Today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception includes two readings, the account of the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the account of Mary’s Annunciation. The readings have been paired and contrasted with each other for centuries.
First, we have the case of Adam and Eve’s disobedience for eating from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. They listened to the serpent, who lied and promised them they would become all-knowing and be like Gods. In contrast, Mary didn’t know how the Angel’s announcement that she would give birth to the Son of God could be. But she listened to God’s messenger and obeyed.
Another contrast regards the sexual innuendo in Adam and Eve’s Fall. They were naked in the garden and the serpent, thought to represent a phallic symbol, lured them into eating the forbidden fruit, thought to symbolize sex. The contrast with Mary here lands especially on Eve’s shoulders, for while Eve fell into sexual temptation and became the mother to all humans, Mary would somehow remain a virgin and give birth to God.
We need to bear in mind that the accounts of the Fall and of the Annunciation are wisdom stories. They contain allegorical meanings deeper than a literal reading of each text. Population genetics show, for example, that no Adam-and-Eve pair of people ever existed. The story instead probes universal questions that face all of humanity. Adam and Eve’s very names confirm this. The name “Adam” means “someone formed from the earth,” the humus; Adam symbolizes humanity. The name “Eve” means life; Eve is named the mother of all the living, of all humanity.
Their story aims to explain the grand questions all humans face: why do we live in an unjust world rather than a paradise? why do we suffer in childbirth or trying to feed ourselves? why do we always want more than we have – knowledge, power, possessions, and prestige? These are universal questions that confront all individuals and societies. Why, for example, do rich countries over-consume and hoard food, oil, goods, medicines, and vaccines when others haven’t the bare minimum to survive?
Over the centuries, Eve more than Adam has borne the brunt of misguided interpretations. The early Christian author Tertullian set the stage for centuries of misogynist remarks. He addressed Eve in a treatise, saying:
You are the Devil’s gateway (...). You are the one who persuaded man whom the Devil wasn’t brave enough to approach. You (...) crushed the man, [Adam], the very image of God.
Unfortunately, Tertullian’s misogyny is part of still thriving tradition that characterizes Eve and all the women after her as weak and deceiving temptresses.
Adam and Eve’s disobedience takes on deeper significance when we consider that the word “obey” derives from the Latin word for listening. Adam and Eve’s sin flowed from their failure to listen to and trust in God’s promise of abundant life in paradise. They listened instead to the lying serpent. They are the paradigm for all of us who listen to mistruths and lies, including the ones we tell ourselves, rather than the truth that resides in our deepest hearts.
God punished Adam and Eve by banishing them from paradise. They would toil for their food, suffer in pain and sickness, and die. Furthermore, God placed the man, Adam, as master over Eve. Note that these are punishments, not good things. Recent theologians, including a few popes, have asserted that Eve’s subordination to Adam is a perversion of the original mutuality they shared before the Fall. Sexism, in other words, far from being legitimized by the Fall, is demonized and tied to original sin.
There is a lot of blame going around here. Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent – but note that God places the blame squarely on the serpent. God says to the serpent:
Because you have done this (...), I will put enmity between you and the woman [Eve], between your offspring and [Eve’s] offspring.
In other words, far from aligning Eve with the serpent, as Tertullian did, God puts them on opposing sides.
This underlines an overlooked continuity or similarity between Eve and Mary. Eve’s offspring, after all, includes Mary, and also her son Jesus. Eve, the “mother of all the living” as she is called in Genesis, enacts God’s desire for creation by being fertile, pro-creating, and bearing life into the world.
The difference I see between Eve and Mary centers on Mary’s ability to listen and believe God’s promise that divinity could enter into our broken world. Mary pondered it, recognized the truth, and said Yes, even though she didn’t understand. She didn’t need to know everything as Adam and Eve did. Troubled and afraid, yes: she wondered, would she suffer the same fate of so many other single, pregnant women – labeled as “loose,” accused of tempting unsuspecting men?
Mary’s story, like Adam and Eve’s, is also universal. Every generation is beset by troubles: human greed, divisiveness and wars, sexism and misogyny, illness and death. We are troubled. We do not know how to vanquish these evils. How can we believe that God has entered this human world?
But human creation, with all its ills, can somehow return to paradise, can become – must become – a place of harmony, love, and abundant life for all.
But how can this be? It seems impossible, although we know that nothing is impossible for God. Saint Clare of Assisi, among others, proposes that we look to Mary. Clare observed that although the Son of God was so great that even the heavens could not contain him, Mary’s small womb did - and she birthed that divine life into the world. Saint Clare taught that we too bear God’s life into the world when we imitate Christ’s solidarity with humanity, especially with the poor and marginalized.
What is called for is not the distorted image of a wholly docile Mary, but the fuller image that includes Mary’s Magnificat. Mary sings:
God has deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places. God has given every good thing to the hungry while sending the rich away empty handed.
Mary's Magnificat foretells of a magnificent future already happening. It is being borne into our fallen world by every person who, like Christ, lives in solidarity with the outcasts and fights for a world of love and justice.
As we enter into this Advent season, instead of drawing harsh contrasts between Eve and Mary, let us stop to consider their continuity as women who gave life to the world, life both human and divine.
Catherine Mooney, Ph.D.
Catherine Mooney, Ph.D.
Catherine Mooney teaches church history and the history of Christian spirituality at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. She has a Master’s in Theological Studies (M.T.S.) from Harvard Divinity School, and an M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. in medieval history from Yale University. She has taught at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, MA. She is an international lecturer in both scholarly and religious venues. She advances the study of saints in her roles as President of the Hagiography Society and as board member for the Jesuit-founded Bollandist Society. She serves also on the board for Monastic Matrix, a web resource centered on medieval women’s religious communities, and has served on boards for the Society for Medieval Feminist Studies and for the Franciscan Friars. She has received research awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Harvard Divinity School, and the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University, NY.
Mooney’s publications include Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters (1999), a book in which she and other scholars discuss the ways in which the portrayals of medieval holy women were variously embellished, recast, or distorted by later writers. Her book Philippine Duchesne: A Woman with the Poor (1990; 2007) chronicles the life of a woman, canonized in 1988, who did pioneering work in education and justice on the American frontier. The book has been translated into Japanese, Korean, Bahasa Indonesia, and Spanish. Mooney’s most recent book, Clare of Assisi and the Thirteenth-Century Church: Religious Women, Rules, and Resistance (2016) won the Hagiography Society’s best book award in 2018. It explores how Clare and her allies variously negotiated and resisted a papal program bent on regimenting, enriching, and enclosing religious women. Mooney has also published many essays about saints, spirituality, and social justice efforts. Besides her scholarly work, Mooney engages in a variety of human rights activities.
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