Mary as the New Eve in St. Ephrem’s “Homily on the Nativity”

The following is a presentation I gave on Radio Maria this past January 11th. Although the audio for this presentation has not been posted on their site yet, I thought it would be good to post something, as I have not done so for quite some time.

Good afternoon, and Glory to Jesus Christ! Today we are going to talk about Eve and Mary, and how they are related in salvation history. Specifically we’re going to focus on how Mary is often understood to be the New Eve—how Mary’s role in salvation history undid the effects of the Fall. To view a glimpse of how the Early Church saw this connection, we’re going to reflect on a homily by St. Ephrem the Syrian on the Nativity of Christ, and discuss how St. Ephrem understands Mary’s obedience to have reversed the disobedience of Eve. Finally, I hope to show what significance this theme has in our lives—how does an understanding of Mary as the New Eve increase our devotion to her, and draw us closer to our Lord and Savior?

But first, let’s review the story of the Fall, as told in the book of Genesis. In the beginning of the world, God created the heavens and the earth, and all living creatures and vegetation. Last of all, God created man: Genesis 1:26-27 says the following: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.’…So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Now this is very important, that God created Adam and Eve in His image and according to His likeness, but we’ll come back to this point later.

Then God gave Adam two commandments: to tend the garden, and to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. For, as God says in Genesis 2:17, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Perhaps on the very day they were created, a serpent approached Eve. Once the serpent started talking, Eve bought his lie “hook, line, and sinker.” The serpent said to her that if she ate the fruit, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

As you remember, she did eat of that fruit, and afterward she in turn gave it to Adam. Eve’s part in the Fall was to engage in dialogue with this serpent and to attempt to take immortality for herself—a sin that Adam shared in. Whether we see the serpent as the devil himself, or as an agent of the devil, what’s most important is that we see that by the devil’s influence, man by his free will succumbed to sin, and by so doing, separated himself—and herself—from God.

And we know the consequence of this action: Adam and Eve were subsequently expelled from Paradise. While they had enjoyed union and communion with God in the Garden, through disobeying God’s command, they cut themselves off from God, the Source of Life. Several early Christian Fathers, such as St. Theophilus of Antioch and St. Ephrem the Syrian, write that man was not created entirely mortal or immortal, but somewhere in-between: it was Adam and Eve’s free will which would decide whether they would choose life or death.

But they chose death for themselves, and mankind became enslaved to the power of Death. Man’s nature became darkened, corrupted. While God had created him to grow into the divine likeness, man did the deeds of Satan. We see early on in the book of Genesis that the vast majority of mankind chose to follow their own lusts and passions, rather than to serve God.

Throughout the Old Testament, the story of the People of Israel often finds them slipping back into idol worship, human sacrifice, and religious syncretism. God gave them a Law to teach them how to serve Him, but they neither loved the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and mind, nor their neighbor as themselves. The transgression of Adam and Eve led all humanity into the power of Satan and his accomplice, Death. Every person was born with an inclination to sin.

What was God to do? Exactly that which He had planned from before the foundation of the world: to become One of us, to take on human nature and raise it up to immortality, as God had desired for Adam and Eve, once they had spiritually matured. And how did He take on human nature? By being born of a Virgin, of the People of Israel, of the tribe of Judah. And who could be found that was so pure that she could contain in her womb the Uncreated fire of the Divine nature? Mary, a young girl, whom God had chosen before creation to be the Mother of God the Word, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

The Incarnation of the Word of God was the beginning of the reversal of the Fall. Whereas Adam had led all mankind into the power of sin and death, Jesus, the New Adam, through his rising from the dead destroyed its power, and gave to all the gift of resurrection.

Maybe we can take a moment and dig into this idea with an example from Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 15, while speaking of the resurrection from the dead, St. Paul contrasts Adam and Jesus. In verse 49, he writes, “And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.”

St. Paul is saying here that as we have been subject to corruption and death by bearing the “image of the man of dust,” that is, Adam, so shall we who are granted eternal life “bear the image of the heavenly Man”—Christ. The first Adam introduced sin to human nature, while the last Adam, Christ, renewed our fallen nature.

So you see that the undoing of the effects of the Fall corresponds to the Fall itself—Adam is contrasted with the New Adam; where the old Adam fell prey to the devil, the New Adam destroyed the reign of death.

But let us return to Mary, for her role in the salvation of mankind cannot be passed over. Her participation in God’s plan of salvation for us also corresponds to the Fall, to Eve’s actions. In fact, Mary is sometimes called “the New Eve,” as her obedience undid, or unraveled the disobedience of Eve.

In technical language, we would say that Eve is a type of Mary: that is, Eve foreshadows Mary, and Mary’s place in the narrative of the Bible fulfills that which Eve failed to do. These sorts of connections, called “typology,” are all over the Bible, and Early Christian commentators used this method of interpreting Scripture to show how everything in the Old Testament prefigures Christ—it’s all about Him.

All the Old Testament prefigures Christ’s saving ministry on earth: his birth, life, miracles, teachings, death, resurrection, and ascension. And the early Christian saints who wrote about the Bible, who are common to the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, also were eager to point out the connections between Mary and those people, events, and prophecies which speak of her role in God’s plan of salvation for us.

One way that we can see typology play out in the Bible is through repetition. Events in the Old Testament are repeated in the New Testament, but fulfill that which the original event only hinted at. An important writer from the 20th century, Jean Daniélou, asserts the continuity, or interconnection, between the Old Testament and the New, specifically in repetition. He says that “The Old Testament is entirely prophetic, it recalls the past events of humanity and of Israel only to announce the events of the future which are the more perfect repetition of them.”[1]

Here Daniélou shows that the scriptural connections between the Old Testament and the salvific work of Jesus Christ are formed precisely by means of repetition.

And typology is really the study of the way that events, personalities, and actions of the Old Testament were repeated in the New Testament—and not merely repeated, but repeated so as to fulfill that which the original event foreshadowed.

Introduction to St. Ephrem

For the continuation of our time today, we’ll look at how this typological theme of Mary as the New Eve was developed by St. Ephrem the Syrian, who lived in the 4th century on the Eastern border of the Roman Empire, which is now Southeastern Turkey.

St. Ephrem loved pointing out the connections between the Old and New Testaments, and how the people, places, and events of the Old Testament foreshadowed the New Testament. St. Ephrem’s literary quality, and especially his brilliant usage of typology in hymnography, poetry, and homilies, is among the most profound and intriguing in all early Christian writings.

You can tell that I enjoy his writings very much. St. Ephrem is well known in the Orthodox Church for a prayer used throughout Great Lent which bears his name, and is also venerated in the West as a Doctor of the Catholic Church.

He was a deacon in the Church, and wrote in Syriac, which is a dialect of Aramaic, the language Our Lord spoke. Aramaic is very similar to Hebrew, and so St. Ephrem’s semitic worldview makes his writings unique among the Greek and Latin fathers of his time.

Although St. Ephrem has a whole group of hymns called “Hymns on the Nativity” which often speak of the connections between Eve and Mary, today I’d like to spend some time delving into his “Homily on the Nativity.” This sermon was actually written in poetic meter, and so as you hear excerpts which have been translated into English, I hope you will come to appreciate the way that theological poetry can express the Truth of the Gospel.

Homily on the Nativity

While reading excerpts from St. Ephrem’s Homily on the Nativity, I’ll be using the translation done by Sebastian Brock in his book “The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of St. Ephrem the Syrian.”

At the beginning of this homily, St. Ephrem compares God’s dwelling in Mary’s womb to the bush that burned yet was not consumed. He then moves on to one of his favorite themes: the incomprehensibility of the Incarnation of the Word of God. However, the way he speaks of the Incarnation might sound surprising. Here’s what he writes:

“Perfectly God, / He entered the womb through her ear, / in all purity the God-Man / came forth from the womb into creation.”[2]

This idea that God entered Mary’s womb through her ear really only caught on in Syriac writings, and never got too much circulation in the West. But let’s dwell on this for a moment. Why would St. Ephrem write that Mary conceived the Word through her ear?

This sounds awfully strange, right? Let’s think back to what I was just saying about typology: it connects events from the Old Testament to the New Testament through means of repetition. What event of the Old Testament do you think St. Ephrem is trying to bring to our minds?

Let’s take a look at what he says later in this homily, when he fleshes out this idea somewhat: “Eve and Adam through sin / introduced death into the created world; / creation’s Lord gave us, by His Only-Begotten / through Mary, new life again. / By means of the serpent the Evil One / poured out his poison in the ear of Eve; / the Good One brought low His mercy, / and entered through Mary’s ear: / through the gate by which death entered, / Life also entered, putting death to death.”[3]

In this passage St. Ephrem is being clear: the words of the devil, described metaphorically as poison, brought death to mankind; but the words of Gabriel which proclaimed God’s mercy brought about the liberation of mankind, and the death of Death.

In our so-called Enlightened society, we’re used to thinking of historical events as either being factual or unfactual. We often approach Biblical events in the same way: we want to know, “Did this really happen? How do we know historically?”

If we get hung up on these questions, we might be tempted to dismiss St. Ephrem’s notion entirely as being unfactual, or “pre-Modern,” because we don’t have any “proof” that it happened. The Bible actually does not say anything about Eve’s or Mary’s ear, for that matter.

But St. Ephrem wasn’t merely concerned with facts—he wanted to convey a theological truth, knowledge that is perceived through the eyes of faith—that as Eve was instrumental in the Fall of mankind, Mary was instrumental in the salvation of mankind.

Thus, the image that St. Ephrem uses to connect Eve to Mary, the way he shows Mary to be the New Eve, is by contrasting the conversations they engaged in. On the one hand, Eve spoke with the serpent, but the serpent poured the metaphorical poison of his lies into her ear, and she believed him, because she disbelieved God and desired immortality for herself. We know what happened afterward.

On the other hand, when Mary was speaking with the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, she believed him, but not out of selfishness, but out of humility. Then when St. Ephrem says that God the Word entered Mary’s womb through her ear, what he is really saying is that by accepting God’s will through her own free will, she triumphed where Eve had fallen.

The Garment of Incorruption

The Fall

Let’s look at another way that St. Ephrem contrasts Eve and Mary; and once again, let’s return to Genesis. After the Fall, we read in Genesis 3:21, “Also for Adam and his wife the Lord God made tunics of skin, and clothed them.” What were these tunics, or garments of skin? And why did God clothe them in these garments? And why does this matter?

Instead of answering these questions directly, let’s touch on a question that was perhaps much more important to St. Ephrem and the people of his time: did God clothe Adam and Eve before or after the Fall? We’re more familiar with the reading of this verse which says that God clothed them in these garments of skin after the Fall, but St. Ephrem’s version of Genesis might have suggested that this event took place before the Fall. Instead of sounding something like “God clothed them,” its very possible that his Syriac version read something like, “God had clothed them.”

But why would God clothe them before the Fall? Weren’t they naked and unashamed?

For this reading of Genesis to make sense, St. Ephrem and early interpreters sought to explain the significance of Adam and Eve being clothed before the Fall. The great Syriac scholar Sebastian Brock writes in one of his excellent books that an Aramaic translation of the Old Testament does not read “garments of skin,” but “clothing of glory.” Now, you probably remember from earlier in this presentation that Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, and so it would not be impossible for St. Ephrem to have known this translation, in which God robed Adam and Eve before the Fall with clothing, or garments, of glory.

So we must ask a new question, what were these garments of glory? And how could Adam and Eve have worn them while remaining naked?

This all ties together when we look at a passage from St. Ephrem’s Commentary on Genesis, in which he views these garments of glory not merely as physical coverings, but more profoundly, as God’s own glory covering them. They themselves were wrapped in the glory of God while remaining physically naked.

To this end, St. Ephrem writes in his Commentary on Genesis, “It was because of the glory in which they were wrapped that they were not ashamed. Once this glory had been taken away from them, after the transgression of the commandment, they were ashamed, because they had been stripped of the glory. Thereupon the two of them rushed to the fig leaves in order to cover, not so much their bodies, as their shameful members.”[4]

In St. Ephrem’s thought, Adam and Eve were clothed with glory before the Fall. Their being clothed with glory is St. Ephrem’s way of showing that their pure human nature was being likened to the image of its Creator. In fact, Adam and Eve were already being made “partakers of the Divine nature,” as we read in 2 Peter 1:4, for their human nature had not yet been stained by sin. Adam and Eve were already on the path to deification, theosis; they perfect, yes, but were not yet as perfect as they could have been; for the growth in perfection is unending, just as God Himself is infinitely perfect.

But when Adam and Eve fell, they lost their “garment of glory”—their ability to grow in the likeness of God came to a standstill. They became enslaved to sin, addicted to pleasure. Human nature became subject to corruption, for men died, and their souls were torn from their bodies, which were decomposing in the earth—the greatest horror imaginable!

Eve was clothed in glory, yet when she succumbed to the temptation to disobey God, she was stripped of her glory, and passed on mortality to all her offspring. Then, in Mary’s womb, her Lord took on her nature, her humanity, He transformed it, He deified it.

The Incarnation

If clothing is St. Ephrem’s primary metaphor to show how mankind was halted in its progress toward union and communion with God, perhaps you can get what St. Ephrem’s primary metaphor of man’s salvation is—clothing! and specifically, God the Word being clothed with our human nature.

Let’s hear another passage from St. Ephrem’s Homily on the Nativity, in which this Father of the Church speaks of the mystery of how God the Word became Man; pay close attention for mention of Christ’s human nature as a “garment.”

“This day Mary has become for us / the heaven that bears God, for in her the exalted Godhead / has descended and dwelt; / in her It has grown small, to make us great, / –but Its nature does not diminish; / in her It has woven us a garment / that shall be for our salvation.”[5]

In Mary’s womb, God has condescended to become small, weak, one of us. In Mary’s womb, He “has woven us a garment that shall be for our salvation.” Note that when St. Ephrem says that God the Word “put on” human nature like a garment, this in no way diminishes the reality of the Incarnation: God “put on” human nature so that He could be fully God and fully Man, but one Person.

If we look at all I’ve been saying in terms of typology, we see that Christ’s birth is in fact a repetition of the creation of man: Christ’s “putting on” of human nature corresponds to the creation of Adam and Eve: they were clothed in glory before the Fall, and the Word was clothed in human nature at His Incarnation. In the last lines of St. Ephrem’s Homily on the Nativity, we see how the birth of Christ restores to Adam’s nature the glory he had lost:

“Happy is Adam at His birth, / for He has recovered the glory that Adam lost. / Who has ever seen / clay serve as the potter’s covering? / Who has ever seen fire / wrap itself in swaddling bands? / Such is the extent to which / God has lowered Himself, for Adam’s sake. / To such an extent did God humble Himself / for the sake of His servant / who had exalted himself and transgressed the commandment / at the advice of the Evil One, the murderer.”[6]

This passage, rich with imagery from the Old Testament, reveals the depth of God’s love for us, the extent to which he lowered Himself for Adam’s sake, and for all of our sakes. He met us where we were, cast out of Paradise with Adam and Eve, stripped naked and humiliated by the Devil, and robed our nature once again with the glory that Adam and Eve lost.

How, then, does He make this renewed human nature available to us? Through baptism, and this point was not lost on St. Ephrem, who writes that Mary was indeed the first person to benefit from God’s condescension. Amazingly, St. Ephrem even says in one of his Hymns on the Nativity that Mary was baptized by carrying God the Word in her womb![7] In this way, Mary became the first Christian, the first of us to begin, once again, to grow in the divine likeness through true union and communion with God.

Even though Mary participated in the salvation of mankind through her purity and obedience, and never even sinned, even she needs to be redeemed along with humanity. As the first Adam and Eve shared the penalty of their disobedience, the New Adam shares the restoration of human nature with the New Eve.

Conclusion

So what does this have to do with us? What can we learn from typology, and specifically the typological connections between Eve and Mary? I would argue that St. Ephrem offers us, in his works, a framework by which we may see our own sinfulness. The connections between the actions of Eve and of Mary provide us a point of reference of where our own lives fall in the arc of salvation history. To summarize all we have discussed regarding typology, Sebastian Brock teaches us the following:

“Ephrem perceives a detailed pattern of complementarity between the processes of fall and restoration: all the individual details of the Fall are reversed, so that we are presented with a series of contrasted types, with Adam [and] Christ and Eve [and] Mary as protagonists. Salvation history can thus be described as a process of healing which extends both back to the reaches of primordial time, and down to the depths of the fallen human state.”[8]

We know where we stand in salvation history by realizing that each one of us, and all of us collectively, are Adam. Christ’s Incarnation “reaches down to the depths” of our “fallen human state.”

Living a Christian life is difficult, and fraught with temptation. We are often disobedient to God’s will, as was Eve; in Mary, we have an example of obedience.

We often give ourselves over to tempting thoughts, words, and actions, as Eve did; in Mary, we have an example of utmost purity and holiness. All of us are invited to become “partakers of the divine nature,” as was Mary, who was robed in the glory that Eve lost; all of us are invited to experience the transformation of our human nature through baptism in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And then, Our Lord desires that we live out our baptism every day, seeking to grow closer to Him always.

What is our response? Do we seek to do things our own way? Is our lack of faith, or lack of trust in God keeping us from the healing that God has prepared for us? Today we can ask God to help lead us on the path of salvation: out of the Enemy’s clutches, and in the protection of Our Lord’s embrace.

For what we truly need more than anything in this life is to be healed of sin—the sin that we’ve brought into our own lives, and the sin that others have sadly introduced into the world. What we need is healing, and Mary’s example of faith shows us that if we trust in the Lord, he will come to heal us.

Let us close with words from our holy father Ephrem the Syrian, who praises God as the Great Physician of our souls and bodies.

“Such is the extent to which / God has lowered Himself for Adam’s sake. / To such an extent did God humble Himself / for the sake of His servant / who had exalted himself and transgressed the commandment / at the advice of the Evil One, the murderer. /

The Giver of that commandment has now / humbled Himself to raise us up! / Praise to that mercy on high / which has been brought down to men on earth, / so that the sick world might be healed / by the Physician who has shone forth in creation.”[9]

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Notes:

[1] Jean Daniélou, In the Beginning…:Genesis I—III, trans. Julien L. Randolf (Baltimore: Helicon Press, Inc., 1965), 63.

[2] St. Ephrem the Syrian, “Homily on the Nativity,” Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, intro. and trans. Sebastian Brock, 3rd ed. (UK: Aquila Books; Cambridge, UK: The Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies), 2013), p. 91, lines 17-20.

[3] Ibid., pp. 96-97, lines 157-166.

[4] Comm. Gen. 2:14; in Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, Cistercian Studies Series No. 124, rev. ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1992), p. 87.

[5] “Homily on the Nativity,” p. 95, lines 121-128.

[6] Ibid., pp. 97-98, lines 181-192.

[7] Hymns on the Nativity 16.10, St. Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, trans. and intro. Kathleen McVey, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), p. 150.

[8] Brock, The Luminous Eye, p. 32.

[9] “Homily on the Nativity,” p. 98, lines 187-198.

Author: Fr. Jonathan Lincoln

I'm the Acting Rector at Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Chicago, IL, and I want to be a hobbit when I grow up.

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