The image we are reflecting on today is titled Mary and Eve. It is a crayon & pencil drawing created by Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO, of the Cistercian Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey. The image is featured on a greeting card and is available to purchase. The Sisters’ main means of support is the production and sale of Trappistine Creamy Caramels and we encourage you to visit their website.
The symbolism of this beautiful image, in many senses, offers a summary of all our beliefs about Mary.
Its very form and aesthetic feel hints at Eve’s exposed vulnerability and Mary’s effortless joy.
As you might guess, to her left, we find Eve; that is, we find ourselves, walking along our path, tripping upon the serpent’s scales, dolefully latching onto our symbols of self-satisfaction and divine pretensions.
Behind the scene the meekest (always active, but never taking centerstage) of the of the Holy Trinity –the Holy Spirit– hovers, illuminating the stage. God the Father looks upon his beloved garden. Perhaps a tear trickles down his face as this long awaited encounter takes place. Finally, the Son descends into the depths of our humanity, building his abode with timbers of poverty and meekness. As close to the human heart as is physically possibile, welcoming patiently the rhythms of human development, he grows in the womb of a young woman named Mary.
There is much that could be said about this scene. Surely Sr. Grace could explain her creation much better than I; nevertheless, I have ventured upon proposing a few thoughts that might allow this beautiful work to be useful in explaining our beliefs about Mary to others.
1. The Garden
In many cultures (including ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian), the garden is a place for welcoming. It is irrigated, cultivated, trimmed. Everything is designed for encounter and communion.
In Genesis 2, God himself takes a walk in the garden, revealing his friendship and closeness with man. The garden itself is a gift given to man so that he may cultivate and take care of it. In this sense it is a stage for relation and cooperation.
Unfortunately, the garden is also a scriptural image of negative feelings, of envy and homicide. We can see this in the garden of Susan (Daniel 13), but, above all, in Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21).
In the prophetic texts, the garden reminds us of the prosperous and pacific man.
In the Song of Songs, the garden serves as an image of love. The spouse says to his beloved: “You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain” [a ‘garden locked up’ in Greek means paradise] (Song 4:12).
Finally, in the Gospel of John 18, the garden, once again, becomes a place of betrayal.
All of this reminds that we, in reality, are this garden. In our hearts, this continuous drama of fidelity and love, weakness and betrayal continues on. As we look upon this drawing, however, we are reminded of the fact that Mary, in her obedient fidelity, has broken the vicious circle. For this reason she is “spes nostrae” (our hope).
2. The Arch
The arch figures prominently into the Catholic architecture and art. It can embody and symbolize many things: strength and support, lightness and openness within density, a beginning and an end. In mythology, arches or doorways are understood as thresholds in time and space (chronos, the temporal world) through which one passes to enter another kind of time and space (kairos, the spiritual world).
The arch a strong and inspiring image, yet also a paradoxical image which is built on weakness. Leonardo da Vinci once wrote that “an arch is nothing else than a strength caused by two weaknesses; for the arch in buildings is made up of two segments of a circle, and each of these segments being in itself very weak desires to fall, and as one withstands the downfall of the other, the two weaknesses are converted into a single strength.” (Source)
Just as when we pass through the arches of our churches we are called to recognize this change in temporality, so too, in this image, we are called to do the same. We are entering into something special. Here, history and eternity meet. Eve’s sorrow and Mary’s joy point back to historical realities (Eve’s sorrow referring to mankind’s sorrow through history), yet they also point to an eternal one: the definitive redemption of weakness and of sin, our salvation in Jesus Christ, the source of our eternal joy.
3. The Fruit
An attentive eye will discover three kinds of “fruit” in this drawing. The first two lie in plain sight. The first type of fruit we find decorating the arch which seems to be some sort of fruit tree. The fruit appears healthy, tasty and abundant. The second, we find in Eve’s grasp — an evident referral to her taking the fruit of the tree of knowledge and eating it (Gen 3). The third kind of fruit is hidden in Mary’s womb: it is, of course Jesus Christ. For as Elizabeth exclaimed, “… blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk 2:42).
While Eve’s fruit was “good for food,” “a delight to the eyes,” and able of “making one wise,”, Mary’s fruit, her son Jesus, seemed to be the complete opposite. At His birth she was told that a “ sword will pierce your heart.” During the moment of Jesus’ passion, it could be said of Him: “his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness…He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (52:14–53:2). Finally, as Paul says, He was a “stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23).
Albeit paradoxical, Jesus is the true fruit. He is the realization of each and every one of our desires. In this sense, we could say that to be Christian is nothing other than reaching the awareness of the fact that Jesus is our all, our only nourishment, our unique source of happiness, our sole “fruit.”
For this, due to her sin and disobedience, Eve is depicted as both sad and fruitless (she is barren, without child). Mary, on the other hand, is pregnant. Life — Life itself!– has taken root within her very being and is soon to restore the life of all men and women. This is the beautiful secret that we find painted on Mary’s face of joy.
From all of this, we understand that Mary is both the Mother of our Lord and the Mother of all Christians. She is our mother!
Redeemed by reason of the merits of her Son and united to Him by a close and indissoluble tie, she is endowed with the high office and dignity of being the Mother of the Son of God, by which account she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Because of this gift of sublime grace she far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth. At the same time, however, because she belongs to the offspring of Adam she is one with all those who are to be saved. She is “the mother of the members of Christ . . . having cooperated by charity that faithful might be born in the Church, who are members of that Head.” Wherefore she is hailed as a pre-eminent and singular member of the Church, and as its type and excellent exemplar in faith and charity. The Catholic Church, taught by the Holy Spirit, honors her with filial affection and piety as a most beloved mother. – Lumen Gentium, 53
4. The Hands and Gaze
Sin has a strange effect on us. Upfront, it offers us everything; in the end, however, it leaves us only shame and frustration. Still, for some bizarre reason, we tend to hold on to it. It is like an itch that we cannot ignore, a scar that we continue to pick at. Even standing before those who could heal us, we are often reluctant to allow them to see our struggles.
Sadness begins to settle in our interior. Whereas Mary is dressed in blue (symbol of humanity, the only creature able to look towards the heavens/sky), Eve is wrapped in her brown hair, the color of the earth, of the ground. It is almost as if she has forgotten how to lift her head. And indeed, sin provokes a sort of Alzheimer’s in our interior whereby we forget our origins and our destiny: eternal communion with God who is Love. It also leads us to close ourselves off to others. We cease to look them in the eyes, afraid of what they will see in us.
Mary’s gaze is directed towards the apple, yet I would venture to say that she looks beyond. She gazes upon Eve’s heart. Never forget, although she was born without sin, Mary’s sinlessness is the fruit of the redemption brought about through her Son. Her purity and joy is pure gift, pure acceptance. She too has experienced God’s infinite mercy and it is for this reason that she is able to look with mercy upon Eve’s heart. Her gaze is one of comprehension and maternal compassion.
With her hands she seems to be completing two gestures. With her left, she has has grasped Eve’s hand — one which was presumably still grasping onto the apple out of shame– and drawn it toward her womb. Mary, then, teaches her the first act in this Christian drama: one must let go of his or her pride and shame, so as to discover the beating heart of the Living God.
Such infinite love is too bright for unaccustomed eyes to witness and deafened ears to listen to. Touch must, therefore, be the key instrument in this first movement. Mary doesn’t offer explanations or arguments, she simply ushers her towards the encounter with God-Made-Flesh. Responding in an absolutely unexpected manner, God saves by becoming fragile, by teaching us to become children once more, by reminding us of the baffling beauty of the heartbeat of the Sacred Child in the womb.
With her right hand, Mary lifts Eve’s gaze, one so accustomed to its dejected form. Under the support of her gentle touch, she guides her gaze, again, to her beloved Son.
This is both Mary’s mission and our own: announce the joyful news (the gospel) of God’s forgiveness and lead all to his Sacred Heart.
5. The Light
Another element that I would like to point out is the yellow-gold light that illuminates the entire scene. This color often represents divinity, God’s grace and presence. In this drawing, we witness how it envelops and embraces both Eve and Mary.
In His Son Jesus Christ, God removed all doubt. He is Emmanuel. He is with us. Be it in our moments of failure and sin, be it in our moments of faithfulness and obedience, God does not abandon us. Here is there, working and loving in the background. Even if He has to wait thousands of years until we are finally willingly to offer Him our pure and generous “yes”, He will wait.
6. The Serpent
In Luke 2:42 we read that Elizabeth, in hearing the greeting of Mary, was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaims with a loud cry: “Blessed are you among women.” We can find this phrase in two other biblical passages in the Old Testament: Judges 5:24 and Judith 13: 18–20. In the first case, we find Deborah and Barak pronouncing a blessing over Ja’el aftering killing Sisera. At this point in salvation history, we are in the time of the Judges (1220–1040 BC). It is a difficult time for Israel. God selects and calls judges to stand up and lead his people through both internal and external struggles.
In the second passage, the event is located much later, around 105 a.C., but the situation is similar: Israel is oppressed by a powerful, foreign enemy, identified here as Nebuchadnezzar. Uzziah pronounces the blessing over Judith who beheaded Holofernes, the general of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians.
In Luke’s eyes, then — for we can be sure that he knew the Old Testament well — Mary is the woman who, in welcoming into her heart and into her body the Incarnation of the Word, brings forth the definitive victory of the enemy. In offering her humble and faithful “yes” to God’s plan, Mary became a cause of salvation, both for herself and the whole human race.
It is for this reason that when they read the the Vulgate translation of Genesis 3:15, “She shall bruise the head [of the serpent]” (Gen 3, 15), the early Christians and the Fathers of the Church were quick to associate this statement to Mary who, through her faithful acceptance of God’s grace, gave birth to He who would conquer the serpent, that is, the Devil.
It is for this same reason that we Christians continue to ask for Mary’ help today. Through her intercession, she as Mother aids us in our own battle against the devil and against the temptations in our lives:
This maternity of Mary in the order of grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, and lasts until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and cultics, until they are led into the happiness of their true home. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix. This, however, is to be so understood that it neither takes away from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficaciousness of Christ the one Mediator.– Lumen Gentium, 62
Finally, I would invite you to read and meditate on the following three quotes, perhaps some of the most eloquent and significant writings about Mary in the history of the Church. Even at the earliest stages of the Christian community, it was clear that Mary was the New Eve, Mother of all those who believe and follow her Son.
For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the words of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God; and she replied, “Be it unto me according to thy word.” And by her has He been born. – St. Justin Martyr (†165), Dialogue with Trypho, 100
In accordance with this design, Mary the Virgin is found obedient, saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word.” But Eve was disobedient; for she did not obey when as yet she was a virgin. And even as she, having indeed a husband, Adam but being nevertheless as yet a virgin … having become disobedient, was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race; so also did Mary, having a man betrothed [to her], and being nevertheless a virgin, by yielding obedience, became the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race. . . . And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” – St. Irenaeus (†202), Against Heresies, III.22.4
You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us. … Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race. Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word. … Though modest silence is pleasing, dutiful speech is now more necessary. Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” she says, “be it done to me according to your word.” – St. Bernard of Clairvaux (†1153), De in laudibus matris virginis (Homily in praise of the Virgin Mother)
**Certain reflections found here were based on a series of Spiritual Exercises entitled, Come la Donna di Samaria al pozzo, con l’anfora vuota, written by Fr. Gaeton and an exegesis of Marian prayers entitled, Totta Pulchra, written by Massimiliano Zuppi.