Blessed Among Women: From Eva to Ave

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The following was a college essay written by Mary Boneno. It has been edited and approved by Michael Twohig. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Mary Boneno, Catholic University of America

            In the garden of Eden, we find two persons: Adam, the first man, and his helpmate, Eve. The two, the man and the woman, cannot be understood without each other. Likewise, in the stable at Bethlehem, we find not only the Child Jesus, but also His Blessed Mother; we ought to recognize this astounding parallel between the state of man and woman in the beginning and in the end of salvation history. It ought to be clear that Christ, as the New Adam, cannot be such without a helpmate, without a person to fill the feminine role that the original Eve once maintained. This woman is Mary; untying the knot of Eve’s disobedience, the Virgin now stands as the new mother of all the living. In this essay, I will first present a more detailed account of the understanding of Mary as the New Eve, as presented in Dr. Brant Pitre’s book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary. Following this, I aim to present three artistic works from various time periods in the history of the Church as a means of illustrating how this title is understood in devotional practices. With these examples in mind, I will illustrate how the meaning of Mary as the second Eve is made ever more clear in the various appeals to the senses, developing the understanding of the exhaustive nature of the Paschal Mystery in the involvement and cooperation of both man and woman, in the reversal of Eva to Ave.

            Dr. Pitre begins his discussion of Mary as the New Eve by first presenting Christ as the New Adam, an image found in the Letters of St. Paul.[1] Jesus, as the Messiah Who brings salvation into the world, reverses the effects of the Fall and glorifies the human nature which the first man had sullied with his pride. Yet, as Pitre points out, Adam was not alone in the garden; thus, just as Adam fell into sin with another by his side, it must be so that Christ, likewise, initiated the redemption of humanity with a helpmate, a woman who represented and recapitulated the position Eve held in the garden.[2] The Church identifies this woman, the New Eve, as Mary, the woman of Nazareth who bore the Christ-Child in her womb. To illustrate this further, Pitre draws a parallel between the respective beginnings of the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of John, emphasizing Mary as the mother of the new creation.[3] In the “days” laid out in John’s Gospel, it is often interpreted that the miracle at the Wedding of Cana occurred on the “seventh day,” and with this in mind, an interesting comparison can be made; as Eve led Adam into sin on the “seventh day” of creation, so too was Mary called into action on this particular day, exhorting her Son to perform a great sign in the beginning of His public ministry. Pitre goes further to explain the imagery of the woman in the Book of Revelation as a representation of Mary, indicating that just as Eve played a vital role in the history of the fall of creation, the Blessed Mother stands as a key figure in the history of salvation and in the redemption of humankind.[4]

            At the end of this chapter, Pitre engages in a discussion of Mary’s immaculate conception in light of the understanding of her as the New Eve.[5] Though the teaching was not defined as dogma until 1854, the idea of Mary as sinless and purified from at least the time of her birth was certainly not foreign to the early Church. Citing figures such as Jerome, Augustine, Irenaeus, and John Chrysostom, Pitre demonstrates the manner in which many of the Fathers understood, however implicitly, Mary to have been created similar to and, ultimately, greater, than the prelapsarian Eve. Mary’s role as the New Eve in relation to the New Adam is vital to understanding the purpose and meaning of her preservation from sin, for it is only through the merits of her Son, Jesus, that she is saved and redeemed most perfectly. In this way, Mary truly becomes the new mother of all the living, as she is born into new life in grace and invites all of humanity to be purified through the waters of baptism.

            In the Middle Ages, the image of Mary as the New Eve was certainly prevalent and found its way into devotions directed toward the Blessed Mother. In his prayers and meditations, St. Anselm of Canterbury invokes the Blessed Mother as an intercessor and mediatrix of grace, praising her as the means through which our salvation comes about. He illustrates that through Eve came the fall of Adam, but through Mary comes the rising of Jesus Christ. Anselm calls her the “gateway of life, door of salvation, way of reconciliation, [and] approach to recovery,” presenting Mary as the true and necessary conduit for our redemption.[6] Without her complete and total consent to the will of the Father, we would remain in “eternal death,” but by her Child, we are “led back from [our] unhappy exile to [our] blessed homeland.”[7] She is the “mother of justifier and the justified, bearer of reconciliation and the reconciled, parent of salvation and of the saved.”[8] Mary is not simply the biological mother of Jesus, a mere physical instrument for God to use and discard after taking from her flesh; no, not only was her motherhood more than a physiological event, but her place in the Father’s plan for redemption was predestined and set apart, and her office as the mother of the Messiah fulfills a significant role for the initiation of the new creation. In her womb is formed the Child Who makes all things new; as Anselm so beautifully states, “God is the Father of all created things, and Mary is the mother of all re-created things.”[9] Mary’s motherhood is not simply restricted to the One biologically related to her, but extends to the entirety of the human race as we become united no longer in the sin of our first parents, but in the new life we are offered in the fruit of her womb.

            Standing at the foot of the Cross, Mary again shows herself to be the second and sanctified Eve as she overcomes the temptations of disobedience. Since its composition, the Stabat Mater, a hymn reflecting on this very event at Calvary, has found a home in the liturgy as a sequence following the Gospel acclamation. It has been set numerous times by various musical composers, but I wish to turn to the particular setting by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.[10] Active during the early 18th century, Pergolesi is often seen as a bridge between the Baroque and Classical styles of music, and his setting of this Marian sequence certainly retains many Baroque characteristics, such as the basso continuo line performed with string instruments. In the first of his twelve moments, Pergolesi sets the first stanza: Stabat Mater dolorosa / iuxta crucem lacrimosa / dum pendebat Filius. Sung by soprano and alto or countertenor soloists, the text comes alive as the voices weave around each other, imitating the dissonance of the violins and sustaining suspensions that eventually resolve to a consonance in the last line, indicating Mary’s ultimate closeness to her Son. This first movement introduces the listener to Mary not only in her sorrows, but in her role as the New Eve, as it paints Mary’s continued obedience to the will of God, even at the foot of the Cross, implicitly against Eve’s disobedience in the garden. In a special way, the dissonance between the female and male voices indicates Mary’s struggle to understand the will of God, though she is always accepting of it in the end, as presented by the final resolution of consonance. Mary was not in any way omniscient, and it is clear in the Gospels that many times she did not fully comprehend what her Son was doing in the moment; yet, instead of opposing what she did not understand, Mary abandoned herself to the will of the Lord and let herself be led to the Cross, pondering everything in her heart. Pergolesi excellently demonstrates that even in her sorrows, Mary is the New Eve as she cries out for her Son, uniting herself to His sufferings and walking by her faith in the Father’s providence.

            In the Romantic era of the 19th century, Anton Bruckner composed a setting for the Ave Maria which indeed also reflects the depiction of the Blessed Mother as the New Eve in its musical quality.[11] As opposed to other settings of Marian prayers, this piece is not polyphonic and instead sets the parts homophonically, indicating a sort of unity that all Christians share in their invocation of Mary as mother. Eve was once the mother of all the living, but now, with the coming of Christ, Mary becomes the mother of the redeemed, of the baptized, of the ones who find new life in her offspring as one people of God. Bruckner further emphasizes the comprehensiveness of salvation history and the recapitulation of the situation in the garden in the persons of Jesus and Mary in his division of the vocal parts. Reserving the line which states, “Benedicta tu in mulieribus,” for the female voices, and likewise the following line, “Benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus,” for the male voices, Bruckner certainly presents the fullness of redemption; though Jesus was fully human and alone redeemed the entirety of mankind, the Father did not disdain to involve both expressions of the human person in the salvific mysteries. Just as both a man and a woman were found naked in the garden, having sinned against God, so too do we find both a man and a woman in Bethlehem and at Calvary, fulfilling the promise of salvation. At the end of the piece, Bruckner puts forward a repetition of the words “mortis nostrae,” recalling that unavoidable effect of the Fall, but highlighting that the Christian need not fear, for the Blessed Mother will remember her children and extend the mercy of her Son toward their souls. In Eve we find the bitter fruit of death, but in Mary we shall rejoice in the sweetness of her womb and delight in the goodness of Jesus Christ Who offers eternal life in His kingdom.

            The image of Mary as the second Eve is theologically rich and serves as a point of reflection for many scholars in Christian history. Beyond its discussion in academic settings, the title finds its way into the liturgy and private devotion as it properly honors the Virgin in a special manner. This title, as with all other titles attributed to the Blessed Mother, must always be taken in its context as flowing out from the person of Christ. A Mariology which is not Christocentric is certainly not a Mariology at all, and everything about Mary’s life attests to this, as she only lives with and for her Son, Jesus Christ. The prayers of Anselm, the hymn of Pergolesi, and the Ave Maria by Bruckner certainly all emphasize the blessed relationship between the Son and His Mother, illustrating the fulfillment of the promise first offered by God in the garden. Mary carries out a necessary role in the life of Christ and in the salvation offered to the whole world. As a woman, the Blessed Virgin is indispensable in initiating the mysteries of her Son, the New Adam, and Mary finds herself as a mother to new and glorified children born through the Cross and rising to new life in the heavenly paradise.

Bibliography

Anselm of Canterbury. The Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm. Translated by Sister Benedicta Ward., S.L.G. London: Penguin Classics, 1979.

Bruckner, Josef Anton. Ave Maria. Choir of St. Bride’s Church. Recording date unknown. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbHKnUhdv8g.

Pergolesi, Giovanni Battista. Stabat Mater. Nathalie Stutzmann. With Philippe Jaroussky and Emöke Barath. Recorded April 2014.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzOmPUu-F_M. Pitre, Brant. Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018.


[1] Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary, (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), 15.

[2] Ibid., 19.

[3] Ibid., 26-27.

[4] Ibid., 29-33.

[5] Ibid., 33-40.

[6] Anselm of Canterbury, The Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm, trans. Sister Benedicta Ward., S.L.G. (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 117.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 122.

[9] Ibid., 121.

[10] Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Stabat Mater, Nathalie Stutzmann (conductor), with Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor) and Emöke Barath (soprano), recorded April 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzOmPUu-F_M

[11] Josef Anton Bruckner, Ave Maria, Choir of St. Bride’s Church, recording date unknown, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbHKnUhdv8g

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