In the time between the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin (August 15) and the Feast of the Nativity of Mary (September 8), we are in a hiatus between the end of one liturgical cycle and the beginning of another celebrating Mary’s life. There is so little concrete information about her life with Jesus in the New Testament, yet she is a key figure in seven instances in the Gospels (Luke 1:26-38; 1:39-56; [Matt 1:18-25; 2:1-15]; Luke 2:1-21; 2:22-39; 2:41-52; John 2:1-11; Matt 12:46-50; [Mark 3:20-22; Luke 11:27-28]) and speaks in four of the seven. It is amazing how much lore has developed upon such slim foundations.
Among the various characterizations of Mary, I find myself repeatedly drawn to Mary as the Second Eve in parallel to St. Paul’s reference to Christ as the Second Adam (Rom 5:12, 15; I Cor 15:45, 47). The second-century Greek bishop Irenaeus is one of the first known to make this parallel connection between Christ and Mary and Adam and Eve. Why is the parallelism so attractive to him?
Jaroslav Pelikan tells us that Irenaeus either elaborated or originated this parallel metaphor of the Second Eve as a corrective to the Stoic belief in determinism and the neo-Platonic belief in a cyclical pattern of history. Why would Irenaeus need to do that? Determinism – the theory that outside forces control us – may be preferable to random consequences at the whim of fate, but it robs human beings of the ability to choose their course in this world. Without free will there cannot be a choice for loving relationship. For Christians, the belief in free will is integral with the belief that humanity is made in God’s image. God would never contradict himself or be capricious; otherwise God the creator would not be God nor redemption part of God’s plan from all eternity. When determinism is accompanied with a cyclical sense of time and history, free will seems futile and God’s grace seems problematic.
Mary, as the Second Eve in relationship to Christ the Second Adam, was essential in countering these pagan philosophical convictions that had begun to seep into early Christianity. Could it be helpful for us today as we see similar convictions cross over from our contemporary secular society? Mary’s fiat at the Annunciation assures us of her freedom in accepting Gabriel’s announcement of God’s plans for her life. Her free consent to the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit and the bearing of the Christ is essential for Christ’s work of salvation, repairing Adam and Eve’s breach of God’s covenant.
If Robert E. Webber is correct in his analysis of today’s postmodern Western culture, then the Western Churches are facing the same issues that Irenaeus was countering in the second century AD. Webber believed that “Christians in a postmodern world will succeed, not by watering down the faith, but by being a countercultural community that invites people to be shaped by the story of Israel and Jesus.” Taking Mary’s words from St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), the Church Fathers have always seen the role of Mary as both inseparable from the Incarnation of Jesus Christ our Redeemer and secondary. The historicity of the infant narratives may be questioned, but the reality of his human birth is supported by Mary’s existence. The fundamentals of Mary’s integral role in the mystery of the Incarnation need to be re-explored. As we disciples walk with Jesus, what does Mary, as the second Eve, show us in her relationship with him?
We are shown God’s wisdom through the Gospel stories mentioning her in at least four ways.
- God honored his creation, even in its fallen state, by waiting for Mary’s fiat before the miracle of the Incarnation.
With God’s invitation and Mary’s consent, God’s plan for our salvation progresses on new footing where the divine and human are united in Jesus Christ. Mary takes her place as the God-bearer and second Eve in relationship to Jesus Christ, her son, the second Adam. The early Church Fathers saw the recapitulation of Genesis and the redemption of the world centered upon the Christ-event: the Nativity through the Passion to the Resurrection and Pentecost. Each step of the way Mary was witness and disciple. This is truth in the Christian worldview.
- She is a model of prayer in her patient keeping of “all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:33, 51).
Another renewing way of looking at Mary’s witness in spiritual purification is implicit in John Macquarrie’s last chapter of Mary for All Christians. His thesis is that the modern virtues extolled by the Enlightenment — liberty, equality, and fraternity — are in tension with the Christian theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Christian virtues have personal, covenant-based qualities. Enlightenment virtues are public contracts that depend upon the philosophical construct of the “individual” instead of the “person.” Individuals have rights defined by contract. Christian persons have relationships and bonds formed between them by covenant with God. Enlightenment virtues encourage assertiveness; Christian ones, meekness and self-effacement.
- She became the model disciple by following Jesus faithfully through all his trials.
It is an important, and often overlooked, detail that Mary was in the upper room at Pentecost. The few vignettes of her following Jesus from his visit to the temple at the age of twelve to the foot of the cross show her as a devoted and accepting mother. After a soul’s awakening and conversion to Christian life comes the challenging stage of purification. Pain and pleasure, virtue and sin, belief and unbelief naturally whirl around the person as he or she emerges from a spiritual awakening, becoming the endless journey of the spiritual life. The silence of Mary speaks more loudly of her union and faith in her Son, Jesus Christ, than her few words. The last recorded words of Mary in John’s Gospel at the wedding at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you.” It is not the disciple’s path to determinism, but a hard-earned “fruit” of the Holy Spirit which comes from such relationship-convictions as constant prayer, pondering in the heart, and discernment of the will of God.
Faithful disciples in today’s America might be more tempted to identify with the exilic anawim (the poor) of the Lord. The vinedressers and the plowmen [Jer. 52:16] left in Israel after the Babylonians hauled the brightest and best of a worldly Israel into exile had no option but to scratch out survival. Jeremiah had encouraged the anawim to call upon the Lord, and so receive grace.
When we accept the pain and difficulties of any situation as a call to return to the Lord, then the words of Simeon’s prophecy of the heart-piercing sword to Mary at the presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:35) hold profound meaning for us also. Mary, as Mother of the Church, represents an eschatological concept of family and community in the Body of Christ. Mary’s role at the foot of the Cross is not to offer redemption, but to stand as the mother of the beloved disciple in empathic witness to the redemption offered by her son Jesus. Here is a rich example of perfect discipleship, having the total confidence in God’s wisdom, power, and grace that gives Mary the holiness and strength to surmount all spiritual trials. The fruition of relationship includes all emotion, both the pleasantness of joy and personal satisfaction, but also the virtuous loyalty and unquestioning suffering in solidarity with the beloved. Mary exemplifies it all.
- By her faithfulness, she evolved into a symbol of the Church and of consecrated virginity within the Church.
The ever-blessed Virgin Mary, the All-holy Theotokos, as the Eastern Orthodox Church addresses her, is a powerful personification of Christian spiritual maturity. The tensions between modern and Christian virtues today are much like those of Mary’s situation in Palestine two millennia ago. The timelessness of God’s self-revelation in Christ shows a nurturing of each soul God creates in God’s image and re-creates through baptism and the seal of the Holy Spirit into the holy fellowship of the Church.
Mother Miriam, CSM is the ninth Mother Superior of the Eastern Province of the Community of Saint Mary.