Edward R. Benet
How Mary is the New Eve
Updated: Nov 19, 2021
Edward R. Benet
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A while ago, I wrote an article about the way that “The Chosen” depicts Mary at the wedding of Cana. The article was positive about the show, heaping effusive praise on the inspiring way that the series managed to recreate certain events, such as the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus. Despite this constructive tone, some readers took issue with my claim that the Cana episode did not do justice to what John the Evangelist wished to convey about the person of Mary. Some comments on Facebook and elsewhere were aggressively dismissive of the arguments set out in the article. A few people went on an anti-Catholic rant, even though the article was written entirely from the point of view of Church Fathers who are accepted by mainstream Protestant churches. It was even necessary to ask my editor to remove a comment on Catholic Stand because of its offensive content. The most common type of feedback, though, was a polite complaint that the article’s point was either not very clear or not very important. In fact, the director of the show, Dallas Jenkins, sent me a short and courteous reply to the effect that he simply did not see the question in the same way that I did.
The Fathers saw Mary as the New Eve
With full respect for Dallas, however, it is not just a matter of how I interpret Scripture. The Fathers of the Church, both West and East, rooted as they were in the Bible and in the Apostolic teaching, read this narrative in John’s Gospel as revealing the unique role of Mary as the New Eve, a point that gets lost in “The Chosen”. For Justin Martyr (d. circa 163), Irenaeus (d. circa 200), Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258), Ambrose (d. 397) and others, this was an important theme. In their writings, they reflected how the evil one had obtained dominion over humanity through a woman, and how, through the offspring of a woman, redemption would be won. Jesus’ interaction with Mary at Cana was a telling sign that the time of restoration was at hand.
Let us consider in a little more detail how:
1. Mary is presented by John as the New Eve
2. “The Chosen” episode fails to present this truth
3. Mary is held up by Scripture as a model disciple, not a bossy mother
4. The New Eve is Mother of all the faithful
How Cana points to Mary as the New Eve
The Prologue of John begins with the same opening words as Genesis: “In the beginning . .”. This is a signal by the Evangelist that his Gospel is to be understood with reference to the first book of the Bible. In fact, the events of the Gospel constitute the restoration of the original plan of Genesis. In Genesis, humanity is created in the image and likeness of God; then, deceived by Satan, they distrust God, leading to disobedience, disfigurement and death. The Gospel account is going to show us how the New Adam, assisted by the New Eve, is going to restore God’s likeness in man.
In the Genesis account of the Fall, it is the woman who is tempted first. She then gives the fruit to Adam, who also eats. God the Father later addresses the serpent as follows: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). This statement is called the Protoevangelium, and it is the first promise of a redeemer in Scripture, a redeemer who will be of human stock. The Fathers of the Church, however, understood that it also referenced the woman who would bear the redeemer.
In John’s Gospel, the dramatic events in which that restoration will take place is referred to as the “hour” of Jesus. Jesus mentions this hour completely unexpectedly during the wedding feast of Cana. In fact, the narrative of Cana contains two words that stand out in a quite startling way: “hour” and “woman”. Out of the blue, in the context of an apparently harmless conversation about wine, Jesus refers to his mother as “woman” and declares that his “hour” has not yet come. These are loaded terms for John the Evangelist, as any Scripture scholar can attest. They are a clear signal that the narrative is to be probed for its deeper theological meaning. By speaking in this apparently bewildering way, Jesus is telling us that his mother is the New Eve who bore the promised redeemer, and that her interaction with him is somehow related to his “hour”, the process by which he will save humanity.
“The Chosen” misses this point entirely
Whilst “The Chosen” does a beautiful job of recreating the wedding at Cana, it fails to convey the deep theological significance of the exchange between Jesus and his mother. “Woman” and “hour” are actually entirely eliminated from the dialogue. It is understandable that the filmmakers might have felt unsure what to do with these puzzling terms. There are no known cases in Greek literature of the period where a son addresses his mother as “woman”. The only other case is when Jesus himself repeats the reference from the cross (more on this later). For experts of Johannine literature, such as Rudolf Schnackenburg, terms like these are intended as keys of interpretation for the entire narrative. As soon as Jesus speaks the words “woman” and “hour”, he is lifting the discourse onto an entirely different level, a perspective that all readers of the Gospel are challenged to take. These words reveal that what is about to take place has to do with nothing less than the restoration of humanity to the filial relationship with God that was enjoyed before the Fall. Jesus is the protagonist in this event, but Mary has a vital role also. By “dumbing down” the narrative to exclude the two problematic terms, the show actually empties the dialogue of the key theological message that St John wished to convey.
Not Mary’s protestations but her obedience
Another related difficulty with the way “The Chosen” presents this episode is the clear impression it creates that what convinced Jesus to perform the miracle was Mary’s insistence. By contrast, at Cana, we have a paradigmatic example of the kind of discipleship that Christ is seeking. Mary can have no idea what Jesus will do, but she still shows total trust in the efficacy of his word when she tells the servants to do whatever he tells them. It is no accident that these are the only words spoken by Mary in response to the enigmatic reply of Jesus. As Francis J. Moloney remarks, she is the first person in the Gospel narrative to show that “the correct response to the person of Jesus is trust in his word” (Moloney, p68). This unconditional faith and trust is the “trigger” that leads to the miracle. The difficulty with “The Chosen” rendition of events is that Mary’s continued pleas is what leads to the miracle. This has no foundation in the Scriptural narrative. St John, instead, is presenting Mary to us as the New Eve, the “woman” of the Protoevangelium, who does not protest but obeys, in complete contrast to the original Eve.
Jesus was the Son of God and knew what he was about. When he turned up in Cana, it was with every intention of performing the sign and beginning the events that would culminate in his “hour”. Every detail and circumstance of that wedding were guided by the providence of God, but the Lord wanted the sign to be revealed in the right manner, in a manner that would constitute a holy reversal of the unholy sequence of events that led to the Fall. At the Fall, the woman distrusted and disobeyed, but an “offspring” was promised who would bring the dominion of death to an end. At Cana, the offspring of the woman is finally here. This time the woman trusts and obeys, prompting her Son to set in motion the events that would usher in the “hour” of restoration.
The Obedience of Faith
As per the original article, this might be a good place to make a distinction between two different uses of the term “faith”. Sometimes by “faith” we refer to belief: that Jesus is Lord, that he has the power to work miracles, that he can change water into wine. But “faith” can also refer to adherence to God’s word, self-abandonment to his plan, absolute trust in his loving providence. It is this second type of faith that characterizes Abraham. This faith also believes that the Lord can do miracles, but the overriding characteristic is obedient trust in God’s word. The Syrophoenician woman demonstrates to Jesus the first type of faith when she asks him to heal her daughter. Jesus’ apparently rude reply challenges her to deepen the second kind of faith – adherence to the Lord even through difficulty. The Mary of Scripture is a model of this more profound type of faith, and she manifests it again at Cana. She could not have known what Jesus was going to do, but she trusted - as she always did - that if we place ourselves in his hands and are obedient to his words, then everything will come good, even if things do not turn out as we would have originally wished. This attitude is lacking in the Mary of “The Chosen”. She is well-intentioned and wants to do good. She also has plenty of the first type of faith, but her repeated pleas make her appear lacking in the second. She does not display the attitude of one who is willing to bow before God’s word, come what may.
The New Eve is Mother of the Faithful
When Jesus refers to his mother as “woman” at Cana, he is inviting us to do some theological reflection and not simply interpret things in human terms. Remember, this is an unheard of way for a son to address his mother. If we dumb down the narrative and ignore this problematic term, then we do not do justice to the word of God. Similarly, when Jesus once again refers to Mary as “woman” from the cross, he is not just sorting out his earthly affairs – arranging for someone to look after his mother when he is gone. Rather, he is making a statement about her identity and the attitude that a beloved disciple ought to cultivate towards her for his own spiritual benefit.
The Fathers of the Church and a constant stream of saints have taken this to point to a deeper reality that is relevant for each one of us. Jesus entrusts the beloved disciple to the “woman” who stands by the cross. The disciple obeys and “takes her to his home”, which is clearly what Jesus expects all faithful disciples to do in a spiritual sense. A short time later, Jesus’ side is pierced with a lance and out flows blood and water, a very significant sign for the Evangelist, the factuality of which he attests in a solemn way. The original Eve was formed from the side of Adam. Here, the New Eve is present. She is Mother of the Church, the sacramental life of which is represented by the blood and water flowing from the side of Christ. Thus, just as the old Eve was formed from the side of Adam and she became mother of “all who live”, so we, the faithful, are formed from the side of Christ, and Mary acts as mother of “all who believe”.
Jesus, the New Adam, is our only redeemer, but he assigns a role to the Church and a role to his mother in restoring the supernatural life in our souls. If we stand with Mary at the foot of the cross, gazing on the “one whom they have pierced”, allowing ourselves to be nourished with the grace that flow from his side, we can be regenerated as children of God, spiritual offspring of the New Eve.
Please see also the author’s blog.
Moloney, Francis J., The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina 4, edited by Daniel J. Harrington, 1998.
Schnackenburg, Rudolf, The Gospel According to St John, 3 vols, 1968-1982.
Unger, Dominic J., “Patristic Interpretation of the Protoevangelium”, Marian Studies, Volume 12, Article 10, pp.111-164, 1961