We are all familiar with the account of the Annunciation to the Blessed Ever Virgin Mary, the Theotokos in the Gospels. We celebrate the feast of the announcing of the Good News to the Mother of God and her response to that message carried by Archangel Gabriel today. We may not be so familiar with some ways in which the deep significance of what St. Luke tells us about this event is worked out in our hymns. Let us consider just one of these.
First of all and basic to what we believe about the Annunciation is the truth that St. Mary was not forced to accept the honour being bestowed on her. She had free will like the rest of us and so she could have refused but by the words: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” (Luke 1:38), she accepted the offer, and so became the means by which the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. Because of this, in many of our hymns, St. Mary is referred to as “the second Eve” - even though this title is not used in the New Testament. How does this come about and what does it signify?
In the Genesis account, Eve disobeyed the strict orders of God and was persuaded by the serpent, the devil, to eat of the forbidden fruit. Then, she encouraged Adam to do the same and the Fathers of the Church saw his fall as leading to the ruin of all mankind. St. Paul could say of this: - “by man came death,” meaning that death entered the human race as a result of Adam’s fall. But St. Paul goes on: - “by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). It was not a great leap from this to proclaim:
In two more places in his writings in the New Testament, St. Paul refers to Jesus as the Second Adam. Later on in 1 Corinthians 15, he says, “It is written, The first man Adam became a living being. The last Adam became a life giving Spirit” (v.45) and goes on in a similar vein for 4 or 5 verses. In another long passage in Romans chapter 5 he pursues the same idea: - “Death reigned from Adam to Moses,” he says, but Adam was “a type of Him who was to come”. “By one man’s disobedience, many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience, many were made righteous” (Romans 5:19).
So, the idea of Christ as the second Adam is well founded in the apostolic writings and it didn’t take long for the fathers to develop this further and talk about the Theotokos as the Second Eve, starting with St. Irenaeus. You will recall that St. Irenaeus knew the Holy Martyr Polycarp of Smyrna who in turn was taught by St. John the Theologian so when St. Irenaus speaks his short distance from the Apostles lends even more weight of authority to his teaching. This is what he says about the Panagia, the All Holy Mary, being the New Eve:
“Just as the former—that is, Eve—was seduced by the words of an angel so that she turned away from God by disobeying his word, so the latter—Mary—received the good news from an angel’s announcement in such a way as to give birth to God by obeying his word; and as the former was seduced so that she disobeyed God, the latter let herself be convinced to obey God, and so the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve. And as the human race was subjected to death by a virgin, it was liberated by a Virgin; a virgin’s disobedience was thus counterbalanced by a Virgin’s obedience…” (Adv. Haer., V, 19, 1).
The Theotokos stands for the whole biblical way of looking at the relationship between God and His creation as a mystery of LOVE. The New Testament uses the analogy of the husband/wife relationship to describe the way in which God loves the world He made; or, to be more exact, the mystery of human love reflects God’s love for His creation. Looked at in this light, the Theotokos stands for the feminine aspect of creation and by that is meant: - responding love; obedience; self-giving and being ready to live outside [of ]oneself. In this respect, Eve failed to be woman she preferred autonomy and taught man the same, both of them corrupting themselves and creation. The calling of Israel was to remedy that failed vocation by nurturing within a covenanted relationship with God a “handmaid of the Lord” whose love and obedience to God would enable Son of God to come to earth in the flesh to overthrow death and sin.
The Blessed Theotokos therefore restored something essential to the ordering of creation. Mary is not the representative of woman or women before God. She is the icon of the whole of creation, the whole of humanity, as regards the way it responds to God and to Christ. This is usually shown by the icon called Platiteira, “wider than the heavens” which adorns the apse in our Churches and, magnificently here also.
At Vespers of the Feast, the Church sang of Mary “For you have found the grace which your ancestress Eve lost of old,” and at Compline: - “You are Adam’s renewal and earth’s liberation, the whole world’s rejoicing, our race’s great joy”.
Truly then we can hymn Mary as the second Eve with greater integrity if we can imitate her in a total surrender of our lives to God in love and service. In doing that Christ shall be born in our hearts by faith as surely as He once was born from the womb of our common humanity in the Mother of God.