As mother of Life himself, Mary mediates the life of Christ to us as the new Eve, as the Mother of the Church, and finally, as our mother.
The New Eve
As the “woman” central to God’s plan of salvation, Mary is the “new Eve.” This is the very first title given to Mary in the writings of the Church fathers. St. Paul himself referred to Jesus as the “new Adam” (see Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:45). There is logic, then, in seeing Mary as the “new Eve” because of her role in giving life to all her spiritual children. We should also mention that the Church in a spiritual way is also called the “new Eve,” because the Church is the mystical bride of Jesus, the Bridegroom, just as the first Eve was the spouse of the first Adam.
The name Eve means “the mother of the living” (see Genesis 3:20). But because the first Eve was joined to the sin of the first Adam, her sin passed on not life but death to her children. This death was both physical and spiritual. Physical death means the death of the body. Before the original sin, our first parents enjoyed the gift of immortality. Death, however, was a punishment for their sin which was passed on to all their descendants. The body would die by being separated from the soul. But even after the death of the body, the soul retains the hope of being reunited to the body at the time of the Second Coming of Jesus. Spiritual death means that we, as children of the first Eve, were born without the life of God’s sanctifying grace in our souls. We could not redeem ourselves to gain back the life of grace we had lost because we couldn’t pay the price of our own redemption. Unless something happened, the gates of heaven were closed to us forever!
But Mary, as the new Eve, begins to reverse our helpless situation. She can do this because she is now joined to the redemptive work of her divine Son, the new Adam. Jesus came to bring us the fullness of life: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Through his redemption, Jesus restores to us the life of grace that had been lost. This spiritual life is restored to the soul through Baptism. At the same time, through his bodily resurrection, Jesus promises to raise our bodies back to life when he returns in glory at the end of time. Because Mary was joined to her Son’s work so intimately, she is truly a mother who brings life to her spiritual children.
Mother of the Church
As the new Eve, the true mother of the living, Mary is the Mother of the Church. St. Paul refers to the Church as the mystical body of Christ. Jesus is the head, while we who are baptized are the members (see Ephesians 5:23). Head and members make up the fullness of Christ’s mystical body. In Bethlehem Mary gave birth to Jesus, our head.
On Calvary Mary became a mother again. Jesus addressed her as such when he said, “Woman, behold, your son” (John 19:26, NAB). To understand this mystical birth on Calvary, we have to look at the way John describes the death of Jesus. At dusk the Roman soldiers broke the legs of the two thieves crucified with Jesus. Breaking their legs hastened their deaths, because the only way to breathe on the cross was to lift oneself up by the legs to inhale. But when the soldiers came to Jesus, it was obvious that he was already dead. They did not break any of his bones, but to be sure that he was not alive, a centurion thrust his lance into Jesus’ side. John tells us that at that moment, blood and water came forth from the side of Christ (see John 19:31-34).
The early Church fathers saw this blood and water as symbols of the creation of the Church. Jesus is the new Adam. Mary is personally the new Eve, as the mother of the living members of Christ’s mystical body. The Church is also the new Eve as the mystical spouse of Jesus, the new Adam. Just as the first Eve was formed from Adam’s side in the garden of Eden, so the Church, as the new Eve, was formed from the side of Jesus on the cross at Calvary. The Genesis creation account says that God put Adam into a deep sleep, opened his side, took out one of his ribs, and formed Eve (see Genesis 2:21-22). The Church fathers saw a parallel to the Genesis creation in the gospel account of Jesus’ death. In their view, Jesus (the new Adam) was in the sleep of death on the cross, when his side was opened by the centurion’s lance, and out came blood and water, symbolizing the Church. The water represents the Sacrament of Baptism, which gives us the beginning of new life in Christ; the blood represents the Eucharist, which gives us Christ himself, the very author of our new life. As the two greatest sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist represent the Church itself.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen said that since the Church was mystically “born” from the side of Christ, there was a birth taking place, and so there had to be a mother. Mary was present at the cross and received from her divine Son a new role as mother of the living: “Woman, behold, your son” (John 19:26, NAB). Woman—Jesus again uses that title in addressing his mother, just as he did at the wedding at Cana. There was a deeper reason for his use of the word “woman,” which we see when we look at Genesis. In the garden of Eden, God said to the serpent, who had just led the first Adam and the first Eve into sin,
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
When Jesus at Cana and again at Calvary called his mother “woman,” we can conclude that he was identifying Mary as the one who would be at enmity with the evil one (the devil) and whose offspring would do battle with the devil’s offspring.
When Jesus said to his mother as he was dying, “Woman, behold, your son,” he was also identifying Mary as our mother. In giving life to Christ, who is our head, Mary gives us life also, since the same life that is in the head is also present in us who are the members of his mystical body.
St. Aelred of Rievaulx (d. 1167), a Cistercian abbot and a contemporary of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, explained Mary’s role as our spiritual mother:
We owe [Mary] honor, for she is the mother of our Lord. He who fails to honor the mother clearly dishonors the Son. Also, Scripture says: “Honor your father and your mother.”. . . Once we all lay in death, as you know and believe, in sin, in darkness, in misery. In death, because we had lost the Lord; in sin, because of our corruption; in darkness, for we were without the light of wisdom, and, thus had perished utterly. But then we were born, far better than through Eve, through Mary the blessed [one], because Christ was born of her. We have recovered new life in place of sin, immortality instead of mortality, light in place of darkness. She is our mother—the mother of our life [Jesus], the mother of our redemption [Jesus], the mother of our light [Jesus]. As the apostle [St. Paul] says of our Lord, “He became for us, by God’s power, our wisdom and justice, our holiness and redemption.” [Mary] then, as mother of Christ, is the mother of our wisdom and justice, of our holiness and redemption. She is more our mother than the mother of our flesh. Our birth from her is better, for from her is born our holiness, our wisdom, our justice, our sanctification, our redemption.
We all received new life in Christ, and Mary gave life to him by conceiving and giving birth to him. Therefore, we can say with St. Aelred that Mary gave us life also, since we share in the very life Christ received from her. In the mystical body, the life that is in Jesus our head flows into us who are his members. This makes Mary’s role for us one of being a mother of life. She is always spiritually mediating or transmitting life to us through and in Christ, who dwells within us.
This article is an excerpt from Following Mary to Jesus: Our Lady as Mother, Teacher, and Advocate by Fr. Andrew Apostoli, CFR.