One of the deepest and dearest secrets of the Christmas season is hidden in plain sight: Christmas Eve is the feast day of Holy Eve, the wife of Adam and the mother of all. (Though I play with words, Christmas is a good time for playfulness. “For,” as Charles Dickens reminds us in his Carol, “it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.”)
It is on this day for children, as we await the birth of the God Child, that Catholics should remember not only the Mother of Life but also the mother of all the living, whose legacy lies at the root of the story of salvation and whose spirit hovers in heavenly anticipation on the night before Christmas.
As Eve watched for millennia over her teeming world of children, waiting for them to be given the fullness of the life she had given them only imperfectly, she herself waited to be brought back to Paradise by the Redeemer. The great Byzantine Anastasis icon depicts Eve’s place in human redemption dramatically: rising from her grave and grasping the hand of the Resurrected Lord as He stamps down the doors of Hades on Death himself.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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But the place of Eve in human imagination (and humor) is a harsh one. There’s the old joke (and so many like them): And God said, “I can give you a truly perfect helpmate, but it will cost you an arm and a leg.” And Adam said, “What can I get for a rib?”
And cheeky jingles like Robbie Burns’ “Epitaph on a Henpecked Country Squire”:
As father Adam first was fool’d,
(A case that’s still too common,)
Here lies man a woman ruled,
The devil ruled the woman.
Eve doesn’t fare much better in more solemn sources either. Greek myth told of the first woman as a curse rather than a blessing. When the Titan Prometheus stole fire from the chariot of the sun to give to the men he had created despite the refusal of heaven, the gods plotted out a punishment. They combined their powers to make a creature of exquisite beauty, calling her Pandora, meaning “she who has gifts for all,” and gave her an ominous box. She who had gifts from all had gifts for all as well.
Down Pandora went to earth and, being welcomed in awe by mankind, she opened her box and released all that was contained therein that man had never known: pain, sickness, fear, sadness, and death on swift feet. As these evils flew through the world, filling it with sighs, Pandora slammed the lid down on the thing buried at the bottom of her box: hope.
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.
As Milton immortalized, joining his genius to Genesis, it was through Eve and her succumbing to the temptation of the guileful serpent that led her, her husband, and all her children to a fallen world of thorns, sweat, and blood. But she did not bar us from hope as Pandora did. Quite the opposite.
Though Eve fell in sin and shame, she was the first to undertake the travail she wrought that brought her daughters down the ages to the one Mother who said “yes” to God to right that original “no” of our common mother. Eve, created without sin, wanted what was forbidden. Mary, conceived without sin, welcomed what was impossible. And thus, what was broken began to be made whole again.
Without the tears of Eve, then, there would be nothing for Mary to ponder in her heart on Christmas Day. Without the angel with the flaming sword, there would be no annunciation from Gabriel. Eve paved the way by her haughty insurrection for the happy submission of Mary. In his famous second-century tome Against Heresies, St. Irenaeus writes, “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. What the virgin Eve had bound in unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosed through faith.”
But even the Blessed Virgin Mary—the daughter of Eve unfallen, as St. John Henry Newman called her—even she, humble queen that she was and ever will be, undertook the special work of Eve as the new Eve over the manger in Bethlehem. Mary’s first act when the God Child was born into her arms was to uphold her duty to Eve, the patron of tailors, by fashioning swaddling clothes for the naked Infant who came to save us from sin and to redeem the flesh so sadly sullied by Eve.
In the words of Mark Twain, “Much is due to Eve, the first woman, and Satan, the first consultant.” Much is due, indeed—dues that we all must pay as successors of our first mother’s first sin. She will ever be bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. But just as we inherit the tarnished nature of our mother, so do we inherit those things called good as well—such as the image and likeness of God in soul and intellect and the glorious stewardship of the earth.
As Eve showed with her fig leaves, being a good steward is to have a healthy respect for the things of the earth and Heaven, which respect forbids exploitation of for pleasure or for comfort’s sake. For those who truly love the realities that God made, pleasure and peace are derived by virtue of the reality loved, even in the state of broken innocence.
The loss of innocence does not necessitate ignorance. Men and women did not become like gods as the serpent seduced, but they remained children of God, able to find the voice of the Father in their hearts and make their way back toward that state where they might walk with Him in the Garden in the cool of the evening.
“Why can’t these American women stay in their own country? They are always telling us that it is the paradise for women,” blusters an old English gentleman in The Picture of Dorian Gray. “It is,” another responds with Wilde’s wry wit. “That is the reason why, like Eve, they are so excessively anxious to get out of it.”
The puerile perversity of our first parents has come a long way, and it is ever as it was. Eve’s trivial yet tragic shortsighted sin is, to this day and hour upon the clock, the reason why we are filled with joy at the Incarnation, when God came to us exiles to reclaim us and restore the birthright of Holy Mother Eve.
The secret that the day before Christmas is the day of Holy Eve is one that is kept as guardedly as nakedness, for it is a precious observance. But it is on this day of anticipation that the glory is truly given to Eve, the mother of man, since it was she whose felix culpa brought us the fiat of the Mother of the Son of Man. She, whose name is “Source of Life,” is the Greatest Grandmother of the One who is Life. Holy Eve, pray your mother’s prayers for us, and continue to give us the gift of hope on this, your day, Christmas Eve.
[Image: “Mary and Eve” by Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO, of the Cistercian Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey]