Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Mary: Obedient Servant of the Most High and Co-Redeemer

The theme of Mary as the new Eve carries deep theological dimensions. In Christianity’s account of the plan of salvation, as expanded by Ireneus, Christ is taken to be the ‘new Adam’. Christ’s role as the new Adam, however, is arguably theologically impossible without the role played out by Mary in this theology. What then, is the stark contrast between Mary and Eve that should elevate Mary to a status of co-redemptress? Throughout the reading for April 2, we can see the different connotations given to Mary that distinguish her from Eve, as well as some similarities between the two. The explicit character differences and connotations between the two figures of Eve and Mary should be explored.

In his “Hymns on the Nativity”, Ephrem presents ample content for the contrast between Mary and Eve. Particularly, in Ephrem’s hymns we see the element of Mary’s gratitude. In hymn 15, for instance, Mary’s portrayal as praising God for His choice of her as the mother of His son is one of thanksgiving. Also in hymn 15, Ephrem has Mary describing herself as the ‘lyre’ who sings the truth of the incarnation in spite of the slanders against her, thus glorifying God (str. 4-5). In this sense, Mary turns to God in her praise. In Genesis, however, we find Eve shamefully turning away from God. One could argue that Eve’s ingratitude and lack of faith is manifest in the fact that, though she had everything in the Garden of Eden, she doubted God’s word when the word of the serpent entered her. Eve is thus the figure who turns away from God in disobedience and ingratitude—and therefore the medium through which sin enters the world. On the other hand, Mary’s gratitude and humility is demonstrated in her immense faith in a single word of God despite the slanders spoken of her. In the same hymn, the contrast of characters is even starker, for Mary, though slandered and oppressed, sings “it is a small matter how much I shall endure for a single word of consolation from You is able to chase away myriads of grief” (str. 7-8). Thus we can see the contrasts of gratitude and ingratitude, and faith and lack thereof, and obedience and disobedience between the two figures.

In Against Heresies V, chapter 19, Ireneus lays out a point of similarity between Mary and Eve—namely, Mary and Eve are both recipients of angelic communication. However, the angelic message each receives is distinct. Eve is led astray by the serpent’s treachery that God is asking her to be obedient (and not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil) because He does not want to let her and Adam know that, if they eat of it, they will be as gods (Genesis, Ch. 3). Mary, on the other hand, receives glad tidings from the angel Gabriel that she is to bear the Son of the Most High (Luke, Ch. 1). There is both parallelism and contrast in the respective angelic messages that each of the two figures receives.

This brings us to another important contrast between Eve and the Virgin Mary—that of the different spaces they each represent. In hymns 16 (str. 16) and 17 (str. 5-6), Ephrem presents the two women as opposing dwelling places. Eve “became a cave and grave for the accursed serpent” and thus becomes a dwelling place for the evil word of Satan. Mary, on the other hand, is compared to the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament; she is also referred to as “the King’s castle.” These likenesses attributed to Mary echo other Old Testament symbols, such as Ezekiel’s “closed portal” and the “enclosed garden” in the Song of Songs. These titles give Mary, as opposed to Eve, the connotation as a space into which no foul word may enter. Moreover, Mary can thus be taken to be the culmination of these different scriptural symbols in the fact that, God’s physical presence is within her womb through the incarnation, and—as we discussed in class—there is immense interest in the theme of God, in His  totality, being contained, so to speak, in a human body.

A bit should be said regarding Mary’s relation to the larger theme of Christian salvation. As mentioned in the first paragraph, Christ’s role as the new Adam necessitates the role of Mary as the new Eve. In Against Heresies (Ch. 21, par. 10), Ireneus lays out a logic of the plan of salvation through the incarnation. He points, to begin with, to the argument that, since Adam (the 1st man) was made from “untilled and as yet virgin soil”, and Christ was to recapitulate Adam into himself, Christ needed to have been born from virgin flesh, so to speak. Moreover, he highlights the fact that God did not “again take dust” and form Christ out of it so that the “very same formation” (i.e. of the human race) that had existed in Adam “should be summed up” in Christ and redeemed.

Theologically speaking, therefore, in order for the incarnation to have taken place, two conditions needed to be met: 1) that God take the form of the human race; and 2) that the flesh of which he took the form be as the soil of which Adam was formed, namely, of a virginal ‘untilled’ nature. This requirement finds its solution in Mary, whose contrast to Eve and the different scriptural connotations attributed to her have already been mentioned. From the previous paragraphs, we can see that Mary is permeated by God through her obedience, while Eve repels the Divine Presence through her disobedience. Mankind thus falls into the bondage of death but is also rescued, both through the medium of a virgin. This marks a parallelism to Christ’s as the new Adam, namely in the sense that the sin of the first created man is amended by the correction of the first begotten. 



  1. I have found the mirror-paralleling of Eve and Mary (among other aspects, e.g., the logic involved in presenting the idea) to be one of the most fascinating and intellectually satisfying topics that we have studied and discussed to date in the course. Thank you, LW, for expanding on this theme.

    I don’t have a clear grasp of your Ireneus example of Eve and Mary both experiencing angelic contact. I don’t remember Ireneus implying that the serpent was to Eve what Gabriel was to Mary in terms of angelic ministration (though it is very possible that I am just not remembering). The only Scriptural case of angelic contact that comes to mind for Eve in Eden is the cherubim guarding the way to the tree of life. That could make and interesting “contrasting parallel:” Eve is being told by an angel that the way to tree of life will be forever closed off to her, while Mary is told that the gates of Eden will be opened through her (that, in fact, she *is* Eden, according to the Akathistos hymn).

    I noticed that you posted this before class on Wednesday, which is great because by drawing from Ephrem’s hymns, you have nicely anticipated the spatial metaphors from the Akathistos hymn we discussed in Wednesday’s class. Of course, we can expect hymns to have poetic language, but the spatial metaphor for Mary is definitely a recurrent theme, and your post allows us to see that it was longstanding and spans authors.

    In light of these readings and the Wednesday readings concerning the Theotokos debate, is Mary elevated “to a status of co-redemptress,” as you write in your first paragraph? Would this status bring her close to the objects of the Collyridians’ veneration?

  2. Zach, I appreciate your comment to my post. You mention that you don't have a clear grasp of my Ireneus example of the contrasting angelic communication that Eve and Mary recieve. Referring to Eve and Mary respectively in book V (ch 19, par 1), of Against Heresies, Ireneus writes: "...just as the former was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did the latter, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should sustain God..". It seems to me that Ireneus here makes an explicit analogy between the fallen angel Satan (the serpent) and the angel Gabriel. I am also confused by your statement--"the only Scriptural case of angelic contact that comes to mind for Eve in Eden is the cherubim guarding the way to the tree of life." In Christian theology, of which Ireneus was an advocate, the serpent is taken to be Satan--a fallen angel that first bore the name of Lucifer (meaning bearer of the light). The fall of Lucifer into Satan (the serpent) lies precisely in his deceiving of Eve, persuading her to disobey God and so distrust Him. In this sense, Eve is, in fact, led astray by the word of an angel. On the other hand, I mention Luke's account of Mary being given glad tidings by the angel Gabriel. I therefore do not quite understand your confusion with my putting forth of an analogy and contrast between the angelic contact the two figures of Eve and Mary experience--analogy in the sense that they both receive angelic communication, contrast in the content of the respective messages. I hope this clarified some of what I intended to communicate in that part of my blog post.

    1. LW: Of course, got it now. You're absolutely right. Somehow, I had forgotten all about Lucifer being a fallen angel. (I wish I could say that such lapses are totally infrequent!).

      This makes these most satisfying parallels even more so. Thanks!

  3. You finish your response to my post by asking: "In light of these readings and the Wednesday readings concerning the Theotokos debate, is Mary elevated “to a status of co-redemptress,” as you write in your first paragraph? Would this status bring her close to the objects of the Collyridians’ veneration?" I believe that the April 2 (The New Eve) readings do elevate Mary to a status of co-redeemer, because of the necessity of—as Ireneus stresses—the flesh that the Word was to take on be as the earth that formed Adam, namely, of a virginal nature (ch. 21, par. 10), as well as the contrasts between Mary and Eve that I lay out in my post. In this sense, Mary is an indispensable figure in the plan of redemption—for, without her, the requirement for the incarnation is not met, and the disobedience of Eve not made up for—and necessarily should be venerated as such. Regarding the Wednesday readings on the Theotokos debate, in the Akathistos Hymn we see titles of redemption attributed to Mary, such as ‘the deliverance of the tears of Eve’, as well as the pervading image of Mary containing God himself, in ‘you bear him who bears all (strophe 1). Among the myriad arguments advocating the Theotokos, in Homily 1 of Proclus, we see a common depiction, ‘the veritable swift cloud who carried in her body the one who rides upon the cherubim’ (I, 20). Therefore, as both a counter-balance for the disobedience of Eve, and as the woman who bore in her womb He who contains all (and without whom the plan of redemption is impossible), Mary is indeed elevated to a status of co-redeemer and is worthy of veneration.
    Moreover, however, I believe there is a distinction between venerating the Virgin as a co-reedemer, indispensable to the execution of the plan of redemption, and near-worshipping her, as Epiphanius accused the Collyridians of doing.
    I believe that one of Epiphanius' main qualms against the Collyridians is the particular ritual they allegedly engaged in. This consisted in decorating a chair, spreading a cloth on it, setting bread on it, offering this in the name of Mary, and partaking--most likely communally, as this was a cult--of the bread on a certain day of the year (Against Collyridians 1,6). After outlining this ritual, he goes on to say that "never at any time has a woman been a priest" (2,3). Perhaps, in making this transition from the ritual--one of offering bread in Mary's name--to the claim that women have never and should never be priests, Epiphanius is accusing the Collyridians of engaging in a ritual similar to the celebration of the Eucharist, which would have been in place and administered by male priests by the time of Epiphanius (A.D. 310/20-403). The Eucharistic tradition follows from the Paulian account of the Last Supper, when Jesus Christ allegedly said: "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me" (1 Corinthians, 11:24). Therefore, a certain sect that engaged in a similar ritual, offering bread in rememberance of Mary and eating it, would appear--in the eyes of Epiphanius, as well as perhaps many other clergymen of the time--to be engaging in heresy.

    I hope this answers some of your questions, Zach! Thanks again for your comment.


  4. Very nice analysis of the Mary-Eve parallel that we explored in class! I particularly appreciated the attention that you gave to the details in our texts (gratitude/ingratitude, Gabriel/Satan, Ark/cave) as a way of drawing out the further implications of Mary's role in salvation. While in the long run theologically, you are right: Mary's role as Second Eve does seems to suggest that it is appropriate to consider her as "co-redemptrix," this is not in fact a title that is applied to her until the twelfth century and (as I suspect you know) is one at the moment under active debate. Which raises the further question of the difference between doctrine as implied and doctrine as explicitly expressed--a frequent concern in Marian studies!