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Part 4: A Woman by Any Other Name
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jun 4, 2015)
The following is the fourth part of our Mary 101 series.
Do we appreciate what a tremendous thing that Mary did for the world at the Annunciation, when she acted as the New Eve in God's plan and thereby ushered in the dawn of salvation? By saying "yes" to the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, Mary thereby received Christ into the world "in the fullness of time" (Gal 4:4); in other words, when the time was just right for God's plan of salvation to be accomplished.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), sometimes called "the last of the Fathers of the Church," wrote the following meditation on the Annunciation story. It beautifully sums up for us the tremendous importance of what God's grace accomplished through Mary at that critical moment in the story of the whole human race. He says, in a nutshell, that the whole universe held its breath, waiting to see what Mary would say in response to the angel (In Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 4:8):
You [Mary] have heard that you will conceive and bear a son. You have heard that it will be by the Holy Spirit and not by a man. The angel is waiting for your reply. It is time for him to return to the One who sent him.
We too are waiting for this merciful word, my Lady, we who are miserably weighed down under a sentence of condemnation. The price of our salvation is being offered to you. If you consent we shall immediately be set free. We have all been made in the eternal Word of God, and look, we are dying. In your brief reply we shall be restored and brought back to life. Doleful Adam and his unhappy offspring, exiled from paradise, implore you, kind Virgin, to give this answer. David asks it. Abraham asks it. All the other holy patriarchs, your very own fathers, beg it of you, as do those now dwelling in the region of the shadow of death. For it the whole world is waiting, bowed down at your feet. And rightly, too, because on your answer depends the comfort of the afflicted, the deliverance of the damned, the salvation of the sons of Adam, your whole race. Give your answer quickly, my Virgin. My Lady, say this word which earth and hell and heaven itself are waiting for. The very King and Lord of all, he who has so desired your beauty, is eager for your answer and assent, by which he proposes to save the world. Him whom you pleased by your silence, you will now please even more by your word. ... Blessed Virgin, open your heart to faith, your lips to consent, and your womb to your Creator. Behold the long-desired of all nations is standing at the door and is knocking. Oh, what if he should pass by because of your delay, and sorrowing, you should again have to seek him whom your soul loves? Get up, run, open! Get up by faith, run by prayer, open by consent!
"Behold," she says, "I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word."
(cited in M. Basil Pennington, ed., Bernard of Clairvaux: A Lover Teaching the Way of Love. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1997, pp. 27-29)
Later in the gospel story, at the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus addresses his mother in a way that also clearly alludes to her role as the New Eve in God's plan of salvation. When Mary brought to his attention the needs of the married couple, "They have no wine," Jesus responded, "O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come" (Jn 2:3-4). In the English translation, it sounds like a rebuke — and a disrespectful one at that. (Sons do not ordinarily refer to their own mothers as "woman"!). However, it is hardly likely that Jesus Christ would be rude to anyone, much less his own mother, and given that he subsequently granted her request about the wine, he can hardly have meant his response to her as a rebuke. As a matter of fact, understood in the context of the time, the phrase he used is actually full of profound meaning. The phrase is a Hebrew idiom, which has been translated by the Gospel writer into Greek, meaning literally,: "What to me and to you?" In other words, "What is the significance of your request for us both?" Jesus is saying to her, in effect: "Do you realize what you are asking of me? By granting your request I will be setting in motion a series of events that will inevitably bring about the 'hour' of my Passion." Thus, just as Eve initiated the fall of the human race by taking forbidden fruit from a tree, so Mary, the New Eve, by her intercession, initiated the saving work of Christ, a work that can be completed only by the "hour" of his passion on the tree of the Cross.
The mystery of this Gospel passage, however, goes deeper still. In biblical times, a man might address a female with respect as "woman" (the equivalent of "madam"), and Jesus addresses several women in this fashion in St. John's Gospel (see Jn 4:21, 8:10, and 20:15), but nowhere in the ancient world do we have on record anyone addressing His own mother with such a title. This is an indication that our Lord is pointing to something important by using this form of address for Mary — and its significance is not hard to see. "Woman" is the name that Adam gave to Eve in Genesis 2:23, and in the first prophecy of the Messiah in the whole bible, Genesis 3:15, we are told that one day the seed of "the Woman" will crush the evil serpent's head. In short, here at the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus, the New Adam, addresses Mary as the "Woman" of Genesis, the New Eve in God's plan. Though the first Eve failed to trust and obey God in the Garden of Eden, eating the fruit from the forbidden tree, the New Eve surrenders her heart completely to God at the Annunciation, an act of trustful surrender that deepens at Cana, and reaches its zenith on Calvary. In fact, it is on Calvary, from the Cross, the tree of salvation, that Jesus will once again call his mother "Woman" (Jn 19:25-27): the Woman of Genesis 3:15, the New Eve in God's plan of salvation for the whole human race.
Lord Jesus Christ, help me to follow the example of Mary, always ready to do your will. At the message of an Angel, she welcomed you, God's Son, and filled with the light of your Spirit, she became your temple. Through her prayers for me, take away my weakness, and make the offering of my life with you in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass pleasing to you and to the Father. May I rejoice in the gift of your grace and be united with you and Mary in glory. (Fr. Lawrence Lovasik, S.V.D.)
Questions for Discussion for Parts Three and Four
1. What is the Biblical parallel between the story of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and the story of Mary and the angel Gabriel in the town of Nazareth?
2. Why do you think it can be helpful to us today to read the consensus reflections of the great early Christian writers, the Fathers of the Church, on the message of Scripture?
3. Has God ever asked you to say "yes" to Hhis plan for you and/or your family in some surprising and significant way?
Suggestions for Further Reading
• Luke 1:26-38
• Read Fr. Calloway's description of how God graciously "courted" Mary, his "feminine masterpiece," until she freely consented to be the Mother of His Son, from his book Under the Mantle, the section entitled "Capture Her Heart," pp. 259-265.