How the Birth of Christ Reverses the Story of Eden

In his epistles, St. Paul suggests that Jesus is new Adam, leading us to compare the story of Eden with that of Jesus.

In many ways, the story of Jesus retells that of Eden, as saints ranging from St. Irenaeus to St. John Henry Newman have taught us. These saints often focus on the truth that if Jesus is a new, or second Adam, then there must also be a new Eve, who is the Virgin Mary. The idea that Mary is the new Eve is one of the foundational truths behind much of our devotion to her. For example, just as Eve as seen as the mother of all men so also Mary is considered the mother of all who are reborn in baptism. Likewise, just as the first Eve was born without original sin, so also the second.

But what about the relationship between the new Adam and the new Eve?

Here, too, there is an interesting reversal of Eden that is worthy of further exploration.

The first Adam appeared fully grown, physically and mentally mature, but without His companion. The second Adam, Jesus, was the opposite: he started out as an unborn infant. But He started out with something the first Adam did not: on this earth, He was never without His Eve.

In his book, Mary’s Bodily Assumption, theologian Matthew Levering notes that “Christ’s bodiless includes a relation to all embodied persons.” First and foremost, is His relationship to Mary. In the story of the second Adam and Eve, then, the relationship between the two is prioritized to a degree that it is not in the case of the first. The first Adam had to ask for His Eve. For a time, he was all on his own and presumably self-sufficient. For the second, His very existence entailed the existence of His Eve, on whom He utterly depended, first as an unborn infant and then as a newborn.

This may seem contrary to what we would expect from God Incarnate. If there was one man in all of history who was never born, who did not depend on another human being for his human existence, and who started life on this earth as a fully grown man, shouldn’t it have been God Incarnate?

And yet it was most fitting that the second Adam not be like this. First, the circumstances of His birth remind us of the truth that to be human is to be in relationship with others. As the Second Vatican Council taught, in His Incarnation Jesus “fully reveals man to man himself” (Gaudium et Spes, 22).

But there is another reason it is fitting. God Incarnate chose to emphasize His relationship to His mother because it is a reflection of the Trinity, in which personhood is defined as a relation to another. (Technically, in Thomistic terms, we would say a Trinitarian person is a ‘subsistent relation.’ Subsistent could be defined as something that really exists in of itself).

The first Adam and Eve were created in the image of God. The second Adam and Eve reflected that image even more profoundly than the first two.

We could say that Jesus fully reveals man to us and fully reveals God to us.

A consequence that follows from the above is the absolute humility of the second Adam. The first Adam was the master of paradise, his supremacy evident from his role in the naming of the all the animals. The second Adam was king too, but His royal power lay hidden in the helplessness of an infant.

There is yet one other way that the new Adam and Eve reversed Eden. In Genesis, the first paradise was a garden with animals and fruit-bearing trees. Where, might we ask is the second Garden of Eden in the gospels?

The gospels point to the person of Jesus Himself. There are several gospels texts that support this conclusion. One intriguing one is Jesus’ comment to the Good Thief that he would be with Him in paradise that day (Luke 23:43). How can this be reconciled with Jesus’ descent to hell? One solution is to understand Jesus as speaking about being with Him. In this way, the thief was ‘in paradise’ simply by being with Jesus. Likewise, Jesus’ declaration that He is the temple further confirms this connection (John 2:19), since the first Eden has been interpreted as a sort of temple. (For an explanation of that see these articles here and here.)

One implication of this, though, is that Mary’s womb is the source of paradise, for it was there that paradise was born again on earth. But, whereas the first paradise was very much visible, the second one was hidden.

Relationship, humility, and hiddenness—these themes dominate the story of the new Adam and Eve. In the first one, Adam and Eve are somewhat closed off to us. But the circumstances of the second Adam and Eve invite us in. Like the three wise men or the shepherds in the field, the humility of Jesus and Mary draw us into their hidden paradise. 

By

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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