to a conciliar declaration on Mary as Mother of the Church.(17)

John helps us to see by his Cana narrative that which is always present in the mind of Christ: Mary is already the mother of those who live in Christ; hers is already the power of intercession. When Christ addresses her as “Woman”, He is merely calling attention to her vocation which is yet to be fulfilled on Calvary. Mary, it is true, had already given birth to her Son, her “first-born”; but He is also her first-born in light of Calvary, where the “days of her confinement” are fully completed. It is only through the sufferings and death of the Head of the Mystical Body that the members are given life. And until that fact is accomplished in its cruel and bloody reality, Mary’s universal maternity remains, as it were, in potency.

Understood in this light, Mary’s acceptance of John as her son is not simply a relationship of adoption:

Mary’s Motherhood is not one of adoption but rather it was one inaugurated on the day of the Incarnation. It is thus a motherhood that is rooted in her divine maternity in regard to Jesus, and presupposes the doctrine of the Mystical Body. Viewed in this light her spiritual motherhood will not appear as a new motherhood added to the divine maternity, but rather as the unfolding in space and time of the mystery of the Incarnation, of the single reality that Mary is the Mother of Jesus.(18)

In verse 28 and again in 30, John records that Jesus “realizes” it is finished. The work of salvation was therefore not complete until this final detail was attended to. Jesus’ dying words are His final lesson: Mary’s work is forever maternal. In great pain she brought forth the Church, His Mystical Body on earth. John is symbolic of all those disciples who were given life through the Cross, and it is only through the accomplishment of His Passion that she can be addressed as Mother in the absolute.

In addition to her universal mystical motherhood, Mary enjoys a unique “bridal motherhood”.(19) Mary at the foot of the Cross signified the new Eve as Christ signified the new Adam. Through her co-operation, life was given to all those who had been dead through sin. While at the annunciation she became the spouse of the Holy Spirit, it is at the Crucifixion that she becomes the mother of the living. She is truly the Bride of the Lamb. Just as Eve was formed from the side of Adam to become his helpmate and partner, Mary, standing at the side of the Cross (and in view of the merits of Her Son), was the first fruit of His Redemption and the occasion of further fruition among men. She is a figure of the Church which was brought forth from the wounded side of Christ. Mary is daughter of Israel, bride of the Spirit and the Word, and Mother of the Church; she is also mother of the Son who gives her life.

It is in this final analysis of Mary’s bridal motherhood that one sees how she assumes the characteristics of the woman in Apocalypse 12. As a type of the Church, Mary is both the one brought forth from Christ as well as the one who brings him forth. The birthpangs of Israel which yielded the Messianic age are comparable to her sufferings on Calvary which ushered in the age of a new Christian community. Her Son is the First of many offspring who, excepting Him who was “caught up to God”, suffer the great tribulations because they “keep God’s commandments and give witness to Jesus.”

Thus Mary is our Mother because we are the brothers of Christ (cf. Lk. 8:21). Mary is not our Mother because John received her as mother, but because she is the mother of Jesus, who is the Head of the Body, the bond of union. John does not become suddenly what he was not. Rather, Christ’s words indicated what really is. Gerald Vann makes a more than adequate summary statement:

And as, in the imagery of Genesis, it is from the side of Adam that Eve is formed, and at his side that she stands as his helpmeet and the mother of men, so in John it is at the side of the crucified Christ that the second Eve stands, her com-passion the helpmeet to His

Passion, and from that position at His side that her second vocation, the motherhood of men in vitam aeternam is inaugurated.(20)

It is in this sense that we come to see Mary also as co-redemptrix: “When Scripture (Jn. 19:25-27) shows us Mary by the cross . . . as the `woman’ . . . , we can see that the function of conceiving redemptive grace, which belongs to her as Christ’s mother, was carried further by her, throughout her whole life, until the `hour’ of the redemption ….”(21) Fortunately for her children, Mary’s is an eternal “fiat”.



1 St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist (Homilies 44-88; New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1960), p.433.

2 Ibid., p. 431.

3 Ibid., p. 433.

4 Ibid., p. 431.

5 Lucien Deiss, Mary, Daughter of Sion (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1972) p. 194.

6 JBC, ed. Raymond Brown, S.S., et al. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1968), Vol. II, p. 462.

7 Chrysostom, op. cit., p. 428; cf. Gerald Vann, The Eagle’s Word (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961) p. 107.

8 Deiss, p. 200, 201, 204.

9 St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Four Gospels (Oxford: James Parker and Co., 1874) Vol. VI, p. 83.

10 Ibid., p. 83.

11 Ibid., p. 82.

12 JBC, Vol. II, p. 427.

13 Vann, p. 108.

14 Ibid., p. 108.

15 Deiss, p. 213 (Mother of the Elect; Mother of Believers; and Mother of the Peoples, resp.).

16 Ibid., p. 213 (Mother of God and Our Mother, resp.).

17 Lumen Gentium, Documents of Vatican II (Daughters of St. Paul) VIII.This is well-developed in the  National Conference of Catholic Bishops document, “Behold Your Mother: Woman of Faith”.

18 Deiss, pp. 215-216.

19 Karl Rahner, Mary, Mother of the Lord (New York: Herder and Herder, 1963) p. 34.

20 Vann, p. 108. 21 Rahner, p. 13.