What do the Prologue of John’s Gospel and Mary’s Canticle of the Magnificat have in common? They sing a similar refrain from one united heart.
From the opening of John’s Prologue, proclaiming the “eternal generation of the Son from the Father,” to the scene of final entrustment and abandonment on the Cross, Michael Pakaluk’s new book, Mary’s Voice in the Gospel According to John: A New Translation with Commentary, leads the reader to recognize the wellsprings of Marian influence on the fourth Gospel.
Steeped in the hope of the Old Testament and in the faith-filled proclamation of the Lord’s coming in the New, the song of Mary, the great “Ode of the Theotokos” as it is known in the Eastern tradition, becomes what Pakaluk calls the “oversound” in the Gospel of John; the influence of Mary’s unique perspective echoes throughout John’s writing.
It is a rare gift to hear Our Lady’s voice. We have only a few moments in Scripture when her words are recorded. Always, they are words of ardent faith, hope, and love. Hers is the unflinching fidelity that kept the ember of the Church alive after the darkness of Good Friday and before the dawn of the Resurrection.
The spiritual sanctuary lamp of Mary’s heart illuminates Pakaluk’s research, which in turn sheds new light on John’s Gospel. As Sherlock Holmes declares, “If you shift your own point of view a little, you may find (the evidence) pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.” (The Boscombe Valley Mystery) Looked at from the point of view of Marian illumination, the Gospel of John presents new lines of insight, manifested by the glow offered from Mary’s own loving, prayerful, God-centered gaze.
At the outset of his work, Pakaluk explains that when two people are “‘of one mind’ (Phil 2:2) . . .then each influences the other.” Our Lady and St. John, he reminds us, were uniquely entrusted [Jn. 19:26] to one another at the Cross by Christ Himself, and that act affects St. John’s mission and voice: “John shows himself to be aware of the deliberate, solemn, authoritative, and typical nature of the act by which Jesus placed him in this relationship with Mary. . . .Thus, John’s declaration of this relationship provides an interpretive key to his Gospel.”
Pakaluk elucidates how John’s Gospel, in ways distinct from the synoptic Gospels, is uniquely centered on the divine provenance of Christ, something Our Lady pondered in her heart for the thirty years before Christ’s public manifestation. The Incarnate God lived with Mary and showed her that Redemption was the purpose of His coming. His Incarnation made possible His Passion.
The scenes narrated by John in his Gospel, which Pakaluk identifies as influenced in their selection and expression by Mary’s understanding, have this ultimate perspective woven throughout. Divine filiation, Incarnation, Passion – Mary’s purpose, and her song: all entrusted to John as his mission and his proclamation.
Pakaluk’s analysis underscores the ways that Mary’s contemplative and feminine natures resonate throughout John’s re-telling of the Good News. “I personally have greatly benefited from discussions with my wife, Catherine, over twenty years of marriage,” he explains, “on themes from the writings of Edith Stein, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and Sigrid Undset. As we consider Mary’s contemplative and feminine nature, these sources are indispensable.”
St. Edith Stein’s view of woman, for example, fits Pakaluk’s thesis like a glove. In her essay “The Significance of Woman’s Intrinsic Value in National Life,” Stein points out that the woman has a deeply contemplative nature, a nurturing subjective focus, centering on the person, and that the “high vocation of feminine singularity is to bring true humanity in oneself and others to development,” a task fulfilled most perfectly by Our Lady in her feminine heart, and sanctified in purpose through and with her Spouse, the Holy Spirit.
In this feminine singularity, the pure heart of Mary influences the course of salvation history, even today continuing to guide and nurture the Church through John’s writings.
The large-scale features in John’s Gospel that Pakaluk attributes to Mary’s influence include:
- a narrative approach, advanced primarily through conversation, to which the feminine ear of Mary would be uniquely attuned;
- a narrative perspective from the point of view of Jesus, or from “that of a sympathetic observer who identifies with Jesus”;
- an emphasis on Jesus’ divinity, which Mary has reflected on for over thirty years;
- the significant role of women in the Gospel accounts, from Mary at Cana to the women at the foot of the Cross;
- and, finally, a constant looking forward throughout the narrative, even with apprehension, to the Lord’s Passion. Indeed, “John’s Gospel seems to speak of nothing but the Passion and Resurrection.”
These characteristics, Pakaluk concludes, become our narrative guideposts, “features that are illuminated by the consideration that Mary likely did influence John.”
St. Edith Stein observes that a “translator must be like a pane of glass, that lets all the light through but is not seen itself.” In his painstaking and deeply satisfying commentary on his new translation, Pakaluk offers enlightening explanations of his word-choices amid various possibilities, as well as a treasure trove of additional analyses by figures ranging from St. Augustine to St. John Henry Newman. The words of Christ and those with whom He spoke come newly alive. From the bustle of Jerusalem to the scrappy character of the Woman at the Well, the scenes of Christ’s life unfold with new vigor.
A moment spent in company with a saint can be life-changing. How much more is this true for St. John, who spent years in the same household with Our Lady in holy friendship and conversation. The entire Church draws life-giving water from the deep well of reflection offered by Our Lady, in her providential influence on her spiritual and adoptive son, the beloved friend of Christ, her Divine Son.
*Center image: St. John Leading Home his Adopted Mother by William Dyce, c. 1842-60 [TATE, London]