The Best of All Gifts
Solemnity of the Annunciation | Fr Euan Marley on the uniqueness of Mary as mother of the redeemer.
Somewhere outside of Eden, Eve gave birth to Cain, the first human being to be born of a woman. The exact words describing this are from Genesis 4:1. ‘Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have acquired a man with the help of the Lord.” (Gen 4:1) ‘Acquired’ seems a more reasonable translation than ‘produced’ as many translation have it. Abraham is called the acquirer, or possessor of the heaven and the earth by God in Genesis 14:19 where he can hardly be the producer of the heaven and earth. The word is a pun, as ‘acquired’ in Hebrew sounds rather like the name of Cain but I think there is more than a pun involved in her use of this word. Cain, as we know, goes on to kill Abel, and after this, Eve receives another son in his place. Now she says, “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him.” (Gen 4:25) This is a distinctly less arrogant description of her relationship to her new son. Appointed is another pun, as her new son, Seth, has a name similar to the Hebrew word for ‘appointed’.
To talk of acquiring a child would seem wrong. It implies that the child is some sort of possession, a thing we own, something from a shop. Yet the fundamental description of the child, any child, is that of a gift. I once went as far as to say, while preaching in our small chapel in the Catholic chaplaincy of Edinburgh University, that there is no such things as a right to a child. This did not go down well, which is one of the advantages of preaching in a small chapel, where the reactions of the congregation are easier to assess. I hastily added that there is a right to do the things which lead to having a child: the right to marry and become one flesh, to freely give ourselves to each other, and no rational persons should ever be prevented from doing this. Out of this may come a child, and that is good thing to hope for, but the child will always be a gift. Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel realised this. Read the first two chapters of the 1st Book of Samuel, where Hannah longs for a child, yearns with all her heart for a child, yet when he comes, she concentrates him to the Lord, because she has come to understand that all children are gifts.
“For this boy I prayed, and the Lord has given me my petition which I asked of Him. So I have also dedicated him to the Lord.” (1 Samuel 1:27-28)
Hannah is a forerunner of Mary. Mary is the greatest of all the women of the bible, the greatest of all women anywhere, but how? Mary is the mother of the redeemer. Her being conceived without sin is in view of the merits of Christ, as Pope Pius IX has it in his declaration of the immaculate conception, an essential part of our faith but she does not become sinless at the coming of the Christ. She is conceived without sin. It is out of her perfection that the Christ comes into this world. Mary contains the women of the bible as Jesus contains all priesthood and prophecy, and true kingship. She neither demands or refuses child or husband. She accepts the gifts she is given and she rejoices in God her saviour. What makes Mary suitable to be the mother of the Son of God is not just her willingness to be his mother, but her willingness not to be his mother. Otherwise she could not be said to be fully open to the will of God.
Elizabeth greets Mary and proclaims her greatness. You might say that she is Mary’s John the Baptist but in a very different way. Mary like Elizabeth is just a human being. Elizabeth too is older than Mary, by many years, and not just the few months between John the Baptist and Christ. This creates a tension between Elizabeth as the older woman who sees the greatness of the younger Mary. Mary goes to her in obedience to the message of Gabriel. So Mary is meant to meet Elizabeth. This is to show that Mary goes beyond the women of the Old Testament, and Elizabeth is to proclaim this. Just as Luke in his genealogy traces Jesus back to Adam, so that from Adam will come the redeemer, so Mary is the new Eve, who does not acquire Jesus as her son but accepts him as the greatest of gifts, the gift which will redeem the world.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of the Annunciation altarpiece in the Rosary Shrine, London.