As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve.
St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons [c. 202] in Against Heresies
December eighth is in many Church calendars* the lesser feast of the Conception of the Virgin Mary. It commemorates the beginning of Mary’s life. Many claims have been made, rejected, and reasserted over the centuries about the mother of Our Lord. There is little to be gained by entering into that fray here. What seems right and profitable on this day is to reflect on the central role a young Jewish woman played in the story of salvation, as found in Scripture.
St. Irenaeus, writing so early in the Church’s history, meditates for a time on that role in this section of his great work on Christian faith. Mary was an essential part of the “synergy” between God (who initiates and empowers) and humanity (who respond in loving obedience) in the story of our redemption. Today’s feast celebrates her life and that loving response she will make to God—and calls on us to consider the quality and health of our own loving obedience in Christ.
In contemplating all of this, the great bishop-theologian of Lyons reminds us that just as Christ undoes Adam’s sin and its consequences, so Mary’s life and response is a direct reversal of Eve’s error. Disobedience is undone by a loving obedience. As St. Irenaeus remarks elsewhere, only in this way would the victory over evil be complete in every aspect.
There is a deep beauty and fullness to God’s redemptive action in the Gospel, something which this feast day celebrates, as well. Perhaps this valuing of beauty is one reason Marian devotion can seem foreign to many in our society today. In another age—one placing beauty at the center of life and not on the periphery along with other so-called “luxuries”—this symmetry between the fall of humanity and its redemption was understood as both validating and essential.
All of this is very good to consider as we prepare for the Feast of the Incarnation at Christmas.
Collect for the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
Almighty and everlasting God, you lowered yourself to raise our fallen race by the childbearing of blessed Mary; Grant that we who have seen your glory manifested in our humanity, and your love perfected in our weakness, may daily be renewed in your image, and conformed in the likeness of your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
(*But not, alas, the Episcopal Church’s, in spite of the rather amazing infusion of new commemorations at the most recent General Convention.)