Mary’s Motherhood Is Eden Revisited

The early Christians had a lively devotion to the Blessed Virgin. We find evidence of this in their surviving literature and artwork and, of course, in the New Testament, which was their foundational document. While the Mariology of the first three centuries was at a primitive stage of development (compared to that of a later age, or even our own), it was perhaps more consciously scriptural than many later expressions, and more consistently presented in the theological context of creation, fall, incarnation, and redemption. So it sometimes can speak to us with greater clarity, immediacy, and force. For Mary’s role makes no sense apart from its context in salvation history; yet it is not incidental to God’s plan. God chose to make His redemptive act inconceivable without her.

Mary was in His plan from the very beginning, chosen and foretold from the moment God created man and woman. In fact, the early Christians understood Mary and Jesus to be a reprise of God’s first creation. Saint Paul spoke of Adam as a type of Jesus (Rom 5:14) and of Jesus as the new Adam, or the “last Adam” (1 Cor 15:21-22, 45-49).

The early Christians considered the beginning of Genesis—with its story of creation and fall and its promise of redemption—to be so christological in its implications that they called it the Protoevangelium, or First Gospel. While this theme is explicit in Paul and the Church Fathers, it is implied throughout the New Testament. For example, like Adam, Jesus was tested in a garden—the garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:36-46, Jn 18:1). Like Adam, Jesus was led to a “tree,” where He was stripped naked (Mt 27:31). Like Adam, He fell into the deep sleep of death, so that from His side would come forth the New Eve (Jn 19:26-35; 1 Jn 5:6-8), His bride, the Church.

Cutting the Unbiblical Cord

The motif of the New Adam is nowhere so artfully developed as in the Gospel according to Saint John. John does not work out the ideas as a commentator would. Instead, he tells the story of Jesus Christ. Yet he begins the story by echoing the most primeval story of all: the story of creation in Genesis.

The most obvious echo comes “in the beginning.” Both books, Genesis and John’s gospel, in fact, begin with those words. The book of Genesis sets out with the words “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). John follows closely, telling us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God” (Jn 1:1). In both cases, we are talking about a fresh start, a new creation.

The next echo comes soon afterward. In Genesis 1:3-5, we see that God created the light to shine in the darkness. In John 1:4-5, we see that the Word’s “life was the light of men” and it “shines in the darkness.”

Genesis shows us, in the beginning, “the Spirit of God . . . moving over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). John, in turn, shows us the Spirit hovering above the waters of baptism (Jn 1:32-33). At that point, we begin to see the source of the new creation recounted by John. Material creation came about when God breathed His Spirit above the waters. The renewal of creation would come with the divine life given in the waters of baptism.

Counting the Days

John the Evangelist continues to leave hints of Genesis throughout his opening narrative. After the first vignette, John’s story continues “the next day” (1:29), with the encounter of Jesus and John the Baptist. “The next day” (1:35), again, comes the story of the calling of the first disciples. “The next day” (1:43), yet again, we find Jesus’ call to two more disciples. So, taking John’s first discussion of the Messiah as the first day, we now find ourselves on the fourth day.

Then John does something remarkable. He introduces his next episode, the story of the wedding feast at Cana, with the words “On the third day.” Now, he cannot mean the third day from the beginning, since he has already proceeded past that point in his narrative. He must mean the third day from the fourth day, which brings us to the seventh day—and then John stops counting days.

Do you notice anything familiar? John’s story of the new creation takes place in seven days, just as the creation story in Genesis is completed on the sixth day, and sanctified—perfected—on the seventh, when God rests from His labor. The seventh day of the creation week, as of every week thereafter, would be known as the Sabbath, the day of rest, the sign of the covenant (see Ex 31:16-17). We can be sure, then, that whatever happens on the seventh day in John’s narrative will be significant.

I Beg to Defer