Just how Blessed was Mary?

This is my final post in this series on Mariology.  So far I’ve looked at typologies of Mary (Israel and the Church), Mary’s motherhood of Christ and Church as well as her Queenship, and the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity.  Now it’s time to bring in the context of the New Creation.

New Adam, New Eve

In 1 Corinthians 15, St. Paul wrote about Jesus being the New Adam:

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.  But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual.  The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.  As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven.  Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

The parallel is clear: the first creation fell into sin through Adam, the new creation is raised to godliness through Jesus.  Adam is the first man of the old, Jesus is the first man of the new; Jesus is the Second Adam.

But Adam didn’t create the human race by himself; he had a suitable partner, called woman.  Specifically, that woman was named Eve, because she was the mother of all living.  And, now that we’ve quoted Genesis, suddenly this sounds familiar.  Haven’t we already talked about someone who’s the mother of the faithful, of the Church?  Yes!  But if Mary is really the New Eve, surely there must be something in the Bible that makes this connection more clearly…

Of all Jesus’ disciples, the one who probably knew Mary the best (and was therefore most likely to write about her) was the Apostle John, who took Mary home after Jesus’ death.  Sure enough, John’s gospel book begins with a creation theme culminating in the New Adam: Jesus, the Word made flesh.  John’s writing style is very image-rich and theological in approach, not quite like the story-telling style of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  So as we read though the first chapter we find some interesting parallels: both Genesis & John describe make use of the language of darkness and light.  Just as the Holy Spirit was over the waters of creation in Genesis 1, the Spirit appeared over the waters of the Jordan when Jesus got baptized.  And, as I learned from a YouTube video last year, both Genesis & John have a seven-day period of time described.  Check out this sequence of seven days:

  • Day 1: John the Baptist first mentions the Messiah (1:19-28).
  • Day 2: John makes his “Lamb of God” declaration (1:29-34).
  • Day 3: Jesus gathers his first disciples (1:35-42).
  • Day 4: Jesus gathers two more disciples (1:43-51).
  • Days 5 & 6 are not recorded, as the narrative continues “three days later” (John 2:1).
  • Day 7: Jesus and his disciples are at a wedding, and he calls Mary “woman” (2:1-11).

It may not sound like much to the modern reader, but to the predominantly Jewish Early Church who knew their Old Testament really well, the creation themes and seven-day sequence with a declaration of “woman” at the end of each is as clear a statement as you need: Mary is the New Eve.

Of course the relation that New Eve has to the New Adam isn’t the same as the relationship between the old Eve and old Adam.  The first were wife and husband, the second were mother and son.  Though it’s very interesting to note the reversal: the first Adam observed that woman “was taken out of Man” and the new Man (Jesus) was born of a woman.

There are some who fear that such observations as these might take away from the uniqueness of Christ.  Our salvation hinges on him, the new Adam; if we recognize Mary as the new Eve, might that not step on Jesus’ turf?  No, it need not detract from the saving power of Christ.

Mary’s role in the plan of redemption

There are many facets of our salvation: transferal from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, justification by faith, sanctification by the Spirit, glorification with Christ, union with God, being regenerated, being made new, feeding on the bread of eternal life, and so much more.  The biblical understanding of Mary as the New Eve sheds light on the “being made new” theme.

Mary is the one in whom the curse of Eve is undone.  The “fall of man” in Genesis 3 begins with the serpent tricking Eve into sinning, and Eve then leads Adam astray too.  Although the New Testament remembers this ultimately as “Adam’s sin,” there remains the potential for a sexist abuse of the Genesis account to argue that women are spiritually weaker than men.  (This false belief has cropped up in Christian circles from time to time.)  The fact that Mary encounters God and accepts his plan and will is a literal undoing of Eve’s sin: Eve’s faithlessness is countered by Mary’s faithfulness.  And so instead of suggesting to Jesus that he should sin like Eve had, Mary suggests to Jesus that he should bless their hosts.

Mary’s role illustrates the doctrine of justification by faith.  There is nothing that Mary does to qualify her as worthy to be the New Eve; she only expresses her faith in God to the angel Gabriel.  As Hilary of Poitiers wrote, God became man “when human nature without any precedent merits of good works, was joined to God the Word in the womb of the Virgin.”

Mary’s supernatural motherhood follows the type of the supernatural creation of Adam and Eve.  Just as the first creation, especially Adam and Eve, are described to have been created through supernatural means, Mary also conceives Jesus in her womb through supernatural means.  Just as the first, the New Creation also came about through God’s direct actions in the world.

The image of God is male and female.  Genesis 1:27 says this outright.  Therefore, no matter how perfectly sinless Jesus is, it would still be inappropriate to talk about the New Creation coming from a man, and not both a man and a woman.  Human nature’s image of God requires both genders; that’s what God did and declared in Genesis 1.  Or, in more modern language, to say the new creation comes only from a male would be sexist.  Human creation and procreation is a two-gender thing.  So if you’re going to talk about the New Adam at all, you’ve got talk about the New Eve also, otherwise you’re setting yourself up for a sexist theology of redemption.

God came into the world through her.  It’s so basic, it’s in the creeds, and yet it’s so staggeringly mind-blowing: when God the Son became a human, he didn’t just pop into existence in great heavenly splendor, he arrived through a human mother.  We can never fully comprehend just how weird, amazing, and glorious that truth is.

How much more does this say about Mary, herself?

We don’t know much about the act of the conception of Jesus, only that God the Holy Spirit “overshadowed” Mary.  As John of Damascus pointed out, the Spirit “gave her the power both to receive the divinity of the Word and to beget.”  Just as God cleanses us from sin when we receive Christ into our lives, so was Mary.  You might say that she was “born again” when God did this work in her life.

But there are a lot people out there who believe that by God’s grace, Mary was enabled to live a life without sin both before and after conceiving Jesus in her womb.  To most Protestants today this is blasphemous, impossible, or ridiculous.  To Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, this is treated as a matter of fact.  Many of the Church’s early theologians certainly believed it.

Martin Luther also believed it (though probably not that she was born free of original sin).  Luther believed that the way in which Mary was venerated at the time was idolatrous, and that’s where his sharp and pointy arguments were aimed, not so much the theology itself.  Why would Martin Luther, the guy who codified sola scriptura for generations of Protestants to come, believe in such a thing?  There must be some clue in the Bible to justify his adherence to this doctrine, otherwise he would have tossed it out, like he did with other closely-held beliefs like the intercession of the saints, papal supremacy, apostolic succession, and purgatory and indulgences.  It turns out there are three biblical arguments that Luther and those before him have turned to.

#1 Hail Mary, full of grace.  In the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel uses these words to greet and address Mary.  Protestant translations of the Bible have preferred the words “Greetings, favored one.”  The Greek behind it is kecharitomene which is a participle meaning “one who was & remains filled with grace.”  (Yeah, Greek verbs really do carry a lot of information thanks to their complicated system of conjugations.)  Protestants interpret this greeting to be a respectful greeting to a woman God has decided to act graciously towards.  The historical interpretation has been more literal, though: God has filled her with grace.  This has two key implications: first that Mary was & remains clean from sin, and second that this was God’s work.  Her salvation is still entirely God’s work.

#2 Enmity between her and Satan.  In Genesis 3, God promises to Adam and Eve that he will deliver a savior to free them from sin.  Specifically, God tells Satan that He will put enmity between Satan and “the woman” and “her offspring.”  The offspring who bruises Satan’s head we know to be Jesus, so it’s reasonable to see “the woman” to be Jesus’ mother, Mary.  If Mary was a sinner, she’d be in cooperation with Satan; but because she’s described as “at enmity” with Satan just like Jesus is, there is room to interpret this to say that Mary would also live a life without sin, just like (and ultimately thanks to) her son the Savior.

#3 Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant.  In my previous post I described the typology of Mary being the Ark of the New Covenant; I won’t repeat that here, so if you need the refresher, please click here to read it.  Suffice it to say here that if the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament was supernaturally holy and set apart, even though it was made by human hands, then perhaps also Mary was supernaturally holy and set apart even though she was born in the ordinary human way.

The way I see it, these aren’t water-tight arguments.  The two scripture passages quoted can be interpreted in other ways, and the Ark of the Covenant typology doesn’t strike me as a conclusive argument for anything specific.  But a lot of important Christians in the early Church believed them – people who participated in the development of key doctrines like the divinity, humanity, personal union, and dual natures of Christ.  So I don’t think we can in good conscience write this off as a bad interpretation of Scripture.  It’s been widely held by a reliable majority early on, and even some of the early reformers continued to believe it.

The final word, for now

As Martin Luther argued, the problems here are not so much in the theology and biblical interpretation – those are ancient and reasonable.  The challenge is in the implementation of these ideas.  There have indeed been abuses that crop up off and on through history, as is the case with any strongly-held belief.  So I’d like to end this series on Mariology with this exhortation of caution:

Mariology is not a stand-alone discipline of theology; it is a branch of Christology.  (What we say about Mary is ultimately tied to what we say about Christ.)  Therefore if any of these often-controversial Marian doctrines are to be believed, we must keep their implementation equally centered around Christ.

  • Honoring Mary as our Mother can never surpass nor equal our honoring of God our heavenly Father.
  • Proclaiming Mary’s perfect obedience to God can never surpass (nor stand without) the proclamation of Christ’s perfect obedience to the Father.
  • Reverence Mary (in light of her sinlessness, if you believe it) can never surpass nor equal worship for the Triune God.

Quite simply, Mary points us to Christ.  No matter how much or how little you believe about Mary, may she point you always and only to Christ.  As the old Anglican prayerbooks put it:

FATHER in heaven, by your grace the virgin mother of your incarnate Son was blessed in bearing him, but still more blessed in keeping your word: Grant us who honor the exaltation of her lowliness to follow the example of her devotion to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.

Amen.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
This entry was posted in Biblical, Theological and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Just how Blessed was Mary?

  1. Pingback: Mary knew what was going on. | Leorningcnihtes boc

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