Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary



The following article expounds upon the mystery of the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, drawing from Scripture and Sacred Tradition; exploring how Mary is the New Eve, and how Mary’s spiritual birth in the soul through devotion to Her leads to the growth of the life of Christ within; concluding with a poem titled: ‘Birth of Eve the New’.

 
‘The Birth of Mary’, Unknown painter, Fifteenth Century, Cologne.

The 8th of September is the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the day on which the Church celebrates the Birth of Mary, who as Mother of Jesus the God-Man, is venerated by the Church as the Mother of God. In the Divine Office the Benedictus antiphon for the day contains the following words: “Your birth, O Virgin Mother of God, announced joy to the whole world, for from you has risen the Sun of Justice, Christ our God. He released us from the ancient curse and made us blessed.” If Jesus’ birth is described as the arising of the Sun of Justice, Mary’s birth is the Dawning of the Sun of Mercy –for She is the one of whom it is written: “Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun…”? (Song 6:10).

Mary’s Birth as the Dawn of Mercy


Mary’s Birth is the Dawn of Mercy because before the birth of Mary the world was wrapped in darkness, shrouded in the night and fog of ‘the ancient curse’ which fell upon the world through the sin of our first parents – Adam and Eve. This sin the Church calls Original Sin, because it was the first sin and is the cause of our natural separation from God and of every evil in the world. Yet as the intercessions from the Office of the day proclaim: “Sun of Justice, you showed the world was dawning in the immaculate Virgin Mary”, for having being conceived immaculately without the stain of Original Sin, Mary’s birth was truly the Dawn that scattered the darkness of the night, the Dawn that lifted the fog of the ‘ancient curse’ which barred humanity from paradise. Had not this Dawn arrived, the Word of God could not have become man; for the Word desired a pure place for His dwelling, and pure flesh for investing: a place and flesh free from shadows of impurity. After all, if the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant whereupon the Presence of God would descend was required to be made of pure gold (Ex 25:17), how much more ought to have been the very womb, flesh and soul of Mary, wherein God Himself descended and dwelt among us. Indeed such was the Blessed Virgin Mary, for Her body and soul in the womb of Ann her mother, was like the purest of gold that laid hidden beneath the veil of soil. Yet this Pure Gold who is Mary was pulled forth from the womb of Ann as gold is retrieved from the soil; and this Gold as an immaculate mirror shimmered in the darkness as the Dawn; wherefore the second antiphon for the Office of the day states: “When the sacred Virgin was born, then the world was filled with light” (Lauds) – and this Light is God, is Christ, whom Mary – “full of grace” (Lk 1:28)– perfectly reflected and contained.


Mary as the New Eve


St. Paul refers to Jesus as the Second Man or the Last Adam[1]; for indeed whilst in the first Adam “all die” and are contaminated by Original Sin, “in Christ [the New Adam] shall all be made alive” into new creations cleansed of every sin (1 Cor 15:22). The Early Church Fathers elaborated upon this theological parallel – between the first Adam and Christ the New Adam. Yet they also developed the parallel between Mary and Eve, and this understanding is apparent at least as early as Saint Justin Marty (100-165 A.D.). For whilst the Scripture calls Eve “the mother of all living” (Gen 3:20) as the biological mother of all men and the ecological mother of all creation, Mary the New Eve is “the mother of all living” in the spiritual sense –for “in reality it is from Mary… [that] Life was truly born to the world. So that by giving birth to the Living One, Mary became the mother of all living.”[2] Furthermore Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit gives spiritual birth to those who enter into the Church through Baptism; for “She is 'clearly the mother of the members of Christ' . . . since she has by her charity joined in bringing about the birth of believers in the Church, who are members of [the Body of Christ, with Christ] its head.” (CCC 963).

The Church Father St. Ephrem of Syria (306-373 A.D.) elaborates upon this parallel between Eve and Mary:

Mary gave birth without having relations with a man. As in the beginning Eve was born from Adam without a carnal relationship, so it happened for Joseph and Mary, his wife. Eve brought to the world the murdering Cain; Mary brought forth the Lifegiver. One brought into the world him who spilled the blood of his brother (Gen 4:1-16); the other, him whose blood was poured out for the sake of his brothers. One brought into the world him who fled, trembling because of the curse of the earth; the other brought forth him who, having taken the curse upon himself, nailed it to the Cross (Col 2:14).[3]

Likewise St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) regarding the Feast of Mary’s Nativity and also drawing the Eve-Mary parallel writes:

Let our land laugh and sing with merriment, bathed in the glory of this great Virgin's rising. She is the flower of the fields on which the priceless lily of the valleys hath blossomed. This is she whose delivery changed the nature that we draw from our first parents, and cleansed away their offence. At her that dolorous sentence which was pronounced over Eve ended its course; to her it was never said: In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children. She brought forth a Child, even the Lord, but she brought him forth, not in sorrow, but in joy. Eve wept, but Mary laughed. Eve's womb was big with tears, but Mary's womb was big with gladness. Eve gave birth to a sinner, but Mary gave birth to the sinless One… For Eve's disobedience, Mary offered obedience; and for Eve's unbelief, Mary offered faith.[4]

'Virgin Mary consoles Eve', Sr Grace Remington.
Yet we ought to recall what this ‘ancient curse’ is that was placed upon Eve and thus upon all women henceforth: “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” (Gen 3:16). This curse is pronounced by God not because God wanted to, but because it was the automatic consequence of disobeying the divine command to abstain from eating the forbidden fruit from the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ –and don’t worry in case you forgot, Adam got his fair share of the curse too. The literal meaning of this curse is clear –especially to those who have given birth no doubt. However the spiritual ramification of this curse applies not only to women but to all people, because it meant that children born physically would be born in the state of Original Sin. So how did Mary – God in Mary – free us from this curse?

St. Paul describes how “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree’” (Gal 3:13). By this it is meant that Christ took on Himself the curse of sin and death on the tree of the Cross (since the curse of the law is an extension of the curse placed on Adam and Eve), even though He was innocent and didn’t deserve such a curse. Yet it is because of His innocence that the curse of sin and death was broken on the Cross, for His innocent blood repaired for the guilt of our sins, which is symbolised by Cain’s shedding the blood of Able; and His obedience repaired for the disobedience of Adam and for all our disobediences in Adam –hence in Christ we are free from the curse of sin and death, and thus we’re able to enter into relationship with God, be forgiven for our sins, and enter into the true Eden of heaven which the sin of Adam closed.

Yet the curse of sin and death could not be perfectly broken unless there was also a New Eve, because the curse was placed upon both Adam and Eve. Although it is Christ alone who breaks the ‘ancient curse’, Mary does so in, with and through Him. This role of Co-Redemptrix Mary accomplished as the New Eve at the Foot of the Cross, where like Christ She took the curse of sin and death upon Herself. This included taking upon Herself the curse placed on Eve, because at the Foot of the Cross Mary spiritually gave birth to the Church and all its members, with Her birth pangs the sorrows She had in seeing Her beloved Son tortured on the Cross. Mary was conceived without sin, and thus She wasn't under the ‘ancient curse’ just as Christ wasn’t under the curse. Hence because this New Eve was innocent and chose to suffer the requirements of the curse ‘to bring forth children’ in pain, She thus broke the curse which humanity received through the first Eve. And although this curse still has its physical and temporal effect of causing pain during physical child birth, the spiritual and eternal effect of this curse of confining us to Original Sin and likely damnation is banished – because we are spiritually reborn through Baptism; a rebirth which the New Eve accomplished at the Foot of the Cross.

Allowing Mary to be Born in One’s Soul

 

It is a great thing to be spiritually born anew through Baptism, and this is a necessary first step. Yet it is an even greater thing for Mary to be spiritually born in the soul, for this is the deepest fulfillment of one's Baptism. Yet how is this birth of Mary accomplished in the soul? Through one’s devotion to Mary, and consecration to Her; whereby one asks Mary to eclipse all of one’s own sins, imperfections and even one’s alleged virtues and good works. Why do we say alleged? Because compared to the holiness of Mary who the Archangel Gabriel calls “full of grace” (Lk 1:28) – which is the same as saying “full of God” – our holiness, our virtues and good works are as piles of dung. Yet through our true devotion to Mary, which is not so much a series of acts but “a state of soul”[5], our works and prayers which are dung in and of themselves, are converted by Mary through Her ‘Midas touch’ into pure and priceless gold for the Kingdom of God. For though everything we do, even the best and greatest things we can do, are mere dung by themselves, if we give them to Mary and place them in Her hands and in Her Immaculate Heart, She will purify them and make “them beautiful and acceptable to her Son”[6]. In the words of the Marian master, St. Louis de Montfort:

She enriches our good works by adorning them with her own merits and virtues. It is as if a poor peasant, wishing to win the friendship and favour of the king, were to go to the queen and give her an apple - his only possession - for her to offer it to the king. The queen, accepting the peasant's humble gift, puts it on a beautiful golden dish and presents it to the king on behalf of the peasant. The apple in itself would not be a gift worthy of a king, but presented by the queen in person on a dish of gold, it becomes fit for any king.[7]

Indeed we may go even further and say that our Lady as we have mentioned, converts our offerings such as our prayers, daily chores, penances etc. into spiritual gold; or else we might say that She converts them from vessels filled with water to vessels filled with wine; from handfuls of darkness to handfuls of light. And the beauty of this great gift, this secret and shortcut to holiness –because we’re veiling ourselves with Mary’s own Holiness which is the Holy Spirit – is that it can occur in all of us, all we need to do is give all of ourselves to Mary and surrender all of our works into Her hands, taking and using Her own virtues –especially Her love – as our own, because this is the perfect way of drawing nearer to Jesus, and thus nearer to God. John the Beloved and St. Joseph knew this, that is why they were the closet of all men to Jesus whilst He lived on earth, for they were the nearest of all men to the Virgin Mary.

Yet what does this true devotion, this consecration, union and nearness to Mary bring about in the soul? The spiritual birth of Mary in the soul. For indeed Christ lives in the soul who is Baptised, and even more so in the one who devoutly receives Holy Communion and sustains the life of Jesus by feeding Him with the food of her daily prayers and acts of neighbourly love. For the Scripture says: “When did we see you hungry and feed you? … “Whenever you did it to the least my brethren you did it unto me.” (Mt 25:37, 40). Yet although Christ lives in such a soul, unless Mary is born and thus comes to abide in such a soul, Christ will live a miserly existence in this soul –living off of mediocre food, dwelling in a cheapskate house –or rather tent, and all in all He will be surviving yes, but He will be feeling rather malnourished and semi-neglected. Why? Because the soul is imperfect, and she can only cater for Christ her Beloved who dwells within Her being as a hungry infant, in an imperfect manner. For no matter how hard she tries, no matter how long she prays, and no matter how much she serves her neighbours, her nurturing of the life of Christ within her will be lacking.

'Breastfeeding. Madonna and Child', Guido Reni, 1628.
Yet if the soul is truly devoted to Mary and seeks to live in Her and to have this Spotless Eve live within the garden of her soul, then this Eve will turn such a soul’s garden into a New Eden, into a sacred paradise for Christ to dwell in. The words of St. Augustine marking the Feast of Mary’s Nativity can be used to describe this transformation of those souls in whom Mary is born: “Let our land laugh and sing with merriment, bathed in the glory of this great Virgin's rising. She is the flower of the fields on which the priceless lily of the valleys hath blossomed.” Furthermore, since Mary is perfect by grace and is the Mother of God, She will be able to cater for Jesus in a perfect manner, and will become the Glorious Temple in which this holy Babe can live in within us. Hence the soul in whom Mary is born, is a soul in which Christ delights in, and lives in luxury – for in such a soul He is pampered by the Virgin Mary who knows how to pamper Her Son as only a mother can. And the food with which Mary pampers Christ within such a soul, is the soul’s very own imperfect offerings which Mary seasons with Her own virtues and thus makes flavorsome and divine.

The introduction to ‘The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ in the 1962 edition of the Tridentine daily missal offers a glorious account of what it means for Mary to be born into one’s soul, and it is an ideal means of concluding this section:

At the time of Mary’s birth the whole world was plunged in darkness… [but] when Mary was born a light arise amid the darkness: the dawn of the glorious day that was to usher in the Redeemer. So, too, the darkness of the sinner’s soul is dispersed by Mary’s holy influence. Where the love of her is born in the soul, all becomes full of light, and Jesus comes to make His habitation there. Mary, in the first hour of her life, brought more glory to God than all the Saints of the Old Testament. In her were made perfect the obedience of Abraham, the chastity of Joseph, the patience of Job, the meekness of Moses, the prudence of Josue [Joshua]. It is because she is the model and pattern of these and all other virtues that she can communicate them to us.[8]


Birth of Eve the New


Finally, I would like to end with a poem which I have written in commemoration of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It interlinks all of the concepts explored within this article:

The earth was dark,
Shrouded by the mist of ancient curse,
With smell of death and hate making worse
World’s sickly state;
As each creature cried “please reverse!”

Yet nothing could be done
Since first Eve who was named
‘Mother of all living’
Gave birth instead to death
In form of violent Cain;
And flesh ours from this womb came.

But hope remained,
For though man was barred from tree of life
T’was replanted in Joachim’s wife,
As Eve the New
Who was destined to break curse of strife.

For here at last earth held
-From Adam New’s pierced side-
In arms that babe from rib
Whose birth was dawn bright morning,
Source of curse reversing,
Hope of our rebirthing,
And cause of Christ’s rejoicing:
In those in whom birth of Eve the New
Was wrought as welcomed morning dew.


[1] 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 45.
[2] Epiphanius, Panarion, 374-377 A.D.
[3] Ephrem of Syria, Diatessaron 2, 2; SC 121, 66.
[4] Augustine, Second Nocturne of Matins.
[5] Louis Marie de Montfort, True Devotion to Mary, Part 1: True Devotion to our Lady in General, Chapter 1, 119.
[6] Ibid., Part II: Perfect Devotion to our Lady, Chapter 4, 146.
[7] Ibid., 147.
[8] The Daily Missal and Liturgical Manual: ‘From the Editio Typica of the Roman Missal and Breviary, 1962,’ 5th ed., Baronius Press: London, 2011, The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, p.1473.