Death by Eve Life by Mary

By Timothy Matkin

It has been a dominant scene in church art, perhaps only second to the crucifixion. It gave us the most popular Christian prayer after the Lord’s Prayer, and gave rise to both the devotion of the Angelus, recited morning, noon, and evening throughout the Christian West, and the meditation we know as the holy Rosary. Through it, we recognize the dawn of the Day of Salvation—the mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ announced by the Archangel Gabriel to the blessed Virgin Mary. 

The story really begins in Genesis. Eve succumbed to the temptation of the serpent to be like gods and Adam followed, leading all of us into a fallen condition. This is the origin of original Sin. It refers to what we now fail to inherit—that fellowship with God we were created to enjoy. Because of the tragic decision of our first parents, that divine fellowship is no longer “in the family.” 

But God did not give up on humanity. Even at the fall, he was manifesting the mystery of our redemption. This is what the early Church Fathers recognized as the proto-evangelium, the first Gospel message proclaimed in the world.

When God is describing the consequences of sin, there is one curious statement. Speaking to the serpent in Genesis 3:15, God said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed; he shall crush your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

That’s where things stood in this brave new world east of Eden. It may seem that the serpent had triumphed in seducing the woman Eve. And yet, there is this promise of God for tomorrow: that in spite of the way things may have looked at the moment, it is the woman who will have the final triumph over the serpent through her offspring. The wording of that first Gospel was a bit perplexing. It begged further meditation. “The seed of the woman”? Customarily (and biologically) one would speak of the seed of the man. Could there be some mistake? Some scribal error? What did it mean?

Centuries later, Isaiah’s prophecy would seem to confirm the deeper meaning: “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” which means, “God with us.” (Isaiah 7:14) St.  Matthew applied saw a fulfillment of this verse in his gospel (Matthew 1:22-23) .

St. Luke tells us in the first chapter of his gospel that in the fullness of time, God sent the angel Gabriel to visit a young woman named Mary. He appeared to her and said, “Hail, full of grace; the Lord is with you… Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

Mary responded, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” Gabriel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

The angels waited with bated breath as she pondered this proposal. It is said that God created us without our help, but would not save us without our cooperation. Her answer is our hope, the reason for the season. Our Lady said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:26-39)

In the virgin birth of Jesus, God makes a fresh start on a new humanity, so he does not use the lineage and agency of a human father. But he uses a remnant of the old humanity, the maiden Mary, to be the mother of our Savior—a new Adam. She is to provide the human source from which the Word took flesh, the beginning of a spotless new humanity that would inherit fellowship with God. In the Catechismus of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, he wrote:

“I believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God... was made perfect man, and was conceived in the womb of a woman, being a pure virgin, called Mary, of her proper substance, and her proper blood...
“I believe also that all this was done by the working of the Holy Ghost, without the work of men, to the end that all that was wrought therein might be holy and without spot, pure, and clean; and that thereby our conception might be clean and holy, which of itself is altogether spotted and defiled with sin. 
“I believe that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, without any manner of sin, and without any breach of her virginity; so that by his pure and holy nativity he has purified and made holy ours, which of itself is altogether unclean and defiled with sin.”

Christ is the new Adam, the new Mankind. St. Paul took up this analogy in his letter to the Church at Rome. Adam brought death into the old humanity. The new Adam—Jesus—brings life into a new humanity. The early Church Fathers took the analogy further in making the connection of Mary as the new Eve. As the old Eve’s disobedience lead the way to death, so the obedience of the new Eve—Mary—leads to the virgin birth of a new humanity. 

Mary’s virginity is hailed as an outward sign of her purity of soul. The Greek Liturgies of St Basil the Great and St John Chrysostom call her Panagia (the “All-Holy One”) and Panagiota (the “All-Sinless One”). Thus, she is the Virgin of virgins, the exemplar of chastity and virtue.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Wake, outlined the Church of England’s view on Mary in a sermon in 1688, saying, “We believe her to have been a most pure, and holy, and virtuous creature... that her virgin mind was clean and spotless, as her body chaste and immaculate; and that she was upon the account of both, the most fit of any of her race or sex for the Holy Ghost to over-shadow, and for the Son of the most highest to inhabit.” 

George Hickes, the Dean of Worcester, also commented on the theme of the purity of Mary in one of his sermons:  “She that was the Mother of God could not be [anything] but a very good woman; she that conceived, and bare, and brought forth the holy Child Jesus, the Virgin Mother of Immanuel... surely must have been pure, as he was pure, and holy, as he was holy.”

Since her “yes” to God at the Annunication, she has been the tabernacle of God in the wilderness, carrying the seed of promise, the holy Child whom God foretold would crush the serpent’s head. Now the day of her deliverance, and ours, draws nigh. St. Irenaeus of Lyons in the 2nd Century noted, “And so the knot tied by Eve’s disobedience was unloosed through the obedience of Mary; for what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the Virgin Mary free through faith.”

As Eve was called the mother of all living, so Mary was called Theotokos, (the Mother of God) and likewise the Mother of all who find new life in Christ. By the time of St Jerome, the contrast between Eve and Mary had evolved into a simple proverb, “Death by Eve, life by Mary.”

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

Fr. Timothy Matkin is Rector of St. Francis, Dallas, in the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas.

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