“The man who writes a good love sonnet needs not only to be enamored of a woman but also to be enamored of the sonnet.” ∼ C.S. Lewis
I was reading the Gospel of John and my eyes fell upon lines that would change forever the way I think about Mary’s role in the New Covenant. It was Jesus’ work of salvation at its most crucial time, the “hour” of his Passion, and the author of John tells the story with poetic precision and economy of language:
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 into his home (John 19:26-27).
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Drawn by their simple beauty, I read the words of Christ, the “red letters,” in Greek: Gynai ide ho huios sou…Ide hē mētēr sou. “Woman, behold, your son… Behold, your mother.”
Then I made a fatal mistake. I counted the words and syllables. Here’s what it looks like (because Koine Greek uses the article, it may look like there are nine words when in fact there are seven):
Seven words in the original Greek, seven words with fourteen syllables, and fourteen is, of course, divisible by seven. Jews in Jesus’ day would have been familiar with the number seven as a beautiful number, a holy number, a number that represents covenant. With elegant simplicity and deep spiritual insight, John is trying to draw his readers’ attention to something—but what?
More Than Meets the Eye?
It is often assumed that, in keeping with the biblical injunctions to honor one’s parents (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16), Jesus was simply making some last minute provisions for his mother. But by including this detail is this really the message John wants to send to his readers? The theory that John includes this detail only to inform his readers that Jesus arranged for Mary’s welfare is a violent mismatch of colors. Not only is this the most un-theological interpretation imaginable, not only is it grossly incongruent with John’s style and the theological motif of the Fourth Gospel as a whole, not only is it boring, but it clashes with the gravity of the Crucifixion itself.
One of the greatnesses of the Fourth Gospel is that it portrays not merely an account of Jesus, but the evangelist’s vision of Jesus. Behind every great work of art there is the artist’s encounter. John saw Jesus. He saw him as no one else has ever seen him—as the Beloved Disciple standing with the mother of God at the foot of the Cross. John’s vision involves an omission of some aspects of the scene and a greater emphasis on other aspects. We know from the synoptic Gospels that John omits several of Christ’s utterances on the Cross. He trims the last words of the dying Christ down to only three sayings, and one of the three is the “Behold, your mother!” moment. Why? Certainly not because the evangelist considered Mary’s welfare to be of utmost importance to the message of Calvary! Of all the things Jesus said on the Cross, why did John include this particular detail?
To answer this question, we must remember that the Fourth Gospel is not merely history, but interpreted history. John does not simply tell us what happened, he tells us what it means. I would suggest that John gives readers literary clues to help us understand the meaning of the “Behold, your mother!” oath. He wants us to see that the death of Jesus is the re-creation of man. Golgotha is a new Genesis. In entrusting the Beloved Disciple to the maternal care of Mary, and Mary to the care of the Beloved Disciple, Jesus is in fact ratifying his new covenant, making a new family. And in the family of God, Jesus gives Mary a special role.
With short sentences connected by coordinating conjunctions (“and”), John’s literary style is simple. But don’t let that fool you. He writes with as much fastidiousness as Shakespeare writes any sonnet. He crafts every line, utilizing parallelism, rhythm, repetition, chiasm, contrast, irony, metaphor, and symbol. The numerical composition of the Fourth Gospel is especially a testament to John’s genius. Like many writers in the first century, John tries his hand at a popular poetic conceit known as gematria. He applies geometry to the arrangement of the story, often even to the words and syllables of a single line, to add layers of meaning and theological texture, allusion and innuendo.
For example, John uses the number of events or occurrences of a particular word to convey a theological message, like the three denials of Jesus or the three utterances from the Cross. Or the seven signs that point to Jesus as the Messiah (2:1-11; 4:46-54; 5:1-15; 6:5-13; 6:16-21; 9:1-7; 11:1-44). Or the seven “I am” sayings of Jesus (6:35; 8:12; 10:7; 10:11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1).
The famous prologue (1:1-18) gives full ventilation to John’s exceptional creative power. Not only is it structured as a chiasm (inverse parallelism), not only does it re-tell the creation narrative while introducing the new element of the tabernacling Logos, but it is also mathematically elegant, moving through the words “uniquely begotten,” “Christ,” and “Father.” As Richard Bauckham concurs, the prologue has exactly 496 syllables in the Greek, and 496 is a “triangular” number in that it is the triangular sum of the numbers from 1 to 31 and is therefore a “perfect” number because it is equal to the sum of its divisors. 496 is also the numerical value of the key word “uniquely begotten” (monogenḗs, John 1:14, 18). As a master wordsmith, John crafts the prologue in a high style to convey a high Christology. The following passage (1:9–2:11) has 1,550 syllables, which is the numeric value of ho christos. Similarly, John designed the High Priestly Prayer (17:1-26) to have exactly 486 words. Why? Because 486 is the numerical value of the word “Father” (patḗr) which begins the prayer and occurs five times within it.
With the eye of an artist, John is intentional about the shape, even the numeric composition, of his prose. It’s plausible, then, that when telling the story of Jesus at its climax—when the Son of God is nailed to the bloody Cross—John would craft Christ’s solemn pronouncement to Mary and the Beloved Disciple to conform to the covenant pattern of seven. But why seven?
Seven is a Covenant Number
John tailors “Woman, behold, your son… Behold, your mother” to have seven words with fourteen syllables because he sees Golgotha as a new Genesis. Christ’s “hour” on the Cross is when God unifies a new family, and in Jewish tradition when a family welcomes new members, both parties seal the covenant bond either by swearing an oath, sharing a common meal, or offering a sacrifice. During his Passion, Jesus ratifies a new covenant with creation and mankind—and Mary is a vital link.
Here’s how. With the exception of 6:42, the mother of God is mentioned by John only twice, strategically, at the very beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry (2:1-12; 19:26). In the first instance of this inclusio, Christ tells his mother that his “hour” has not yet come; in the second, in the predicted “hour” of his Passion, he gives her some kind of mission in relation to the Beloved Disciple—and we know that the Beloved Disciple is not just an individual disciple; he is portrayed by the evangelist as an icon of every disciple whom Jesus loves. In such a way Mary “frames” the ministry of Christ. By engaging the number seven for the “Behold, your mother!” solemn pronouncement and, as we shall see, by composing other literary clues, John guides his readers to see that Mary has a unique, ongoing role in the New Covenant.
For Jewish readers, seven is a covenant number because God ratifies his covenant with creation in the hallowing of the seventh day, the day of divine rest (Gen. 2:2). The Hebrew word for seven, sheva, also has a verb form. To shava is to swear a covenant oath, “to seven oneself.” Throughout the Old Testament, then, the number seven emerges when covenants are made, families are being united, or sacrifices are offered. For example, with the exception of when God refers back to the covenant he just swore, when God swears his covenant with Noah, the word “covenant” appears seven times (Gen. 9:9-16). Another example is how the Bible looks back on Eden as the first tabernacle, the special place where God “walked” (Gen. 3:8). The tabernacle, or later temple, is integral to covenant. So as the phrase “and God said” frames the seven speeches of creation in Genesis, so also the phrase “and Yahweh said” frames the seven speeches of the building of the tabernacle (Ex. 25:1; 30:11, 17, 22, 34; 31:1, 12). As God creates the universe in six days and then consecrates and blesses it on the seventh, so also Solomon builds the temple in seven years and seven months, and blesses and consecrates it by offering seven petitions during a seven-day liturgy (1 Kings 5-9). As God “walks” in the garden, his presence filled the tabernacle, and the tabernacle is considered a tiny snapshot of the whole cosmos.
It is only natural, then, that if John wishes to draw his readers’ attention to the Cross as the culmination of creation—a new Genesis, a new family, and a new covenant—he would use the number seven. This is also why he would have Mary reappear on the scene and highlight that Jesus, the New Adam, refers to his mother as “woman” (gunē).
At first, Jesus calling his mother “woman” sounds impersonal, even cold. But not only is the address considered polite in biblical times, for a first-century Jew it is rich with biblical significance: Genesis 3:15 describes the mother of the Messiah as the “woman” whose offspring crushes Satan. When Jesus first alludes to his “hour” he addresses his mother as “woman” (2:4); the next time Mary appears is when his “hour” has come, and again Jesus refers to her as “woman” (19:26). But would the Jewish ear pick up on the Genesis 3:15 reference?
Given the Johanine plot development, the Johanine themes and character portraits, the Cross would recall Genesis (and therefore creation, family, and covenant) for the Jewish reader. Before we unearth the “four clues” John plants in the Passion narrative, I want to just quickly zoom in on the “woman.”
As the woman who conceives and gives birth to the Messiah, Mary fulfills the prophecy of Genesis 3:15. She is the mother of “the offspring,” the summation and personification of all Israel (Luke 1:46-55), the vital link in a lineage completed in Christ. Jewish readers would have been familiar with the significance of seven in the lineage of Adam and Eve, Seth and all Israel, for the number seventy symbolizes wholeness and completeness, and the number of Adam and Eve’s offspring adds up to seventy nations (Gen. 10), Jacob and his family descends into Egypt as seventy persons (Gen. 46; Ex. 1); Israel leaves Sinai as seventy families (Num. 26).
Think of the generations of Israel as double helix, with “Adam’s line” running through the patriarchs to Jesus, the New Adam, and “Eve’s line” coursing through the matriarchs to Mary, the New Eve. Richard Bauckham stresses the theological significance of the “gynocentric story,” especially with Ruth, in anticipating the Christ. This pair of parallel helices intertwined about a common axis converges at last in the person of Jesus Christ. The “masculine line” is fulfilled in the tabernacling Christ, and the “feminine line,” as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger phrases it, is fulfilled in the tabernacle that is the womb of Mary, the ark of the New Covenant.
John goes out of his way to make the reader think of Genesis. Not only does the Fourth Gospel open with the same opening lines from Genesis, “In the beginning,” it also continues from this “first day” through the seven days of creation in Genesis. Jesus encounters John the Baptist “on the next day” (1:29); “the next day” after he meets John the Baptist, he calls the first disciples (1:35); and “the next day” after that, he calls two more disciples (1:43). So four days. The evangelist begins the next scene with the strange words, “on the third day” (2:1). Why? This cannot be the sequential “third day” because Jesus has already moved through the fourth day. John means the third day from the fourth day, which brings us to the seventh day, the day of God’s covenant rest. Then John stops counting days. Why? As the first creation story took place in six days and concluded with a seventh day of rest, the Sabbath, so also the second creation story concludes with the seventh day of marriage: the wedding feast at Cana (2:1-11).
What happens at this wedding feast on the “third day”? What is the first of John’s seven Messianic signs? The spouse of the Holy Spirit, the mother of the Word made flesh, the lowly handmaiden and virgin, Mary, intercedes and mediates for the bridegroom’s family. And what does Jesus do in response to his mother’s request, her intercession? He says, “O woman, what do you have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” And he complies with her request! Jesus’ answer not only draws attention to his relationship with his mother, but links that relationship to his “hour”! With natural grace, John leads the reader to see the connection between Christ working his first miracle at his mother’s intercession and the special task he gives her at the “hour” of his death!
What does this have to do with covenant? Just this: in the beginning, God ratifies his covenant with creation and Adam on the seventh day, and the evangelist knows there’s a connection between Jesus and Adam, between the covenant of the first creation and the covenant of the new creation. Like Adam, Jesus is the son of God. Like Adam, Jesus is tested in a garden, the garden of Gethsemane. Like Adam, Jesus is led to a tree where he is stripped naked. Like Adam, Jesus falls into the sleep of death so that from his side would come forth the New Eve (John 19:26-35; cf. 1 John 5:6-8). To illustrate that the Cross is a new creation and a new covenant, in addition to employing the number seven, John does at least four things:
First, he draws the readers’ attention to gardens. John points out that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus takes place in a garden (18:1, 26). As Satan used a serpent to betray the first Adam in Eden, Satan used Judas to betray the New Adam in the Garden of Gethsemane (13:27). “But where the serpent had succeeded, Judas failed,” writes Sir Edwyn Hoskyns, “since the death which Judas-Satan caused was not a punishment for sin, but the means of new creation by which Eden was reopened.” In the first garden, Adam disobeys God. But in this second garden, the New Adam accepts the cup of obedience, reversing the first Adam’s disobedience.
The evangelist comments that, “at the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden” (19:41). As Adam is created outside a garden and then put into it (Gen. 2:15), so also the New Adam must re-create humanity outside a garden before he is put in it. As the death of the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament happens just outside the tabernacle, which was the recovery of the Garden of Eden, so also the death of the perfect Sacrifice happens just outside a garden.
And notice that John tells us that Mary Magdalene visits the garden where Jesus was buried only to find an empty tomb; she then sees the Lord in the garden, but, with typical Johannine irony, mistakes him for the gardener (John 20:15)! Was she entirely wrong? The risen Lord is the gardener. Hoskyns puts it this way: “He is Lord of the garden, and once more He walks in His garden in the cool of the day, the early morning, 20:1, and converses not with the fallen but with the redeemed.” Christ “plants” the garden in Eden (Gen. 2:8) and he “plants” the Church. In heaven, this garden will be transformed into the heavenly city. “He will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord” (Is. 51:3).
The link is strong. In the beginning, God creates man by a garden. So also in the new beginning, God re-creates us by a garden. As Adam and Eve were made to worship God in Eden, the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve are re-made to worship God on the holy mountain, the temple of the Most High (Rev. 21-22). By emphasizing that the Resurrection took place in a garden, John is telling us that the temple curtain has been torn: once again Eden is open to the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.
Adam’s Side and God’s Breath
To illustrate that the Cross is a new covenant and a new creation, John also places Mary and the Beloved Disciple directly beneath the Cross. This is unique. Mark describes them standing “from a distance” (Mark 15:40). But John, who is himself the Beloved Disciple, places himself right next to the mother of God, right there at the side of the crucified Lord when he “inclined his head [in sleep, death] and handed over his spirit” (John 19:30)!
As the “mother of all living” is drawn from the side of Adam, the woman who gives birth to “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), Mary is placed directly at the side of Christ. John paints a scene of the New Adam “falling asleep” so that from his side might spring the New Eve! Even in history’s darkest hour, Mary and the Beloved Disciple are the beginning of something fresh and green.
The climax of salvation history billows and crashes into a single sentence: “He inclined his head and handed over his spirit” (19:30). In the beginning, God’s “breath” or “spirit” (ruah, pneuma) creates human life (Gen. 2:7; 6:3; Jb. 34:14). After the fall, the Old Testament looks forward to a time when God’s spirit would be poured out on mankind that they might be re-created as righteous beings (Joel 2:28; Is. 32:15-20; 44:3; Ezk. 39:39). Israel has been waiting for this. So it is with gravity that Jesus hands over his spirit.
And notice that John describes the scene with these words: “inclined his head and handed over (paredōken) his spirit.” Every evangelist describes this moment differently because each is trying to communicate a different message. Mark connects Christ’s “breathing out” with the centurion’s faith. Matthew says he “let go” of “the spirit” (not “his spirit”). Luke describes Christ’s death as handing over his spirit to the Father. But John’s unusual phrasing, paredōken, suggests that Christ handed down his spirit to Mary and the beloved disciple. The death of the New Adam breathes life into the New Eve, the Church.
“These Three Agree”
Mary and the Beloved Disciple remain at the foot of the Cross as the soldier pierces Christ’s side and blood and water pour out, as if upon them. Blood and water have been added to the spirit that was just poured out. That’s three. John then comments: “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true” (19:35-35). This phrase should grab our full attention for John says elsewhere that the children of God have been re-born by the spirit, the blood, and the water: “There are three witnesses, the spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three agree… He who has the Son has life” (1 John 5:8-12).
To be clear, when Christ succumbs to sleep the sleep of death and hands over his spirit on the Cross, this is not the giving of the Holy Spirit, but the gift of Christ’s life as “spirit” (cf. John 4:24), the same spirit that gives life in Eden (Gen. 2:7; Jb 34:14). John’s crucifixion scene is a picture of a New Eve coming out of a sleeping Adam’s side as life comes out of death!
Earlier, the evangelist quotes Jesus crying: “Unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (John 3:5). And again, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54). The Hebrew word ruah and the Greek pneuma can both mean “breath” or “wind” as well as “spirit,” and Jesus explicitly applies this wind/spirit to a person’s new birth in John 3:8, where the person “born of the spirit” is as mysterious as the “wind.” Water metaphor is often used to describe the pouring out of the spirit (Num. 19:17-19; Ps. 51:9-10; Is. 32:15; 44:3-5; 55:1-3; Je. 2:13; 17:13; Ezk. 47:9, etc.). In Ezekiel, water and spirit come together first to cleanse the heart of impurity and then to consecrate it to God (36:25-27). Ezekiel sees God’s breath/spirit pour out upon a valley of dry bones and breathe into them new life (37). So Christ says, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37-38).
Standing directly beneath the Cross, Mary and the Beloved Disciple receive the spirit and the water and the blood freed by the sacrifice of the Son. Mary and the Beloved Disciple are the new Israel receiving the benefit from Christ’s perfect sacrifice. They are symbolically re-born in the spirit, baptized in the water, and fed on the sacrament of Christ’s blood. As the six days of the old creation culminated in the creation of Adam, the six days of Holy Week culminated in the re-creation of man on Good Friday.
Again, the “Woman”
To return again to Mary, another way John draws our attention to Genesis is, he has the Son of Man refer to his mother as “woman.” Now, Eve is called “woman” because she is taken out of “the man” (Gen. 2:6). And the woman is called “Eve” because she is “the mother of all living” (3:20). So John has Jesus solemnly address his mother as “woman” and places her at his side on the Cross to show us that she is the new “mother of all living,” the one who gave birth to him who is “life, and that life was the light to all mankind” (John 1:4). In other words, John paints a picture of a new beginning for humanity, a second Genesis, a new Covenant.
In the Fourth Gospel, as Gary Anderson observes, the story of Adam and Eve is connected to the story of Christ and his Church because the creation story of Genesis cannot conclude without its completion in Christ. Tertullian puts it this way: “If Adam is a type of Christ then Adam’s sleep is a symbol of the death of Christ, and by the wound in the side of Christ was typified the church, the true mother of all the living” (On the Soul 43.10). God fashions Eve out of the side of Adam. He fashions his Church out of the wounded and bleeding side of the Son of Man. The new creation, the new covenant—the new family of God!—is ratified in God’s own blood.
John paints his Passion narrative in the colors of creation and covenant and family because he sees the Cross as the re-creation of humanity. The Crucifixion is a new Genesis, the “hour” where a new family is born of a New Adam and a New Eve. Nearly every chapter of the Fourth Gospel is peppered with familial language. Children of men are invited to become children of God (1:12), a new life that begins with the spiritual re-birth of Baptism (3:5). As all are sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, through Baptism we can join the family of God.
C.S. Lewis says that the man who writes a good love sonnet needs not only to be enamored of a woman but also to be enamored of the sonnet. The same could be said of the Gospel genre. The man who writes a Gospel needs not only to love Jesus but also to love the craft of telling the story of Jesus. From the arching grandeur of his typology down to the very numeric composition of the words and syllables, John’s craft charges his Crucifixion scene with layers of theological meaning.
Gynai ide ho huios sou… Ide hē mētēr sou. “Woman, behold, your son… Behold, your mother.” These seven words with fourteen syllables are nothing less than the first Marian entrustment. Mary intercedes and mediates for the bridegroom’s family, and her Son not only listens to her intercession, but acts on her intercession and connects it to his “hour” (2:1-11); and when that “hour” arrives, Jesus entrusts his mother to the protective care of the Beloved Disciple and entrusts the Beloved Disciple to Mary’s maternal care. And John portrays the Beloved Disciple as an icon of every disciple whom Jesus loves. In this sense, Mary is given to all beloved disciples and every beloved disciple is given to the maternal care of Mary. As Eve is the “mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20), Mary is the mother of the whole Church. She is the “mother of the Beloved Disciple,” the mother of every beloved disciple. So it is that after three years of Mary’s hidden life during Jesus’s public ministry, John brings the mother of God back into the story at its most crucial time; and at that “hour,” Jesus reveals Mary’s ongoing maternal mission—the same mission she began some 33 years earlier. In union with the Holy Spirit, Mary’s God-given task is to make every one of us “another Christ,” to unite us to the family of God, and to intercede for us as we grow in the Body of Christ. In other words, every baptized believer has God as Father, Christ as an older brother, the saints as brothers and sisters, and Mary as a mother.
Tradition has watered the seed John planted in the Fourth Gospel. It would take several councils, church fathers, St. Bernard, St. Louis de Montfort, a few Marian apparitions, St. Maximillian Kolbe, and Pope St. John Paul II to develop the doctrine, but the theological underpinnings of Marian entrustment are there. The Fourth Gospel invites every one of us to ask with our Lord, “O woman, what have you to do with me?” (2:4). Beautifully, the utterance, Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, γύναι, “O woman, what have you to do with me?” has seven syllables.
In conclusion, John musters the best narrative and poetic resources to show his readers that Jesus has given us one of his greatest gifts: his mother as our mother. Since the Annunciation, Mary’s task was to give birth to Christ, to feed and nurture him as he grew into a man. Likewise, since the crucifixion, Mary’s task is to give spiritual birth to Christians, to feed and nurture them into the full stature of Christ. For John, Mary is the mother of every baptized Christian.
What did the Beloved Disciple say after Jesus entrusted him to his own mother? What could anyone say in response to such an unmerited gift? Perhaps there, at the foot of the Cross, the Beloved Disciple looked at the grieving mother of God and said, in so many words, “Totus tuus.”
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Lamentation of Christ” by Lucas Cranach, the Elder (1472-1553) painted in 1503.