Mary in Doctrine and Devotion

The Life of Mary in the Gospels

Ninth in a Series

James Spencer Northcote was a convert to Catholicism, having been a married Anglican minister. At the death of his wife, also a convert, he entered the Catholic priesthood and eventually became president of St. Mary’s College at Oscott. Between the years 1856 and 1860 he gave a series of lectures to refute the Protestant claim that, according to the Bible, the Blessed Virgin Mary is nothing but an ordinary woman. They were later published, and furnish some of the best rebuttals in print against those who attack Catholic devotion to our Beloved Mother Mary. We present them in a slightly condensed form.

Marriage Feast at Cana of Galilee

Marriage Feast at CanaAnd on the third day a wedding took place at Cana of Galilee, and the Mother of Jesus was there. Now Jesus too was invited to the marriage, and also His disciples. And the wine having run short, the Mother of Jesus said to Him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to Her, "What wouldst Thou have Me do, Woman? (Literally, "What to Me and to Thee?") My hour has not yet come." His Mother said to the attendants, "Do whatever He tells you."

Now six stone water-jars were placed there, after the Jewish manner of purification, each holding two or three measures. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them to the brim. And Jesus said to them, "Draw out now, and take to the chief steward." And they took it to him.

Now when the chief steward had tasted the water after it had become wine, not knowing whence it was (though the attendants who had drawn the water knew), the chief steward called the bridegroom, and said to Him, "Every man at first sets forth the good wine, and when they have drunk freely, then that which is poorer. But thou hast kept the good wine until now."

This first of His signs Jesus worked at Cana of Galilee; and He manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him. (John 2: 1-11)

We may certainly say of this Gospel what St. Peter has said of some other portions of Holy Scripture, viz., that it contains "some things hard to understand, which the unlearned and unstable distort to their own destruction." It has been read (during the Epiphany Season), not only in all Catholic churches throughout the world, but also in all Protestant places of worship belonging to the established religion of this country (England—Anglicanism); and of those who have heard it in these places, thousands upon thousands, as they listened, have (almost involuntarily perhaps) had hard thoughts about us. They have fancied that they recognize in the conduct of Our Lord on this occasion a practical contradiction and distinct condemnation of all that we delight to say and do towards the Blessed Virgin. They imagine—I hardly like to say the words; yet, so it is—they imagine that our Blessed Lord by His own example at this wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, deliberately intended to teach us to be disrespectful of His Holy Mother. Unable to comprehend Her pure and spotless sanctity, and unmindful of what St. Paul has said, "The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life," they dare to say that when the Blessed Virgin called Her Son's attention to the deficiency of wine at the feast, She was activated by a motive of vanity, wishing Him to make a display of His Divine Power, only that honor and glory might thereby be reflected upon Herself as His Mother, and that Our Lord, to rebuke and punish Her for this fault, publicly disowned Her, saying, "Woman, what have I to do with Thee?" [What dark hearts imagine these things?]

And yet to you my brethren, whose blessed privilege it has been to be brought up within the fold of Christ's Holy Catholic Church, this incident in Our Lady's life has always seemed one of the most solid, edifying and instructive foundations of your devotion to Her. So far from its being a source of difficulty to you, which you would fain hide from the eyes of Protestants and even from your own (as some of them believe that it is), you have always delighted to meditate upon it, as recognizing here a most signal instance both of the goodness and power of your dear Mother Mary. Let us call to mind the principal circumstances of the narrative, and comment on them as we proceed.

Altar in Cana Church"A wedding took place at Cana," a little village or town between four and five miles from the Virgin's home at Nazareth, "and the Mother of Jesus was there." Mary, at this time (we may believe) a widow—for we hear no more of St. Joseph after the return to Nazareth from the finding of Our Lord in the temple at Jerusalem—Mary is invited to this wedding; probably by reason of some near relationship to the bride, and to act as her companion or matron. And then it is added, "Now Jesus too was invited to the marriage, and also His disciples." Even Calvin and other Protestant commentators have remarked upon these words as seeming to indicate that Jesus was introduced here by His Mother; that His disciples were invited for His sake, so He Himself was invited for His Mother's sake, and because of Her presence there. Anyhow, it is clear that as yet there is nothing in the narrative inconsistent with that state of filial dependence upon His Mother, in which the Evangelist represents Him after the mystery of His questioning and answering the Doctors in the Temple, when He went down to Nazareth and was subject to Her. He had not yet begun His public life and ministry; He is about to begin it today; He has been baptized by St. John the Baptist, who has also pointed Him out as the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world. Two of St. John's disciples have left their former teacher to follow Him; one of these has persuaded his brother to join him: Jesus Himself has called a fourth; and these all, it would seem, had already begun to lead a common life with their Master, so that where He went, they went also. Now therefore they are invited with Jesus to the marriage.

The feast proceeds, we must suppose, more or less after the ordinary manner of such entertainments, until by-and-by there is found to be a deficiency of wine. Mary sees this deficiency; as a woman, a mother, and (as we have suggested) nearly related to the hosts or givers of the feast, She feels for their embarrassment, and charitably interests Herself for their relief. What more natural, more purely and simply natural, more tender and touching from its very simplicity, than this incident in the life of Mary? How could She fail to be touched with pity and compassion? What could we expect but mercy and tenderness of the most exquisite kind from Her who is the very Mother of Mercy? "As the hand," says St. Bernard, "which has long held some fragrant fruit or flower retains the sweet odor thereof all the day long, so surely must She have been penetrated through and through with kindness and mercy, in whose womb Love and Mercy Itself had reposed for nine whole months; and the more so, since that Love dwelt in Her Heart before It lay in Her womb, and when It left Her womb to be born into this world, It did not forsake Her soul." It was only natural then, and what we should have expected, that Mary should have had compassion on the embarrassment of the newly-married couple, and should have desired to interest the love and power of Her Son on their behalf.

"And the wine having run short, the Mother of Jesus said to Him, 'They have no wine'." Few and simple words; yet what a world of thoughts do they not suggest! How many and what heroic virtues do they not imply! They express, on the one hand, the tender consideration of Mary for Her friends; on the other hand, Her own modesty and prudence, yet at the same time Her most perfect faith and confidence, both in the power and in the goodness of Her Divine Son. She does not command; She does not even ask. She confines Herself to the most simple statement of their wants, well knowing that it is of the very nature of goodness to be communicative, always ready to give to others, so that there is no need of earnest solicitations; it is only necessary to point out the occasion or opportunity. And since here the goodness of Jesus could only manifest itself by a miracle, and that too a miracle which (so far as we know) was as yet without example, our dear Lady made in these words a most wonderful act of faith in the Divine Power of Her Son. She spoke to Him as to the Creator of all things, to Whom nothing was difficult or impossible. And, once more, these words show also Her entire submission to the will of Her Son, and the intimate union and (if I may so express myself) most perfect understanding which existed between them. There was no need of long discourses. Her humility made Her love to keep silence, and there was no necessity for Her to be importunate; She broke silence but by a few short words, enough to tell Jesus what was wanted, not enough to do violence to Her modesty and bring Her forth from Her beloved retirement.

"And Jesus said to Her, 'What to Me and to Thee'?" Observe, not, "What is it to Me and to Thee?" as it has unfortunately been misprinted in some of our Bibles, but only, "What to Me and to Thee?" Protestants have translated the words, "What have I to do with Thee?" and they explain them as though they were intended to resent and rebuke Mary's interference. For the present, however, let us postpone all critical discussion as to the precise meaning of the terms employed: let us grant, for the sake of argument, that their tone seems at first somewhat harsh and cold, and as if the Speaker purposed to refuse the request that had been made and at the same time to deny any special connection between Himself and the petitioner; moreover, that He appears to assert that this is not a fit and proper occasion for the manifestation of His Almighty power, or at least that its exercise at this moment would be premature. Yet even so, there remains to be considered the sequel and conclusion of the whole incident. Granted that the words will bear this signification, the question must still be asked, Was this the sense in which Jesus really spoke them? Did Mary so understand them? Did He Himself by His acts confirm this interpretation of His words?

Miracle at CanaOn the contrary, Mary, conscious that what She has asked, or hinted at asking, will not be denied Her, turns to the servants and says, "Do whatever He tells you;" and then Jesus proceeds at once to work the miracle. This, then, is the practical issue of the matter. The beginning and ending, the whole sum of the incident may be thus briefly expressed: Mary asks, and Mary obtains, a miracle to be wrought by Her Divine Son. This is undeniable. Protestants will insist that between the asking and the receiving there is an apparently severe reply from Jesus. But who does not see that His action is the only true interpretation of His words? A petition is made; the most perfect answer to this petition is the granting of it; this Jesus does; the words He interposed may be a mystery, they cannot surely be a contradiction of His acts. It were hard to believe that He chides by His word one whom He so highly honors by His deed. Nay, more, who does not see that the word enhances the importance, adds greatly to the significance of the deed? Imagine for a moment that the words had never been spoken; cancel them, and let us suppose that Mary had asked for, and Jesus had performed, the miracle without a moment's hesitation or delay. It would then have seemed only as one of Our Lord's ordinary miracles; as if He had done it, not in any way because Mary wished it, but because of His own good nature, He was ever disposed to do acts of kindness to all who stood in need of them, and that Mary had only proposed the occasion, but had been in no way the cause of the miracle being wrought. Whereas, those words of Christ, that apparent hesitation and unwillingness (as Protestants understand it) on His part to do it, followed immediately by His doing it, point it out to us in a most singular manner as Mary's work, that He has done it for Mary's sake, and would not have done it but for Her. You see, then, how the very answer of Jesus at which Protestants take offence, may be relied upon by Catholics as a very signal instance of that influence and power which they attribute to our Blessed Lady, and a sanction of that honor and reverence which they pay Her.

But how, then, do we explain the apparent severity of the answer? Wherefore did Our Lord seem to have an intention of refusing, when all the while He really purposed to grant Her petition? Several solid and instructive reasons might be assigned for this mysterious action. First, it may have been for this very reason which has just been hinted at: viz., that by magnifying the favor demanded, and showing it to be out of proportion with the occasion, and yet presently granting it, He might encourage us never to despair of obtaining anything, whatever we may ask of His bounty, if only Mary intercede for us. Here, the miracle asked for had nothing in itself to recommend it and make it a matter of special interest to Our Lord for its own sake. In this respect it is unlike most of the other miracles which He wrought. Here was no widow mourning over the loss of an only son, no child of Adam possessed by the devil, or suffering from some painful or loathsome disease and seeking deliverance from its affliction; it is merely a matter of trifling inconvenience, of temporary embarrassment, so that it did not seem an occasion of sufficient solemnity for the first display of His Divine Power; and yet it was done out of consideration to the intercession of Mary. We may justly argue, then, that perhaps Our Lord's words may have been spoken for this very purpose, as they certainly have this effect; viz. to show us the power of Her influence, and to encourage us to have recourse to it. What may we not expect that He will do for Her when the hour for glorifying Her throughout all the earth is come, since for Her sake He even anticipates the hour He had resolved upon for the manifestation of His own glory?

But secondly, Our Lord may have intended both to try and to manifest the sublime constancy of Mary's faith. It is thus that He deals with those souls who are dearest to Him; "Him whom the Lord loveth, He chastiseth, and He scourgeth every son whom He receiveth." For great souls, souls that are most firmly rooted in faith and love, He provides a larger measure of the Cross: to them apparent rebuffs, outward trials and contradictions are but the proofs and stratagems of His love. An eminent example of this may be seen in His mode of dealing with the Canaanite woman, of whom we read (Matt. 15: 21-28). You remember the obstinacy, if I may so speak, with which Our Lord seemed to reject and refuse her petition; yet how He granted it in the end, and with what words of commendation He dismissed her. The poor woman came crying after Him, begging for mercy for her daughter, grievously troubled by a devil. At first He takes no notice. He acts as though He did not even hear her: "He answered her not a word." Then His disciples came, and begged Him to send her away, because her cries after Him were troublesome. He gave them in reply a reason for not granting her request; saying that she is a stranger, and that He is sent only to the children of Israel. By no means disheartened, she still perseveres, and makes her petition yet more earnestly. "She came and adored Him, saying, 'Lord, help me'." He answers as it were sternly, and gives yet another reason why He should not grant her prayer: "It is not good to take the bread of the children and cast it to the dogs." Nevertheless, she answers yet once more; and Jesus rewards her faith by working the miracle. Now of course, He intended—to use human language about the actions of the Son of Man—He intended to do this from the beginning. Her faith was not hidden from Him, and He purposed to reward it. But wishing to increase her merit, He subjected her faith to those hard trials, and made as though He would not hear her. The result has been that we have a higher estimate of her merits than we could otherwise have had, and she herself has a higher place in Heaven. Even so, Mary, too, knew the merciful delays, the favorable refusals, the mysterious flights of the Sacred Spouse; all the secrets whereby His ingenious love tries faithful souls; that he often rejects, only that we may learn to gain by humility and persevering confidence what the first petition fails to obtain. And hence His seeming refusal did but increase Her merit, while at the same time it raises our sense of Her heroism, of the unwavering constancy of Her faith. As we meditate on the narrative, we begin to understand something of what is meant by that saying, more than once repeated in the Gospels to the praise of the Blessed Virgin: viz., that She kept and pondered in Her Heart all those things which were said or done concerning Her Divine Son.

Miracle at CanaHitherto I have commented on this passage in Our Lady's life with reference to the ordinary Protestant impression about it, and I think it will have been made clear even to those who are disposed to adopt their interpretation of the text, that there is nothing in it which can be rightly considered to derogate from Our Lady's honor. The truth is, however, that the words of our Blessed Lord have not necessarily any severity in them at all. They contain a grave and important truth, but they may have been spoken in the most respectful and affectionate manner; as the same words certainly were spoken on other occasions, by the poor widow of Sarephta (for instance) when she obtained from the prophet Elias the resurrection of her son (3 Kings 17: 18), and by others, both in the Old Testament and in the New (see Cardinal Wiseman's Essays, vol. 1). What the words really express is the absence, or denial, or deprecation, of any special connection at this particular moment when the words are spoken, between the person using them and the person to whom they are addressed, and they may be used indifferently by a superior speaking to an inferior, by an inferior to a superior, or by equals, one with another. In the instance before us, Mary has asked for a miracle, as the result shows; and it was of course to the Divine Nature that Her appeal had been made, and it was this same Nature therefore which replies. Between this Nature and the nature of Mary the distance was infinite; for, although Mary is called rightly the Mother of God because of the indissoluble union of the Divine and Human Natures in the one Person of Jesus Christ Her Son, yet She is not the Mother of Christ's Divinity. And it was important that this truth should be publicly stated and insisted upon at the commencement of His ministry.

St. Augustine says, commenting on this very passage: "Christ Jesus Our Lord was both God and Man; as God, He had no mother; as Man, He had. Mary then was His Mother in the flesh, in His Manhood, in that weakness which for our sakes He took upon Him. But the miracle which He was about to perform, He would perform by virtue of His Divinity, not of His human weakness; because He was God, not because He had been born a weak man. 'But the weakness of God is stronger than men.' The Mother then asked for a miracle; but He, as it were, refuses to recognize the womb whence He had been born, when He is going to perform Divine works, saying in effect: 'That part of Me which works miracles You did not produce; You are not the mother of My Divinity. But because You are the Mother of My infirmity, I will recognize You then when that infirmity shall hang upon the Cross.’ For this is the meaning of the words, 'My hour is not yet come.' For then, in the hour of His infirmity, He acknowledged Her whom in truth He had ever known. Before He was born of Her, He knew Her in predestination; and before, as God, He had Himself created Her of whom as Man He was to be created, He had known His Mother. But for a certain period and in a mystery, He does not acknowledge Her, and by-and-by, at a certain period which has not yet arrived, He will again in a mystery acknowledge Her. He will acknowledge Her then, when that which She had brought forth was at the point of death" (In Joann. Evang. Tr. viii, 9).

The Saint alludes of course to those words which Jesus spoke from the Cross, when He commended His Mother to the beloved disciple, saying to St. John, "Behold Thy Mother;" (Ibid. Tract. cxix, 1) and the "hour," therefore, during which He would not recognize His Blessed Mother, during which there would be "nothing to Him and to Her," would be (according to this translation) the whole period of His public ministry, from this first miracle in Cana to His death on Calvary. By-and-by, when this was ended, another hour would come, when there would "be to Him and to Her;" the hour of His triumph when She might legitimately exert Her influence over Him; when She might ask and obtain from Him miracles; in a word, when She would take Her predestined place in His kingdom.

Detail of Altar in Cana Church

We shall have to recur to this subject in a future Lecture; at present I will conclude with another passage taken from the same Commentary of St. Augustine, wherein he answers the heretics of those days who took exception, as Protestants do now, against the apparent harshness of Christ's words to Mary. "What is the meaning of this," he asks, "did Jesus come to this marriage to teach a lesson that mothers were to be despised? I presume that the man to whose marriage He came, was marrying a wife that he might have children, and we may presume too that he wished to be honored by those children whom he desired to beget. Had Jesus then come to this marriage to put disgrace upon His Mother, when marriages themselves are celebrated and wives are taken in order that children might be born, which children God distinctly commands to honor their parents? Without doubt, my Brethren, there is some mystery here (latet ibi aliquid)." Would to God, my Brethren, we could impress these last words of salutary caution upon the hearts of all Protestants of the present day. If the Catholic interpretation of these texts of Holy Writ, which seem to them to tell against devotion to our Blessed Lady, does not quite satisfy them, let them at least learn to be less impatient of difficulties; let them not rush at once into anything so truly monstrous and revolting as the ordinary Protestant interpretation of the history before us; let them be content to say with St. Augustine, "latet ibi aliquid—there is some hidden meaning here which we cannot fathom." I have called the ordinary Protestant interpretation monstrous and revolting, for so in truth it is; it comes briefly to this, that Mary makes a request which is unbecoming and irreconcilable with the due order of God’s Providence; yet that Our Lord grants the request, whilst rebuking Her for making it! It is impossible to conceive a more extravagant ascription of power to our Blessed Lady than is involved in this statement, to say nothing of its inconsistency with the highest attributes of God. How much more modest and reverent is the language of St. Augustine, when first he approaches the difficulty. "If you ask," he says, "why Jesus answered His Mother in this way, let him who understands tell us; but let him who does not understand, nevertheless believe most firmly both that He did so answer, and yet that She really was His Mother (and, we may add, that He treated Her with all the reverence which was Her due). By behaving in this way, he will deserve also to understand the reason of His so answering, provided that he knock at the door of Truth by prayer, and not in a spirit of contention."

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