Mary as Perpetual Virgin, New Eve, and Ark of the Covenant

Published December 28, 2020

In honor of it’s being Christmas and all, I thought I would continue my discussion of Mary and her relationship to the Incarnation from my Creed book on into this week.

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There are only two mortals mentioned in the Creed.  Mary is one of them.  The Virgin Birth does not happen to a generic anonymous figure.  It happens to a particular person set apart from all eternity by God for the honor, acting with her full and free cooperation and all of her faculties.  When she says, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) she demonstrates the paradox of divine grace at work in the human heart: that the freedom of God does not cancel our free will but rather that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17).

More than this, Mary becomes a sign for us. Her choice to remain a virgin all the days of her life was therefore seen as a sign by the Church as well. Because of his sovereign initiative in saving us by entering into our humanity, we are, so to speak, made members of a new human race headed by a New Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45–50). But that New Adam has a corresponding figure: the New Eve whose “yes” to God allows life to enter into the world just as the “no” of the first Eve brought death into the world. And that “yes” is the fruit both of God’s predestining grace and of her own free assent:

Thus, giving her consent to God’s word, Mary becomes the mother of Jesus. Espousing the divine will for salvation wholeheartedly, without a single sin to restrain her, she gave herself entirely to the person and to the work of her Son; she did so in order to serve the mystery of redemption with him and dependent on him, by God’s grace (Cf. Lumen Gentium 56):

As St. Irenaeus says, “Being obedient she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race” (St. Irenaeus, Adv. haeres. 3, 22, 4: PG 7/1, 959A). Hence not a few of the early Fathers gladly assert. . . : “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience: what the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith” (St. Irenaeus, Adv. haeres. 3, 22, 4: PG 7/1, 959A). Comparing her with Eve, they call Mary “the Mother of the living” and frequently claim: “Death through Eve, life through Mary” (Lumen Gentium 56; Epiphanius, Haer. 78, 18: PG 42, 728CD-729AB; St. Jerome, Ep. 22, 21: PL 22, 408). (CCC 494)

All of which means that Mary is identified with the family of the New Adam just as much as the old Eve was identified with the family of the old Adam. Therefore, Mary’s virginity is a sign of joy that echoes down the ages even more than the weeping from the fall of Eve.

This is not something alien to the gospels.  Both Luke’s account of the nativity and the book of Revelation will link the Blessed Virgin to the holiest object in all of Old Testament Israelite religion: the Ark of the Covenant.  That’s what “the power of the Most High will overshadow you” meant.  The word for “overshadow” is the same one used in the Greek version of the Old Testament to describe the cloud of glory known in Hebrew as the Shekinah that came down on the Tabernacle wherein the Ark of the Covenant rested.

Likewise, Revelation offers this visionary version of the story of the Incarnation and the trials of the Virgin and the early Church in these terms:

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, loud noises, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.

And a great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another sign appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days. (Revelation 11:19-12:6)

Note how the mind of the sacred writer moves seamlessly from the image of the Ark of the Covenant to the Woman clothed with the sun who gives birth to the male child destined to rule the nations. And note how he also encapsulates all the sufferings and hope of the Church in an image that combines Herod’s attempt on the life of the infant Jesus, the exile of the Holy Family in Egypt and Jesus’ Death, Resurrection and Ascension. Not for nothing does St. Ambrose of Milan tell us that, “Mary is the type of the Church.”

3 Responses

  1. Is there an (official) Catholic response to the Noncatholic view that Mary would not have “cried out in her pangs of birth” if she were immaculately conceived since Genesis 3:16 says that pain in childbirth is a punishment for original sin?
    I assume one or another Church Father covered this centuries ago and it has gone back and forth since.

    1. First, the figure in Revelation is not Mary, but a Marian figure who also images the experience of the whole Church. It is flat-footed literalism to read Rev 12 as a description of the Nativity.

      Second, it is, at best, a “pious opinion” not the Church’s teaching that Mary could not have experienced birth pangs. Mary certainly experienced (as all disciples experience) the anguish that is a consequence of sin in the world, just as her Son did. You can, if you like, suppose that Mary did not suffer birth pangs. But you can also (and I do) think Mary endured suffering at the beginning of Jesus’ life just as she experienced it at the end, not as a consequence of her sin but, like him, as a consequences of sharing in his sinless suffering.

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