At first glance, one might conclude that Mary is not an important figure in the Gospel of John. After all, she only appears in two scenes (at Cana and the Cross) and she only speaks twice in the entire Gospel ("They have no wine" and "Do whatever he tells you"). Thus, a quantitative analysis would render Mary an insignificant character in the fourth Gospel.
However, if one considers when she appears and what is specifically said about her, Mary’s crucial role in the Gospel of John becomes clearer. Mary may only appear twice, but both scenes represent pivotal moments in Christ’s life: the very beginning of His public ministry at Cana and the climax of His mission as He is dying on the Cross. In the first event, Christ performs His first miracle and begins to reveal His glory. In the latter, Christ’s glory is revealed most fully as He brings His redemptive mission to its culmination. Significantly, Mary has an important role to play in each of these pivotal scenes.
Another point that stresses Mary’s importance in John’s Gospel is that in each scene, Mary’s presence is mentioned three times. And each time she is not called by her personal name, "Mary," but is identified by her relationship with Jesus as His "mother." This triple repetition of Mary’s presence in each passage highlights her importance in these scenes. And the constant reference to her maternal relationship with Jesus underscores her intimate connection with her Son.
One final link between Cana and the Cross is how Jesus addresses Mary in each scene. Instead of calling her "mother" or "Mary," Jesus uses a title with which it would have been highly unusual for a Jewish son to address his mother. He calls her "woman."
"Behold Your Mother!"
Let’s take a look at this scene from Calvary and examine what it tells us about Mary:
But 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 near, 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. (Jn. 19:25–27)
On a basic level, these touching final words to Mary and His beloved disciple reveal Jesus’ loving care for His mother. Just before He dies, Jesus thinks about how His mother will be cared for after His death, and He entrusts her to His closest disciple.
While many commentators have noted this point, we must ask if there is something more being said about Jesus, Mary, and the beloved disciple in this scene. It seems unlikely that these words are meant to convey merely Jesus’ attention to Mary’s material, human needs. John’s Gospel as a whole is filled with much theological symbolism and prophecy fulfillment. This is especially the case in the surrounding context of this particular scene at the Cross, where practically every detail is given to show God’s plan coming to fulfillment. Consider the following:
First, just before the account of Mary and John at the Cross, the Gospel mentions how the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing and then goes on to explain that this was done to fulfill the Scriptures. The passage even quotes Psalm 22:18 to explicitly make the connection: "They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots" (Jn. 19:24).
Similarly, in John 19:29 the soldiers gave Jesus "a sponge full of the vinegar," a direct allusion to Psalm 69:21, which states, "and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink."
A third example: After Jesus dies, John goes out of his way to note that the soldiers did not break Jesus’ legs, a detail that highlights how Jesus died like a sacrificial Passover lamb, whose bones were not to be broken (Jn. 19:33; Ex. 12:46).
Finally, John mentions that the soldier pierced Jesus’ side and then quotes a prophecy from Zechariah 12:10, "They shall look on him whom they have pierced" (Jn. 19:37).
Casting lots, vinegar to drink, bones left unbroken, pierced by a sword—we have seen that for the Gospel of John, these are not bare historical details. Every point is filled with a deeper level of symbolism and theological meaning. And right in the middle of this chorus of events announcing God’s plan coming to fulfillment, Jesus says to Mary, "Woman, behold, your son!" Especially since all the details in the surrounding context are charged with great significance, it seems most likely that there is something much more profound going on in John 19:25–27 than Jesus merely making sure someone looks after His mother after He dies.
One key to unlocking the deeper meaning of this passage with Jesus and Mary is to examine the role of the third major character mentioned in this account: the beloved disciple.
The Beloved Disciple
Traditionally, the beloved disciple has been identified as the Apostle John. We will focus here on the important symbolic role this figure plays in the fourth Gospel.
The Gospel of John often uses individual characters to symbolize larger groups. For example, in John 3, Nicodemus is described as "a man of the Pharisees" and a "ruler of the Jews" who comes to Jesus by night and does not understand Jesus’ teachings. Some commentators note how Nicodemus represents the many Pharisees and other Jewish leaders who do not understand Christ and are left, like Nicodemus, in the dark. Similarly, the Samaritan woman in John 4, who has difficulty understanding Jesus’ words but later comes to some level of faith, represents the many Samaritans who have fallen away from Judaism but will come to believe in Christ.
A closer look at the figure of the beloved disciple indicates that this figure also represents more than an individual follower of Christ. He represents the ideal disciple. The beloved disciple is the one who is close to Jesus, leaning on his master’s breast at the Last Supper (Jn. 13:25). He is the one Apostle who remains with Jesus even in the face of Christ’s suffering and persecution—while the other Apostles fled, only the beloved disciple followed Jesus all the way to the Cross (Jn. 19:26). The beloved disciple also is the first to believe in the Christ’s Resurrection (Jn. 20:8), and he is the first to bear witness to the risen Christ’s lordship (Jn. 21:7; 21:24).
Therefore, while the beloved disciple denotes the individual Apostle John, he also serves as a symbolic representative of all faithful disciples. The beloved disciple stands for all those who intimately follow Christ, even in the midst of the Cross, and who believe in Jesus and bear witness to Him as Lord. In other words, this individual disciple in the Gospel of John represents all beloved disciples of Jesus.
Mother of All Christians
This has important implications for understanding Mary’s role in the Christian life. In Jesus’ last act before He dies, He entrusts this beloved disciple into a maternal relationship with Mary. On a basic level, this simply indicates that the beloved disciple has a special relationship with Mary now, like that of a son and a mother.
However, on a deeper, spiritual level, since the beloved disciple represents all faithful disciples, this passage can offer important biblical support for the doctrine of Mary’s spiritual motherhood of all Christians (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 968–70). In John 19, Mary becomes the mother of the beloved disciple, but in John’s Gospel, this beloved disciple represents all faithful disciples. Thus, one can conclude that Mary is in some sense the mother of all the faithful followers of Jesus who are represented by the beloved disciple.
Reflecting on this passage in his general audience on April 23, 1997, John Paul II explains that although Jesus does not explicitly present Mary’s spiritual motherhood over all Christians, the passage does point us to this reality:
"Jesus’ words ‘Behold your son’ effect what they express, making Mary the mother of John and of all the disciples destined to receive the gift of divine grace. On the Cross, Jesus did not proclaim Mary’s universal motherhood formally, but established a concrete maternal relationship between her and the beloved disciple. In the Lord’s choice we can see His concern that this motherhood should not be interpreted in a vague way, but should point to Mary’s intense, personal relationship with individual Christians. May each one of us, precisely through the concrete reality of Mary’s universal motherhood, fully acknowledge her as our own mother and trustingly commend ourselves to her maternal love."
The biblical support for Mary’s spiritual motherhood over all Christians finds even deeper foundations when we consider how this passage presents Mary as the "New Eve," who is associated with the royal son whom Genesis 3:15 foretold would defeat the serpent. And it is that theme which we will explore in our next column’s reflection as we continue to try to know Mary better through the Bible.