We Catholics have some very strong beliefs about Mary the mother of Jesus. We believe that she was conceived without original sin and then assumed into heaven body and soul at the end of her life. We consider her the queen of heaven and earth and celebrate her queenship with both a mystery of the rosary and a liturgical feast. Nevertheless, despite all this exaltation, perhaps the most important way we think about her is as our spiritual mother. We love her like we love our earthly mothers, and that gives us an intimate, personal relationship with her that’s often difficult for non-Catholics to understand.
The importance of Mary in Catholic spirituality often makes it surprising for people to find out that there is not all that much explicit teaching about her in the Bible. Sure, the few instances where she is written about are packed with meaning, but in terms of quantity alone, those passages are few and far between. In particular, Scripture does not explicitly say that Mary is our spiritual mother, so we often have a hard time explaining why we believe it.
The Usual Suspect
Most often, when we want to explain this doctrine from the Bible, we will point to a scene from Jesus’ crucifixion:
“So the soldiers did this. 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.” (John 19:25-27)
Traditionally, we Catholics have understood this passage to have two meanings. On the literal level, Mary needed someone to care for her, and Jesus was entrusting that task to his beloved disciple. He was about to die, and Joseph was most likely dead already as well (since Mary always appears without him after Jesus’ childhood, he most likely died before Jesus began his public ministry). Thus, Jesus took some of his last remaining breaths to ensure that one of his disciples would give her the care and protection that she needed. On a spiritual level, we understand the new mother-son relationship between Mary and the beloved disciple to represent the new relationship between Mary and the entire Church. Just as the beloved disciple took Mary as his new mother, so too do we all now have Mary as our spiritual mother.
However, this raises a question. How do we move from the literal meaning, a very practical and earthly one, to the deeper spiritual meaning that we Catholics find in this passage? Simply put, there has to be an indication in the text itself that this event is in fact symbolic of the entire Church taking on Mary as our mother. If there isn’t, then we are simply reading our own beliefs into the story, and the passage cannot help us explain our belief in Mary’s spiritual motherhood.
Before It Is Finished
Fortunately for us, there are in fact indications that there is more going on here than meets the eye. First, let’s read on and see what John tells us in the next verse:
“After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the scripture), ‘I thirst.’” (John 19:28)
The key here is that Jesus knew that his work on the cross was finished only after he entrusted his mother to the beloved disciple. After that, the only thing he had left to do was ask for a drink and then die. This is curious because it implies that giving Mary to the beloved disciple was in fact part of his work on the cross. He could have very easily made this arrangement earlier, but he chose to wait, presumably because it had some connection with the purpose of his death.
The Woman of the Hour
The second clue is the way Jesus addresses Mary. He calls her “woman,” an odd way for a son to address his mother. In fact, this is the second time in John’s Gospel that he addresses her this way, and the previous instance sheds some light on this one. In the story of the Wedding at Cana, when Mary tells Jesus that there is no more wine, he responds:
“O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” (John 2:4)
There is a lot packed into this answer, but for our purposes here, the important point is that Jesus connects the title “woman” with his “hour,” which in the fourth Gospel is the hour of his suffering and death (as shown in John 8:20, 12:27, 13:1). While that may not seem significant at first, it becomes very important when we realize that the only other time he addresses Mary in this way in the Gospel of John is precisely during his “hour,” when he’s hanging from the cross. In other words, it is clear that there is a connection between Jesus’ death and Mary’s role as “woman,” which confirms what we concluded from the first clue. Jesus’ act of giving his mother to the beloved disciple was definitely part of his work on the cross
The Woman and the Snake
The natural question, now, is how this all fits together. What exactly is Mary’s role as “woman,” and what does it have to do with Jesus’ death? The title “woman” harkens back to Genesis, the first book of the Bible. After Adam and Eve committed the world’s first sin, God pronounced punishments on them and the snake that tempted them. When punishing the snake, he said something very significantly:
“And I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)
At first glance, this verse seems to mean that humans and snakes won’t like each other, but there’s actually more to it than that. If we read the first two lines, they make perfect sense. Eve (“the woman”) and the snake that tempted her will be enemies, and their offspring will be enemies as well. However, the next two lines seem a bit off. They say that Eve’s offspring will have enmity with the snake that tempted her, but that’s impossible. That snake has to be long dead by now, but Eve’s offspring are still around. Consequently, the snake cannot be a normal snake. No, as we read in Revelation, the last book of the Bible, it’s actually the devil (Revelation 12:9), and once we understand that, the passage makes perfect sense: Eve’s offspring will have enmity with the devil.
However, there is more to it than just that. God’s words do not simply foretell a perpetual battle between humanity and the devil; they also imply that there will be a winner. On the simplest level, the fact that this is a curse on the snake rather than on Adam or Eve implies that the devil will get the worst of it. Moreover, the last two lines tell us that humanity will strike the devil a much more serious blow than they will receive. Eve’s descendants will crush the snake’s head, a fatal blow, but the snake will simply strike their heels. As a result, even though God did not explicitly say that humanity would one day win its fight against the devil and his minions, his words strongly imply it.
The Fatal Blow
Furthermore, God’s curse on the snake also implies that one person, one representative descendant of Eve, would strike the definitive blow on behalf of all of his brothers and sisters. See, it doesn’t take an entire race to crush a snake’s head. Rather, it only takes one person to do that, and once he crushes it, there is no need for anybody else to keep stepping on it. As a result, the particular wording of this curse also implies that God will send a savior, an individual human who will finally and definitively crush the snake’s head, defeating Satan and all the forces of evil on behalf of the entire human race, and that person is obviously Jesus.
More specifically, that person is Jesus on the cross, where he won the definitive victory for us over evil, and that is how this all connects back to Jesus and Mary in John’s Gospel. By dying on the cross, Jesus fulfilled God’s promise in Genesis to send a savior for the human race, and by calling Mary “woman” at the exact time he fulfilled that promise, he was connecting Mary with the “woman” of that promise. He was subtly telling us that God’s promise in Genesis to save the human race was also an implicit promise to send us a new “woman,” and that woman was Mary. In other words, Eve was just a foreshadowing, a taste of what God had in store for the fulfillment of his plan of salvation. Eve ultimately points to Mary, the true “woman” whose offspring would defeat the devil once and for all.
Our Spiritual Mother
Once we make this connection between Mary and Eve, the doctrine of Mary’s spiritual motherhood is not far behind. God’s curse on the snake tells us that “the woman” is the mother of the entire human race, so if Mary is that woman, then she must be the new mother of the human race. From here, the full significance of the scene where Jesus entrusts his mother to the beloved disciple comes into view. By his death on the cross, Jesus fulfilled God’s promise of salvation in Genesis, and by calling Mary “woman” at that exact moment, he was telling us that Mary is the true “woman” of that promise, the true mother of all mankind. His act of entrusting her to the beloved disciple symbolized his giving her to us all as our spiritual mother, and that’s why it was intimately connected to his work on the cross. By crushing the devil’s head and definitively defeating the forces of evil on the cross, Jesus also enabled Mary to become the new “woman,” the new, spiritual mother of mankind, thus fulfilling the entirety of God’s promise to Adam and Eve.