Yule Blog 2011-2012: The Mother of Meaning
Published on: January 4, 2012
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  • WigWag

    “When Catholics celebrated Mary as the Second Eve whose obedience restored the relationship with God that the first Eve lost, Protestants heard this as a claim that human beings by their own will could overcome the effects of sin.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    In his recent post entitled “How to Get Smart in 2012,” Professor Mead provided a list of 10 books and periodicals that he suggests will help his readers become even smarter than they already are in the new year. In item 6 on his list, Professor Mead recommends,

    “Read all the John Milton you can. Start this Christmas season with his magnificent Nativity Ode, then sample his shorter poems. Go on at least to Paradise Lost and the greatest work against censorship ever written, the Areopagitica. It won’t be easy but it will make you smart.”

    Milton was a radical Protestant who detested the Roman Church and was embittered by his support for the losing side of a civil war. He was blind, divorced and brilliant.

    Anyone who reads “Paradise Lost” will quickly be disabused of the notion that Mary was the “second Eve” in anything but name only; the two women could not be more dissimilar.

    The Mary of the Bible practically defines the word “holy.” The Eve of “Paradise Lost” was a vixen so luscious that neither Adam, Satan (disguised as a serpent) nor the archangel Raphael could resist her. In fact, upon reading the epic it quickly becomes apparent that her creator (Milton) was unable to resist her charms either.

    Eschewing tradition, Milton makes plain that Adam and Eve engaged in sexual liaisons prior to their fall (and if the Christian world is to be believed, our fall as well). In the poem, Satan witnesses Adam and Eve making love which induces in him tremendous jealousy and envy.

    Milton strongly implies that when Eve, induced by Satan, succumbed to temptation, it wasn’t just the forbidden fruit that she sampled. There is a strong implication that Eve, and her “irresistible golden locks” (to use Milton’s phrase), engaged in sexual intercourse with Satan.

    Various Gnostic traditions suggest that “sin” was the offspring of Eve’s union with Satan. In the Midrash, the Rabbis relate the suggestion that Cain was the offspring of Eve’s sexual encounter with Satan although in this tradition, the fallen angel in question was called “Sammael.”

    There is even a New Testament hint of this story. In John 3.11-12 John distinguishes the “children of God” from the “children of the devil.” During the Renaissance this New Testament sentence was understood literally as opposed to figuratively and it spawned many variants. For example in his 1627 story “The Locusts” Phineas Fletcher makes “sin” the daughter of Satan by Eve and depicts her as half woman and half serpent; there are several other examples.

    If Milton is to be believed (and after all, Professor Mead says that reading him makes us smart), then the lascivious Eve has far more in common with Mary Magdalene than with Mary, the mother of Jesus.

  • Xpat

    I am liking the series, Prof. Mead. I also appreciate that you’re doing the whole of Christmas.

    I got a lot out of the previous installment on the Magi, especially the 2nd half. As a Marian myself, I learned much from this installment as well, again, especially in the 2nd half. (If you ever republish the series, you might want to consider starting these in the middle and leaving out or drastically shortening the preambles.)

    Wig Wag, I can’t quarrel with your reading of Milton (whom I’ve only read very lightly), but I think you may be missing the point of “Second Eve.” It doesn’t mean Eve the Second, chip off the old block, but rather the opposite. It means Eve utterly reversed and transformed: disobedience vs. obedience, bringer of original sin vs. bearer of redemption, etc. etc. That said, Milton is way over the top and awfully hard on the poor gal. Sheesh.

    For an alternate view, the Anchoress had a post a few of years back, O Eve! Reconciled! It contained a beautiful poem and song (at the second link below and well worth a listen) in which Mary comforts and encourages Eve:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theanchoress/2008/12/29/o-eve-reconciled/

    http://franklarocca.com/oeve3w.html

    That seems more theologically on track than Milton’s version! He’s got issues.

  • WigWag

    If your suggestion Xpat is that Eve is Mary’s troublesome doppelganger rather than “the second Eve” I might be able to buy that.

    Milton was very learned and well-read. There is every reason to believe that his Eve was based, at least in part, on Homer’s Helen.

    Whatever one thinks of the rightful place of Mary in the Christian hierarchy I think everyone would agree that Mary was no Helen.

  • Anthony

    WRM, Yule Blog 2011-2012 has certainly celebrated Christmas season (sans theological contention/quarrel); continuing in that vein, honoring Mother of God implies comprehension of Marian doctrine and its value to Christian faith – “our civilization for better or worse has been shaped through its complicated, many-sided encounter with the man she raised and the faith that grew up around him.”

  • Aram

    WRM- Do you classify Mormons as Christians? If so please provide your definition of a Christian.
    Just trying to be noodge( please bare with me) – My bible never says 3 wise men.

  • Anthony

    WRM, reflecting on your essay and its stated purpose (avoiding theological renderings and disputes), I come away with a committed Christian attempting to actuate in both secular and sectarian readers a sense of the Mother of the Redeemer and of the Christians.
    WRM, I sense that you are in “The Mother of Meaning” revealing through ViaMeadia the Christian understanding of the extent of Mary’s faith and infinite dignity/good.

    Your Yule Blogs have enriched me – happy tenth day of Christmas.

  • Toni

    I think many people don’t appreciate the importance of women in Jesus’s earthly life, and in early Christianity, as recorded in the New Testament.

    Women weren’t chosen as missionaries because in that era, traipsing the landscape alone would be dangerous. But in every other way, including financial, they enabled and abetted Jesus and his mission. As WRM says, he treated them with serious respect. In no situation did he treat them as lesser beings.

    He appreciated the vital role that women played as mothers, as pillars of the home, as stabilizers and, indeed, creators of a culture. He inveighed men against lusting for other women and forbid to divorce their wives except for sexual misbehavior.

    The Roman Emperor Julian (361-363) persecuted Christians and tried to reconvert the empire to paganism. But he admitted, “No Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [Christians] feed not only their poor but ours.” Whose hands prepared the food?

    Jesus always knew, and knows, the importance of women.

  • Grigoris

    As an Orthodox Christian I had a similar surprise upon a visit with some in-laws to a Lutheran Church one Sunday, on which they sang “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones.” When we got to the stanza that you quote above, it was quite clear to me that the stanza was but a poetic, metered translation of the most frequently heard Orthodox hymn to the Theotokos (read at the end of Vespers, chanted between the verses of the Magnificat during Matins and during the commemoration of the Virgin during the Divine Liturgy, and in many other places):

    “More honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim. Without defilement you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you.”

    After that encounter, my interest was piqued, and, after a bit of research, I discovered out that the author of “Ye Watchers,” Athelstan Riley, had actually been something of an enthusiast for Eastern Christianity and had in fact made a journey to Mt. Athos, which he documented in his book, _Athos, or The Mountain of the Monks_ (1887).

    By the by, while I am obviously in favor of giving Mary her due, “Ye Watchers” is probably not the best argument for an abiding precedence of Marian tradition within Protestantism, seeing as how it was only written in 1906 by an Anglo-Catholic with some Eastern proclivities. And, as your story attests, most people have no idea what is meant by the stanza, and I dare say that many Protestants, if they were to understand, would demand it removed from their hymnals.

  • One of my professors once commented that just as Mary endured disgrace because of her unusual out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Jesus endured disgrace because of His torture and death on the cross. And similar to how Mary’s suffering of dishonor led to blessing for us, Jesus’s suffering of death led to our salvation. God turned their shame into honor, “exalt[ing] the humble and meek.”

    We, members of the “all generations” Mary mentions, can call her blessed, even as we focus our primary attention on blessing the name of her Son.

  • Luke Lea

    Link broken on subsequent post in this series. The one up.

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