by Fr Addison Hodges Hart
Shamelessly using a term that was already overused a decade ago, I will note here at the very outset that the Gospel of John employs “coded” language and images in its recounting of the mission of Jesus. The Fathers and medieval Doctors, Eastern and Western, always read John as a “spiritual gospel”, meaning that its deepest and most important message was something carefully veiled, requiring proper unveiling and interpretation within the assembly of believers. To that end, there are words that John repeats throughout his writings, and an earnest study of these words provides keys to unlocking his half-hidden themes again and again. I would like, then, in this short analysis to look at how John uses the word and image of “the Woman” in his Gospel. It is, I believe, a more central feature of his message than one might at first suppose. As I will suggest, it points us towards the Christian community itself and how, in particular, John’s church understood its (indeed, her) own identity.
I begin near the end of the Gospel, at the foot of Christ’s cross. Looking at select verses from John 19:25-42 below (as rendered in the RSV translation), the reader will see that I have put three words in bold type. These are “Woman”, “hour”, and “garden”.
[19:25] … 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.  After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the scripture), “I thirst.” …  They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.  Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid.  So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
An astute reader of John will already know that the words “woman” (gyne) and “hour” (hora) show up in the Gospel at significant places in the text, sometimes in proximity to one another. Let us look at the passages in which one or the other appears, or both appear together. Bear in mind that the word “woman” in John obviously doesn’t always have special significance; but whenever Jesus addresses someone as “Woman” in John, which he does three times (his mother, the woman of Samaria, and Mary Magdalene), it apparently does. (The single exception to this usual usage is John 8:10. Jesus addresses the woman taken in adultery in that verse as “Woman”. However, the entire passage in which it appears, 7:53-8:11, is a later addition to the Gospel. So, it falls outside our consideration here.) The word “hour” likewise does not always convey a special meaning, but whenever John, for instance, refers to “the hour” which is “coming”, or Jesus refers to “my hour”, it most certainly does.
Here, then, are the three instances when Jesus addresses specific women as “woman”.
(1) Jesus addresses his mother:
[2:2] Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples.  When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”  And Jesus said to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”
(2) Jesus addresses the Samaritan woman:
[4:21] Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.  You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.
(3) Two angels and Jesus address Mary Magdalene outside the garden tomb, following Jesus’ resurrection:
[20:11] But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb;  and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.  They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?”
The first two instances above refer to Jesus’ “hour”. Other texts in John also refer to it: 5:25-30; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23-28; 13:1; 16:32; and 17:1. Jesus also uses the word “time” (kairos) in a way that seems synonymous with “hour” in 7:6-8.
But, most crucially, we have Jesus’ enigmatic words to his disciples in 16:21, which tie together the various references above, as we shall see. Here I will give my literal rendering of this text as it appears in the Greek:
When the woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a man [anthropos] is born into the world.
Two things should immediately strike us: First, the word “woman” has a definite article – literally it is “the woman”. And, second, the “hour” mentioned is “her hour” – that is to say, the hour referred to in this verse is the hour when the woman gives birth.
Keep those two points in mind, because we will come back to them.
The hour of Jesus’ glorification in John is the time of his crucifixion, when his mission in the world is “accomplished” (19:30). It includes also the time when he departs from the world and his followers are scattered. The “hour” of the crucifixion-resurrection-ascension is the source and spring of new life for humankind. It is the hour of our resurrection spiritually (cf. 5:25-26). The paradox is that the hour of the cross is also the hope of our own resurrection and new birth (cf. 3:3-8).
But the enigmatic saying of Jesus in 16:21, I believe, presents us with this curious question: Is the woman’s “hour” the same as Jesus’ “hour”? The answer, I suggest, is yes. “The woman” and Jesus share “the hour” of the cross, and in that hour “the woman” gives birth to a new “man” (anthropos = “human being”; not, as some translations render it, a “child”). Going a step further, does the word “woman”, when addressed to those three women above (Jesus’ mother, the Samaritan woman, and Mary Magdalene), refer, in a spiritual sense, to a single image or archetype? Is there an archetypal “Woman” in relation to whom these three specific women stand as types? Are these three women also “the Woman” of 16:21, and, if so, what significance does that have for John, his community, and for us?
Undoubtedly the three women are to be understood as unique persons. John is not prone to flat allegorizing. He is far more subtle and poetic. All three women are individuals, delicately described with psychological insight. But I would also suggest that John has, with implicit intent, put the word “woman” on Jesus’ lips in his retelling of events, precisely in order to signify a specific something else we are meant to understand, something else which can be glimpsed shining through each of these distinct persons like refracted light. So, what might the importance of “woman” be as an address?
It has bothered any number of pious exegetes, for example, that Jesus addresses his mother in John 2 in this seemingly discourteous way. After all, this is his mother. Surely, we say to ourselves, we wouldn’t address our own mothers in this fashion; and if we are Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, or Christians of any other tradition in which Mary holds an exalted place, we cannot imagine Jesus speaking to the Blessed Virgin so disrespectfully. But all those considerations are to miss John’s likely intent. This Gospel, we must recall, never even divulges the name of Jesus’ mother. Something else is going on here, although it clearly has an embryonic relationship to later piety surrounding Christ’s mother.
There are, then, just three possible ways to understand Jesus’ designation of his mother as “Woman”: Either (1) it was indeed a distancing or even rude address, or (2) it was some sort of endearment or respectful term for her, or (3) the term has a symbolic purpose.
We can dismiss the first two possibilities. First, although the statement does indeed distance Jesus from his mother (literally, he says, “Woman, what is there between me and you?”), there is no justification for thinking the address was meant to be rude. That he addresses her again in exactly the same fashion, while he is on the cross, seeing to her comfort and care after his departure (19:26), should make it sufficiently evident that his use of “Woman” for her in Chapter Two isn’t meant as a belittlement of her either. If its use isn’t disrespectful in 19:26, then it’s extremely unlikely that its use should be disrespectful back in 2:4.
But, on the other hand, could he possibly mean the address to be understood as the exact opposite of belittlement, as rather a sort of endearment? One plainly silly translation has in fact rendered it “dear lady”; and the Revised Standard Version, which I have used above, renders it politely as “O woman”. But there is no “O” in the original Greek verse, nor “dear”, nor even the word “lady”; just “Woman”. Quite simply, he is not using the term as an endearment.
So, we are left with just the third possible purpose for using this odd address: the Gospel means to infer something symbolic. And, if this is so for Jesus’ mother, it seems probable that the same is true for both the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene as well.
So, then, how might these three women, when addressed as “Woman”, be related in John’s thinking to “the Woman” of 16:21? And what is it that she represents?
If we look at the immediate context of John 16:21, at verses 20 and 22 which precede and follow it, we note that Jesus is directly speaking to the disciples about the “sorrow” that they will undergo at his departure, and of the later joy they will feel when they see him again: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy … So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” To speak to the feelings of sorrow the disciples will experience, Jesus offers this image: “When the woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come.” The first thing to note, then, is that “the sorrow” and “joy” of “the woman” are symbolic of the sorrow and joy that the disciples will experience. The second thing to note is that the woman’s travail is that of childbirth. She is bringing a new life into the world. It is the birth of “a man” (anthropos). To put it succinctly, “her hour” is the hour when she gives birth to a new man.
Who, then, is “the Woman”? If we take into account the context of the saying, we see that the woman (with her child) is directly identified with Christ’s disciples. There is, in fact, every good reason to believe that “the Woman” and her child together comprise a single image of Jesus’ (and John’s) community of followers, what would come to be called the “assembly” or “church”.
Do we have anything else in the writings of John to suggest that the whole community of Jesus’ followers was conceived of as “feminine” and symbolized as a “woman” with offspring (i.e., individual baptized members)? Well, in point of fact, we do. In the Second Letter of John we read the following:
The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth, and not only I but also all who know the truth, because of the truth which abides in us and will be with us for ever: Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love. I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children following the truth, just as we have been commanded by the Father. And now I beg you, lady, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning, that we love one another. (2 John 1-5)
And the same Letter concludes with these words: “The children of your elect sister greet you” (2 Jn. 13; emphasis mine).
The word translated “lady” in these verses is an honorific term, kyria. It is the feminine equivalent of “Lord” – kyrios. There seems little doubt that the “elect lady” and her “children” represent the community to whom “the elder” is writing in 2 John, and “the children of your elect sister” is a reference to the individual members of the local community from which he writes: two ladies who are, in essence, really one lady sharing a single archetype, surrounded by the children to whom they have given birth. The “icon” or image of the community, it seems, was that of a woman, a “lady” with her children gathered about her. In addition, it appears that each community was seen as a “sister” among “sisters”, each with her own children gathered about her. Each community was dignified as a “lady” and regarded as a “sister” of equal dignity with all the rest. It’s conceivable that the reason for the high title, kyria, was due to the spiritual union each community shared with its Kyrios. The “children” of the “elect lady” and her “elect sister”, one can safely assume, were those who were baptized and reborn disciples.
That the Christian community was often symbolized as a virgin bride and mother, and continued to be through the millennia, is well known. One is reminded of Paul’s words to the Christian community in Corinth, in 2 Corinthians 11:2, in which the word “you” is plural: “I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you as a pure bride [literally, ‘virgin’] to her one husband.” We find it, for instance, in other very early Christian writings. For example, The Shepherd of Hermas, which was written in Rome in the second century, depicts the church as an ancient lady who grows ever younger throughout a series of visions. Nor can one truly appreciate Patristic and Medieval devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary without understanding that she – the Virgin and Mother who gave birth to the historical “body of Christ” – was viewed from the earliest centuries as the foremost icon of the church. The church was viewed as both “virginal” (that is, holy in essence) and as the “mother” of the baptized – the so-called “mystical body of Christ” (just as Mary had been the mother of the physical body of her Son). Numerous texts of the Fathers and later writers, East and West, amply illustrate this. It should not be difficult for us to recognize that “the Woman” in travail is an image of Jesus’ first community of followers.
I want to press still further in my conjectures. When Jesus uses the word “Woman” (gyne) as an address in John, it is not too much of a leap to assume that it alludes to the first and archetypal Woman of Genesis: “And Adam said, ‘this now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman [gyne], because she was taken out of her husband.” (Gen. 2:23; LXX) Following the fall account in Genesis 3, God speaks first to the serpent, then to the woman, and finally to Adam in response to what has occurred earlier in the same chapter.
It is God’s words to the woman that are most relevant to us here: “I will greatly multiply your pains and your groaning; in pain you shall bring forth children.” (Gen. 3:17) John 16:21 appears to echo the words of Genesis: “When the woman is in travail she has sorrow.” A few verses later in Genesis 3, we read in the Greek version (which we can, with some confidence, guess to have been the version that John and his community would have likely known): “And Adam called the name of his wife ‘Life’ [Zoe], because she was the mother of all the living [zonton, meaning those possessing zoe].” (Gen. 3:21) Take special notice here of the Greek name given to the woman we know as “Eve” – “Zoe” (“Life”) – and of the designation of her children – “zonton” (“living”).
With that Greek name, “Zoe”, we in fact have the very word that John uses to indicate eternal life. John uses the other two Greek words in his writings that mean “life” (psyche and bios), but, whenever he (and other New Testament writers) writes specifically of “eternal life”, the word is zoe. It is possible we are coming closer here to a deeper understanding of the significance of “Woman” in John as an address and also of “the Woman” referred to in 16:21. Might we suppose, then, that any time the word zoe – “eternal life” – was read in the context of John’s communities, the hearers would also have heard and recalled the name given to the first woman by Adam? It seems unlikely that they wouldn’t have done so. The name of the first woman and birth-giver would almost certainly have come to mind each time the word zoe came up in the text, as it does over and over.
Here I need to be clear once again. I am not saying that the women in John (Christ’s mother, the Samaritan Woman, and Mary Magdalene) are mere symbols for an abstraction, in this case “eternal life”. That would mean foisting a sort of ersatz, “systematic” logic onto an idea that is multivalent, subtle, and poetic in nature. Whatever else the Gospel of John is, it is not a systematic treatise, and its logic is the “logic” of metaphor, suggestion, and poetry. What I am saying is that “Woman” in these specific texts is meant to conjure up a multivalent image, one which is, all at once and intertwined, the archetypal first woman as “mother” and giver of “life” (zoe-life, that is), the community of Christ’s followers, and the restoration of God’s life to human beings which comes through Christ and through the baptismal community that is “wed” to him. John is not a systematic theologian, but he is poetically consistent and mystically coherent.
So, in one place the mother of Jesus can be “the Woman”, in another it is the Samaritan woman who reflects this image, and in another Mary Magdalene. There is, however, only one archetypal “Woman” towards whom this form of address always points, who stands above and behind them all, but there are three individual flesh-and-blood women who are thus addressed. In each instance, what Jesus says to these women determines the significance of the allusion, and the context of each statement is also relevant.
Let me illustrate what I mean.
The first, and arguably the most important, person Jesus calls “Woman” is his mother in John 2:1-12. We know the story. Jesus and his disciples attend a wedding at Cana. The wine runs out, and his mother draws his attention to the fact: “They have no wine.” His response, literally rendered, is this: “What is between me and you, woman? My hour has not yet come”(2:4). Apparently she is not put off by Jesus’ words to her, and this is best explained by the logic of poetic reasoning and metaphor. Undeterred, then, she responds by addressing the servants: “Whatever he tells you, do” (2:5). If she represents here, as I have indicated above, the Christian community, this would be an apt response – it is the sort of thing the church would say to her “children”. We know what comes next. Jesus changes a superabundance of water into a superabundance of wine, which is his first “sign”, “and his disciples believed in him” (2:11). We wish only to note here the enigmatic statement of Jesus to his mother: “What is there between me and you, woman?” and his designation of the hour that hasn’t yet arrived as “my hour”.
Bearing this in mind, we recall next that in 16:21 “the Woman” in travail rejoices when she brings an anthropos into the world. In that verse, we are told that the time of giving birth is “her hour”.
So, in 2:4 we have two notable emphases: “my hour”, and the question, “What is between me and you?” – in other words, “What do we share in common?” In 16:21, we hear of “the Woman” who gives birth at “her hour”.
So, lastly, we look at 19:26-27. Jesus hangs on the cross (near a garden – verse 41), and the following transpires: “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.” Again, we have the address “Woman”, and again mention of an hour, but this time it is “that hour”.
So: in 2:4, it is “my hour”; in 16:21, the hour of birth is “her hour”; and now, in 19:27, the hour in which “the disciple whom [Jesus] loved” took Jesus’ mother – now the disciple’s mother too – into his home is “that hour”. It is, as I have already proposed, the same hour which is referred to in all three instances; and what is “between” Jesus and his mother – “the woman” – is precisely the “hour” which is both Jesus’ “hour” and “her hour”. That is to say, it is the hour when the mother gives birth to the new anthropos, who in turn is represented by the beloved disciple (the “founder” of the Johannine community, and the exemplary disciple in the Gospel); and this beloved disciple is the first of many “children” who will be gathered about “the lady”. And this shared hour is indeed, as 16:21 said, an hour of sorrow and travail. The “mother of Jesus” is both the community and the “mother of all the [eternally] living”, the true Zoe.
And that brings us back to the garden. That all this happens at the cross, where a garden is located, is significant. As Christians from the earliest centuries recognized in this scene, the crucified Christ is there revealed as the true Tree of Life, and the two standing by that Tree replicate the first human beings in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 3 is thus recapitulated, but this time the pair is given access to the Tree of Life.
Perhaps we may find the idea that the mother of Jesus is also the mother of Jesus’ disciples difficult to grasp. If she represents, in the spiritual reading of the text, the community of Jesus’ disciples (the church, the bride of the bridegroom as indicated in Jn. 3:29), how can she also be his “mother”? Wouldn’t it be more likely that she represent Israel, the Old Testament church, and not the New Testament church? But that is not only to miss the fluidity of metaphor, but also to draw too sharp a distinction between the Old Testament church and the New Testament church – something first century Christians did not do. For them, the “church” had its origin in the very beginning, with the first pair in Eden. It was reconstituted, after failure upon failure, with the calling of Abraham (Gen. 12). From the perspective of the New Testament – and of John – a disjuncture between the Old Testament community and the community of Christ is not clear or obvious. The book of Revelation, for example, describes the vision of “a woman clothed with the sun” who is “with child” and “cried out in pangs of birth” (Gen. 3:17 and Jn. 16:21!). Her child is Christ, who will rule all nations and who is “caught up to God and to his throne”. The woman then flees into the wilderness to escape the dragon (who is Satan, the “ancient serpent” of Eden; 12:9). Lastly, we are told, “the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (Rev. 12:1-2, 5-6, 9, 13, 17; emphasis mine). Here, in a single symbolic woman, we have both the “mother” of Jesus and the “mother” of other offspring – those who are, in fact, Jesus’ disciples. In the mind of the writer of the book of Revelation, no clear distinction exists between Israel (the mother of Jesus) and the church (the mother of Jesus’ disciples). They are, spiritually, one and the same “Woman”.
Turning briefly, then, to the other two women whom Jesus addresses as “Woman” in John’s Gospel, we note first his words to the Woman of Samaria: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” He goes on to say that the hour is coming “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (cf. Jn. 4:21-24). That is to say, “true worshipers” will gather from all places, Jews and Gentiles both, and share in “spirit and truth” together as one community. There will be no division between Jews, Samaritans, Greeks (12:20-22), and those of other nations. To this seemingly lowly Samaritan woman, with whom he has discussed such high matters, Jesus reveals himself to be the Messiah (4:25-26). She promptly goes and proclaims to her countrymen, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (4:29) The Samaritans then come and listen to Jesus’ word. “They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world’” (4:42). The Samaritan woman, then, resembles “the lady” of 2 John, with her “children following the truth” (2 Jn. 4). Although she is a Samaritan and outside the people of the Jews, she is nevertheless an apt type of that “church” which transcends “in spirit and truth” all such racial and national distinctions, and has its origins in Zoe, “the mother of all the living”, the first mother of all human beings and peoples.
Turning finally to the scene in John 20 with Mary Magdalene, we have an even more striking reminder of Eden. Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb are situated in a garden: “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid” (19:41). The cross is the true Tree of Life. From it comes zoe-life, symbolized by Jesus’ spirit (breath), blood and water (19:30, 34). When Jesus rises from the dead, he does so in the garden – and it is there that Mary encounters him and mistakes him for the gardener. “Woman,” says Jesus to her, “why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” (20:15) With these words we have a reversal of Genesis 3:9: “And [Adam and his wife] heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the afternoon; and both Adam and his wife hid themselves from the face of the Lord God in the midst of the trees of the garden” (LXX). Instead of the Lord God seeking for Adam and his wife, we have Mary Magdalene seeking for the supposedly mislaid or stolen body of Jesus. When she tries to hold him, Jesus says to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (20:17). Up until this point in John’s Gospel, Jesus had referred to the Father as his Father, not “our Father”. With this statement to Mary, he opens wide the door to fully restored union with God – his disciples can now share in his relationship with his God and Father. He is “my Father and your Father too, my God and your God too”.
The expulsion from the Garden in Genesis 3 is undone in this garden, and the message is conveyed through “the woman” to his community of disciples. We are then told that Mary, just as the Samaritan woman had gone to her countrymen, “went and said to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’” (20:18). Once again, we have “the lady” who gathers together the “children”, this time emerging from the garden in which she was first seeking and then walking with the Lord.
* * *
Let me sum up all that we have seen above as simply as I can:
(1) “The Woman” in travail in John 16:21 is intended to remind us of: (a) the first woman, called Zoe in the Greek version of the Old Testament, who is the “mother of all the living”, and thus the mother of all peoples and the church; and (b) an “icon” of the community of Jesus (the church), and the same as “the lady” with her “children” in 2 John.
(2) When Jesus calls his mother, the Samaritan Woman, and Mary Magdalene “Woman”, he is associating them with “the Woman” of 16:21 and all that she symbolizes.
John’s “code” is about the identity of Jesus, but also about the identity of the Christian community. His vision of that identity is that the disciples of Jesus constitute a true and awakened humanity. They are “the living”, rescued from the threat of “perishing” (3:16-17). In his Gospel he symbolically takes his readers back to the Garden and – there – directly to the cross and empty tomb of Christ. He wants them to see themselves as partakers of the fruit of the Tree of Life (Christ) and enjoying the union with God that was once forfeited.
Dividing his community from the fallen aspects of the world – from darkness and death – he intends that they should be joined to Jesus and the life he gives. It means knowing him, knowing the Father, seeing God’s glory paradoxically on the cross, and new life emerging from an empty tomb. It means knowing oneself to be among those “children” of God, like the beloved disciple himself; gathered into an everlasting community, which existed from the beginning, which is also their spiritual “mother”, wed to the Lord and therefore a “lady”, and a “sister” among many “sisters”.
John’s Gospel, unlike the other three, has little to offer in the way of moral instruction. Unlike Matthew, it has nothing to say about communal organization. Unlike Luke in the book of Acts, it has no tale to tell of the practical history and growth of the church. It does, however, give a deep and poetic interpretation of the mystical dimensions of Jesus’ identity and ours in relation to him. John’s “code” is for our contemplation and edification.
Fr Addison Hart is a retired Roman Catholic priest and university chaplain. He is the author of five books, including Strangers and Pilgrims Once More and The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd.