What exactly did Mary want Jesus to do?

St John tells us tantalisingly little about Mary the Mother of Jesus, but what he does tell us is replete with meaning. We first meet her in the Gospel at the wedding feast of Cana. John tells us that she “was there”, but that Jesus, along with his disciples, “was invited”. In other words, Mary wasn’t invited: she was there by virtue of some other reason, and it is fairly clear what that was.

Weddings at that time were an event in which the whole community took part, and the women-folk served the meal. That was why she was the first to notice that the wine had run out, a calamity for the young couple, as it would ever afterwards be mentioned whenever their wedding was talked about in the village. Indeed, it may well be that Jesus’ arrival, along with his disciples, swelled the numbers to such an extent that it caused the shortage.

Mary’s instinctive reaction is to turn for help to her Son. She doesn’t ask for anything, yet her statement “They have no wine” is in fact a request, and Jesus reads it as such. One even detects a hint of impatience in the reply: “What has this to do with me? My hour has not yet come”. But equally one hears a note of triumph in Mary’s voice when she turns to the waiters and says: “Do whatever he tells you”. What we lack, of course, are the unspoken looks and gestures, what is nowadays called body language, which psychologists say constitutes 70% of human communication, so we can only surmise what transpired.

What exactly did Mary want Jesus to do? Was she asking for a miracle? What is clear is that she knew that Jesus could solve the problem if he wished. But she must have also realised the consequences: that it would make him publicly manifest in a completely new way, his “glorification”, as St John calls it. And so it seems very daring of her to interfere in God’s plan and bring forward the “hour”. St John explicitly states that this was the first “sign” that Jesus worked, “and manifested his glory, and his disciples believed in him”: hitherto they had been following him because of his teaching and personality, but from now on they see God’s power working in him.

Were we to decide what would be a suitable manner for Jesus to first manifest his power, we would never have chosen the miracle of Cana: it seems so trivial, resolving a domestic embarrassment, yet that is what was done. It suggests, firstly, that domestic issues are not unimportant in God’s eyes, and certainly not in the eyes of Mary. It also underlines Mary’s power to get her way, as well as her daring. Christian piety has often portrayed tenderness as shyness, but there is nothing shy or retiring about Mary’s action. Indeed, it shows us that if we want to ask God for anything we should do so boldly and without hesitation.

There are a number of other lessons St John wishes to give us in the miracle of Cana. The extraordinary quantity of wine (180 gallons or so), of the best quality, is a counterpoint to the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves further on: both have clear Eucharistic overtones. When Jesus tells the waiters to fill the jars with water, “they filled them to the brim”. In other words, God provides, but our own response is not unimportant. As the Sermon on the Mount puts it: “The measure you give is the measure you get back” (Luke 6:38).

Perhaps the most memorable point of all is Mary’s instruction to the waiters: “Do whatever he tells you”. St John clearly intends it to be an instruction, not just to the immediate recipients, but to the whole Christian people, echoing the words of God the Father which the three apostles heard on Mount Tabor: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: listen to him”.

By Fr Brian McCarthy