Mary

December 17, 2019

 

PART ONE: MARY AND EVE

A few years ago I – like many people – discovered this drawing of Mary and Eve by Sister Grace Remington of Mississippi Abbey. And like many people, I loved it.  I was drawn to the faces of the women: Eve’s a picture of sorrow and shame, yet lit with perhaps a hint of hope. Mary’s, a face of compassion, warmth, and quiet, confident expectation. I loved the hands on the belly, on the face, and clutched at the breast. I loved the image of the snake: wound tight around Eve’s leg, but crushed at its head by Mary’s foot. I loved that it was a picture of redemption featuring women – and a pregnant one at that!
 

 

Crayon and Pencil, by Sister Grace Remington, OCSO.

c.2005, Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey

 

 

As I looked a little further into the tradition from which this image arises, I discovered that theologians as early as the second century talked about Mary as ‘the new Eve’ or ‘the Second Eve.’ And unfortunately for me, whilst I was drawn to the image of Eve and Mary, something really bothered me about this way of presenting both women.

 

At its worst, Mary as ‘the new Eve’ becomes the theological version of the Madonna-whore dichotomy: the inability to see women as three-dimensional characters, and the tendency to polarise our thinking about them – either to idolise or to demonise. It’s true that Eve and Mary have been seen – and used – this way.  The relationship between Eve and Mary is presented as one of contrasts: Eve is sinful while Mary is perfect, Eve is a temptress while Mary is chaste, Eve is proud but Mary is submissive. This polarisation has functioned negatively for Christian women in at least two ways: first in that it creates an impossible ideal against which we can never match up (and I mean literally impossible – can any of us be a virgin mother?); and second, the connection between sexuality and sinfulness in Eve has distorted our view of women’s bodies and women’s sexuality, causing untold harm. But is there a better version of the pairing? Is it biblical? Is it orthodox?

 

It was Irenaeus who first developed the parallel between Eve and Mary. He saw it as a fitting companion to the Adam-Christ pairing that the apostle Paul uses in Romans and 1 Corinthians (Rom 5:12-21 and 1 Cor 15:21-22; 42-49). For Irenaeus, just as Christ is the new Adam, so Mary is the new Eve. In the same way that Christ’s obedience undoes Adam’s disobedience, so does Mary undo the sin of Eve. Where Eve’s disobedience brought death and destruction, Mary’s obedience brought life. The parallel is made by unpacking and comparing the stories of Eve in Genesis 3 (the Fall), and Mary in Luke 1:26-38 (the Annunciation). The interpretation of Genesis 3:15 as the protoevangelium gives rise to the connection – the seed of Mary is the one who will strike the serpent’s head; and Mary is seen as the fulfilment of the meaning of Eve’s name: “the mother of all living” (Gen 3:20).

 

Ultimately though, I think this way of conceiving of the relationship between Mary and Eve (that is, typologically) is wrongheaded, for two main reasons.  First, the pairing is not really biblical. And second, I think that ultimately it undermines the saving work of Christ, by placing women outside its reach.

 

Clearly, Eve-Mary typology goes beyond what Paul himself writes in Romans and 1 Corinthians. But the typology is not supported by the text of Luke either. Nowhere in the text do we find explicit connection, or even allusion to Genesis 3 or to Eve. Luke gives us an Old Testament background alright, but it is not Eve (more on that in the next post!). The attempt to connect the stories by pairing (for example) the snake with the Angel Gabriel, or ‘conceiving sin’ with ‘conceiving Jesus’ is simply not strong enough to support the connection that Irenaeus wants to make.

 

And this brings us to the final and most important point. For Irenaeus, and for some in the Catholic tradition even today, the story of Eve and Mary is the story of women’s inclusion in salvation. Salvation is still from God and through Christ, but Mary’s purity and obedience become the means by which it can be applied to women who are otherwise mired in the sin of Eve. Ultimately though, this suggests that there is something about women that somehow puts them outside the reach of Christ’s humanity, and therefore his saving work.

 

Sometimes images, stories, and figures like this are useful because they allow us to ‘see ourselves’ in the story of salvation.  I absolutely want to recognise and champion the importance of this. Women need to see themselves in the story of God and in the story of salvation. (Women are there of course, the problem much of the time is not that they don’t exist, but that they are ignored, erased or misrepresented). Whilst this image might help some women to do that, when pushed too far, I think the pairing of Mary and Eve does not.  The Christian gospel is that women and men both are included in the humanity of Christ, and thus in his salvation.  Women’s need is to see the Christian gospel expounded in such a way that their inclusion in Christ is made plain. So I suggest that the fundamental problem of the Eve-Mary typology is that it works not to reveal but to obscure this.

 

I don’t think that Grace Remington’s picture does this necessarily. Perhaps you think I’m over-thinking it!  Well, in the third part of this series I suggest an alternative and more positive way to conceptualise the relationship between Eve and Mary, one that I think better captures the power of this image.

 

But first (in the second part), I want to spend some time outlining how Luke’s annunciation does intend us to see Mary against an Old Testament backdrop.

 

 

PART TWO: MARY THE DISCIPLE

 

The gospel of Luke opens with two chapters on the story of the birth of Christ, and provides more information than any other gospel on the person of Mary. It is true that the author intends us to see Mary against the backdrop of Old Testament stories and figures, but it is not Eve who is in view here. These first two chapters contain no less than 24 points of connection with the narrative of Genesis 12-21:  the story of God’s calling of Abraham and Sarah, his promise to give them a child, and to bless the world through them.  This functions to situate the story of the birth of Jesus in the context of God’s covenant with Abraham - not an undoing, but a fulfilment: the fulfilment of God’s saving promises.

 

Mary’s words in 1:38 link her with Hannah (1 Samuel 1-2) and 1:37 echoes the words of Sarah (Genesis 18:14). Further, the Magnificat connects the coming of Jesus not to the story of Adam and Eve, but to God’s redemptive acts throughout the history of Israel. Mary speaks as God’s covenant people. Echoes of the songs of Moses (Ex 15:1-18), Miriam (Ex 15:19-21), Deborah (Judg 5:1-31), Asaph (1 Chr 16:8-36), and Judith (Jud 16:1-17) are here, in addition to the words of Hannah, placing Mary in the whole company of God’s people, and situating the coming of Jesus in continuity with the whole story of God’s redemptive activity in the past.

 

So, in contrast to a view which sees Mary solely in relation to Eve, this is not a particularly gendered picture. There is not one story for men and another for women. Instead, Mary takes her place in the grand story of God and humanity: one in a line of a great cloud of witnesses, connected in faith and in fortune to Abraham, Sarah, Miriam, Moses, Hannah, David, and many more. Men and women together are the recipients of God’s promises and the instruments in his plan. Indeed, insofar as Abraham himself might be called a ‘new Adam,’ Mary is even connected to the first human pair, though not by the route we once thought and, crucially, not only to Eve. No, what God promises to Mary is the continuation of his promise to Abraham, and is the restoration and fulfilment of his intentions for humanity through the people of Israel.

 

This emphasis on Mary as a person of faith in the line of Abraham is continued throughout the gospel of Luke. Indeed Mary’s actions, even in these first two chapters, demonstrate that she is to be seen as an example of discipleship for both men and women. But as a woman who places discipleship at the forefront of her identity, Mary also reveals that “hearing the word of God and obeying it” sometimes takes a person outside of culturally accepted roles and behaviours.  Thus as a disciple, Mary also embodies new possibilities for women as they take their place in the household of God. What is pertinent about Mary as an example or model for women’s discipleship, then, is not what she reveals about women’s ‘nature,’ (purity, submission, passivity etc.) but what she reveals that God makes possible for women in a world which would deny them. That is, Mary reveals that in God’s economy there is another, counter-cultural way of being ‘woman’ – both in Mary’s day and in ours. The blessed woman, the woman-disciple is the one who “hears the word of God and obeys it” (Luke 11:28).

 

In sharp contrast to traditions developed around Mary’s holiness and piety, Luke’s introduction to his cast of characters in chapters 1 and 2 makes clear that Mary is a ‘nobody.’ Where other characters are recognised for their status or their holiness, Mary is not. Zechariah is a priest (1:5), Elizabeth is a descendent of Aaron (1:5); both are righteous and live blamelessly before God (1:6). Simeon is righteous and devout, filled with the Holy Spirit (2:25). Anna is a prophet, the daughter of Phanuel, her life devoted to worship of God (2:36-37).  Even Joseph gets more backstory than Mary – importantly, he is from the house of David (1:27). Mary, in contrast, is mundane: no pedigree, no role, no important ancestry, no life of piety. Her family of origin is not even mentioned though presumably – as a girl of 13 or 14 - she remained a part of their household. It is precisely her insignificance that seems to mark her out. And thus in the figure of Mary, Luke presents a portrait of one who finds their status, role, and family identity, solely in relation to God.

In her reply to the angel Gabriel, Mary risks expulsion from her father’s household, rejection by her fiancée, and shunning by the community. In doing so, Mary delineates her own self-identity with reference not to husband or father, but to God. She names God as the head of her family, his household as her own. This is behaviour that departs from culturally accepted norms. Mary might not be an adulteress, but by saying yes to God she acts against the grain of her male dominated culture and risks being treated as such. And it doesn’t stop there. Instead of spending her pregnancy in seclusion, Mary travels to visit Elizabeth – seemingly alone. Rather than seek safety by smoothing things over with Joseph, Mary looks to share with her cousin the work of God in both their lives. It’s a beautiful scene that contains no male characters; just two women and their unborn babies in the presence of the Holy Spirit. The cousins pray and bless each other, and Mary sings a song of praise.
 

Do we know yet that Joseph will accept Mary as his wife and take the child as his own? Mary’s courage does not rely on this resolution, nor does she – apparently – seek it.

 

In this portrayal of Mary Luke anticipates two later scenes (Luke 8:19-21; Luke 11:27-28) which reveal the way identities must be redefined in God’s Kingdom. Both scenes involve Jesus and Mary, and prompt a reconsideration of ideas of discipleship, women’s roles, and of family.

Luke 8:19-21 Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. 20 And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” 21 But he said to them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

 

Jesus-discipleship demands a reorientation of life so significant that it disrupts even our closest allegiances. It is nothing less than a redefinition of family (Lk 8:19-21). In light of this teaching to come, we can see how Luke’s presentation of Mary at the annunciation is as one who recognises this re-orientation. Her identification of herself as ‘servant of the Lord’ (Lk 1:38) is a claim to membership in God’s household. It thereby subordinates all other allegiances, even those to her father or to Joseph. It also reminds us that Mary’s virtue lies not in her motherhood (or her virginity), but in her obedience. Even the mother of God is not exempt from the demands of discipleship.

Luke 11:27-28 While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” 28 But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”

The woman in the crowd (Lk 11:27) sees Mary in traditional cultural terms: defined by her role as mother, and worthy of honour due to the status of her son. Jesus’ reply does not imply that Mary is not blessed nor worthy of honour, but it is a sharp critique of the values which are expressed by the woman. Jesus indicates that it is not by virtue of motherhood that Mary is blessed: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (v28). Mary is praiseworthy because she responded to the word of God with faith and obedience, despite the risks.

The author of Luke’s gospel intends us to view Mary against the backdrop of the Abrahamic narrative, specifically God’s covenant promises to Abraham and the working out of those promises through the people of Israel. Within that story, Mary is presented as a very ordinary person who nevertheless pursues radical faith discipleship. God’s call on Mary’s life involves her risking whatever status, honour, and family allegiances she might have had, to find those things now in relation to God instead. In so doing, Mary’s life demonstrates that cultural values and norms for women’s lives are not necessarily God’s values and norms.

This portrait of Mary enables us to recognise the affirmation of women – and specifically of women’s bodies – that the incarnation entails. But at the same time, it refuses to allow us to reduce the value of those bodies to the role of motherhood. Mary is not defined by her ‘femaleness,’ her ‘femininity,’ or by her role as mother. This cuts straight across the Eve-Mary dichotomy, refusing either to demonise or to idealise women. This means that Mary is not a ‘woman-disciple,’ or an ‘ideal example’ for women. On the contrary, to the extent that she serves as example, she does so for both women and men. Mary’s discipleship reveals that ‘woman’ does not qualify disciple.

 


 

PART THREE: MARY FOR WOMAN
 

Having suggested an alternative backdrop and story against which to understand the role of Mary in the story of salvation (Part 2), I want to return to the image that we started with.

 

Though I reject Eve-Mary typology both as unbiblical, and harmful to women (Part 1), still something in the image appeals to me. So in this third section I want to attempt to re-integrate my first two sections: tentatively, to put Mary back in conversation with Eve.

 

I suggest that the approach to and presentation of Mary that I have given above invites us to think of the relationship between Eve and Mary in a new way. Not as type and antitype - as representations of the oppositions of unbelief and faith, disobedience and obedience. Instead, I imagine Eve and Mary as members of a sisterhood. Rather than confirming the worst of Eve by instantiating her opposite, I see Mary consoling Eve through the story of God’s presence and work in her life. Mary does not ‘rescue Eve,’ but her story does tell the truth about who women are and how God sees them. And it sheds light on the lies that have been told about Eve and about us. Therefore, what Mary does for Eve (and for all women) is not to untie the knots of their sin, but to untie the knots of the stories that have been told about them – stories that diminish their worth, dignity, and their role in God’s Kingdom.

 

Perhaps, when we see what God does for Mary, we are able to imagine who we ourselves might be and what God might want for us. Mary is not perfect, she is an ordinary woman. But Mary responds to the word of God with courage and faith. She sets out on a path of radical discipleship, and she risks everything that she has. She entrusts herself to God’s care. She trusts in his covenant faithfulness. And in doing so, Mary demonstrates that in God’s kingdom women are not defined solely by their relationships to their fathers, their husbands, or their sons, but by their relationship to God. “Blessed is the one who hears the word of God and obeys it!”

 

Mary shows us that our bodies and their functions are not bad, that sexuality is not sinful, that God trusts, values and empowers women. She is a woman who studies, reflects, praises, prays and prophesies. She knows the word of God, she recognises God’s work. And Mary has the courage to answer God’s call – even if it takes her outside her expected ‘role.’

 

Just before Paul introduces his Adam-Christology, in verse 8 he writes that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Mary’s experience reminds us of the profound and intimate result of that act of love: while we are still sinners, Christ comes to us; Christ lives in us; Christ grows in us. And as Christ lives in us, our lives are found in him. Mary consoles Eve not by summing up, re-living, or undoing her life, but by pointing to Israel’s Messiah. Ultimately then, Eve-Mary typology is to be rejected because it is Christ who sums up Eve (and Adam); it is Christ whose perfect obedience is the source of salvation (Heb 5:8-9); and it is Christ who is our advocate with the Father (1 Jn 2:1). The story of Mary is a story of salvation, but not the story of Eve’s (or women’s) salvation in Mary. It is the story of Mary’s salvation in Christ.

 

 

 

Hannah is an ordained minister in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, currently living in Scotland. She and her family (husband Tom and two primary aged children) are enjoying the quiet life in the university town of St Andrews, where Hannah is studying towards her PhD in Systematic Theology.

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