Mary the True Woman and Mother of Life

Mary the True Woman and Mother of Life

As Jesus Christ is the true and final Adam—the true Man and exemplar of humanity, through whom all humanity can become truly human—so also is Mary, the Mother or Birth-giver of God (Θεοτοκος), the true and final Eve. She is ‘the woman,’ and through her faithfulness, the restoration of the cosmos is wrought.

Jesus himself refers to his mother in this manner in John’s Gospel:

When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” —John 2:3–5

While some might read this passage through a modern, contextual lens—perhaps leading to the blasphemous suggestion that Jesus was showing disrespect to his own mother—what Christ is saying is actually a sign of deep respect. And in fact, Jesus obeys his mother, and does exactly as she asks. The Theotokos in turn provides for us a most important precept as followers of Christ: “Do whatever He tells you.”

Mary is also connected with the first ‘mother of the living’—Eve (ζωή in Greek). In the book of Genesis, we first read about the creation of woman:

So God laid a trance upon Adam and put him to sleep; and he took one of his ribs and filled up the flesh in the place of it. The Lord God built the rib that he took from Adam into a woman, and he led her to Adam. And Adam said, “Now this is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh; she will be named ‘Woman’ because she was taken from her man.” —Gen. 2:21–23 LXX

Later, when Adam and Eve turn their back on God, eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the Lord questions them as to how they can now realize their nakedness. Adam responds:

The woman whom you gave with me, she gave to me from the tree, and I ate. —Gen. 3:12

The Lord then responds to the deceiving serpent:

Because you have done this, accursed are you . . . I will place enmity between you and between the woman, and between your seed and between her seed; he will watch carefully your head, and you will watch carefully his heel. —Gen. 3:14–15

Of course, the ultimate seed of the woman is Jesus Christ, and it is through Christ that we find victory over the dragon’s curse—indeed, over death and sin itself. After the fall:

Adam called the name of his wife Zoe, because she was mother of all the living. —Gen. 3:20

What we find in both the Gospel and early Church tradition is that Mary is the new and true Mother of Life—the renewed Zoe—doing what the first Zoe or ‘mother of all the living’ failed to do. This place of Mary as the ‘eschatological’ or final Eve is found in the writings of a post-apostolic bishop, Irenaeus of Lyons (A.D. 130–202):

For just as [Eve] was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did [Mary], by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should bear God, being obedient to His word. And if the former did disobey God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the patroness of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience. —Against Heresies 5.19.1

He also writes elsewhere:

Adam had to be recapitulated in Christ so that mortality might be swallowed up in immortality. Eve had to be recapitulated in Mary so that a virgin would be the intercessor for a virgin, and by the obedience of a virgin, undo and overcome the disobedience of a virgin.
Apostolic Preaching 32

Besides seeing Mary as the final Eve and true Mother of Life, all orthodox Christians confess her as the Θεοτοκος—Mother or Birth-giver of God. This title is not about pointing to Mary alone, but principally to Jesus Christ as truly the Son of God, eternally proceeding from the Father and of one essence (ὁμοούσιος) with him. This title for Mary was used well before the Third Ecumenical Council (A.D. 431) in Ephesus, but was made an issue of dogma as a result of continuing Christological disputes.

As with Mary’s role as true Eve and true Mother of Life, St. Irenaeus is an early witness to Mary as Theotokos:

The Virgin Mary, being obedient to his word, received from an angel the glad tidings that she would bear God. —Against Heresies 5.19.1

The antipope Hippolytus of Rome (A.D. 217) also writes:

[The Prophets] preached of the advent of God in the flesh to the world, his advent by the spotless and God-bearing Mary in the way of birth and growth.

That Mary is Theotokos is an essential article of faith. To confess otherwise—for example, to call her merely “the Mother of Christ,” as the Nestorians—is a heresy of the catholic Church. For example, the Second (Ecumenical) Council at Constantinople declares (A.D. 553):

If anyone shall not confess that the Logos of God has two nativities: the one from all eternity of the Father, without time and without body; the other in these last days, coming down from heaven and being made flesh of the holy and glorious Mary, Theotokos and always a virgin, and born of her: let him be anathema.

Within a few generations of Mary’s peaceful dormition, it was already becoming common among the faithful to ask for her intercessions. The Rylands Papyri—discovered in recent history—record one of the earliest written prayers to her (~A.D. 250):

Beneath thy tenderness of heart we take refuge, O Theotokos;
Disdain not our supplications in our necessity,
But deliver us from perils,
O only pure and blessed one.

Mary’s proper veneration quickly became a major part of the liturgical life of the Church. Already by the lifetime of St. Gregory the Wonder-worker (A.D. 262), the feast of the Annunciation (Mar. 25) was a typical celebration, even predating the celebration of Nativity or Christmas for most Christians:

It is our duty to present to God, like sacrifices, all the festivals and hymnal celebrations; and first of all, the feast of the Annunciation to the Holy Mother of God, to wit, the salutation made to her by the angel, “Hail, full of grace!” —Four Homilies 2

The orthodox veneration of Mary—the true Eve, Theotokos, and Ever-Virgin—is not a late, pagan innovation of a supposedly corrupt, imperial Church (as nineteenth century revisionists would assert). Instead, it was an integral part of the piety, theology, and even dogma of the early Christians. These are convictions that have been held for centuries, confessed still today by orthodox, catholic Christians around the world.

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