Every year Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th. And every year the readings selected for the Mass on this day revolve around Mary, her identity, and the role she plays in salvation history.
In this video, which is part 3 of 5, from the readings for the Mass for the Solemnity of Immaculate Conception, Dr. Pitre covers the Old Testament Reading from Genesis chapter 3 where we read about the fall and the famous "Protoevangelium" in Genesis 3:15. Additionally, Dr. Pitre briefly unpacks the reading from Ephesians and the Church being made "immaculate" through God's Grace.
This 5 part series is taken from The Mass Readings Explained, which can be learned about here >
Okay, so that's the New Testament passage. Now with that in mind, lets go back to the Old Testament reading for today. The Old Testament reading for today is from the Book of Genesis. It's the account of the aftermath of the fall of Adam and Eve. So we all know the story of the fall of Adam and Eve. God creates man and woman, puts them in the Garden of Eden, tells them not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent comes in, deceives the woman, the woman takes the fruit, she gives some to her husband, and they both eat and they fall, right.
So what happens here for today's solemnity is the church picks up the Old Testament reading right in the wake of the fall of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge and it gives us these verses, Genesis 3:9-15, and then skips down and gives us also verse 20. So let’s read those readings today.
But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" And he said, "I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" The man said, "The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent beguiled me, and I ate." The LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you above all cattle, and above all wild animals; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
Then it skips down to verse 20 and the lectionary says this:
The man called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
Alright, end of Old Testament reading. Again, if you're sitting in church and you're hearing this reading on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, you might be thinking, what does this have to do with Mary being conceived without sin? I mean what possible reason could be given for choosing this account of the fall. Well let me point to two things. First, the primary reason the church picks this passage has to do with verse 15, it’s God's declaration to the serpent about this battle between the serpent and the woman, and between the serpent’s seed and the woman’s seed. So if you look at that verse again real carefully, notice what it’s describing here. God is condemning the serpent for causing the fall, and he’s also pronouncing a kind of cryptic oracle about the future, the future relationship between the serpent and the woman. So there’s going to be a war. It says that I will put enmity between you, the serpent, and the woman, between your seed, meaning the serpent’s seed, and her seed, meaning the woman’s seed. Then it says he shall, literally in the Hebrew, shuph, he shall strike your head but you shall strike his heel, shuph.
Okay, so there’s a battle going on in this verse between the woman and the serpent, between the woman’s seed and the serpent’s seed. Now this passage, as we’re going to see in a little bit, in the ancient Christian tradition was known as the Protoevangelium, in Latin “the first gospel,” because it was seen as a prophecy of a future battle between the Messiah, the seed of the woman, and the serpent who is Satan, both in Jewish tradition and in later Christian tradition. Now you should be aware here that in contemporary Old Testament scholarship there is a tendency to say well this prophecy, this oracle here, is just about the, shall we say, tense relationship between women and snakes, or between human beings and snakes, right. Okay, so according to this view what we have here is called an etiology. It’s kind of an ancient story explaining the conflict between snakes and human beings. Okay, well that's one reading of the text but that's not how ancient Jews and how ancient Christians read it. In the ancient Jewish tradition, and you see this represented in Jewish commentaries like the Targums, in Aramaic Targums, as well as the Midrash Rabbah, these ancient Jewish commentaries on Genesis, they saw this text as a prophecy of the time of the Messiah in which the Messiah, who would be a son of Eve, he would be descended from Eve, would arise and he would be in conflict with the serpent who represents Satan, and that eventually the Messiah would overthrow the devil, the Messiah would overthrow Satan. That was an ancient Jewish tradition. In the ancient Christian tradition they saw this prophecy as a prophecy of the mother of Christ, of the mother of the Messiah, and of the Messiah's battle with the devil.
So according to this reading the woman in question is the mother of Jesus, Mary, right, who is being depicted as a kind of new Eve, and unlike the first Eve who succumbed to the devil's temptation, this future woman, this future Eve, is going to be in a battle with the serpent, in a battle with the devil. Her offspring, the Messiah, Christ, will also be in a battle with the offspring of the devil and he's going to conquer the devil and his offspring by striking the head of the serpent, right. But at the same time the serpent will strike his heel. Now I grew up in South Louisiana, lots of snakes, killed lots of snakes in my lifetime, in my childhood. The one thing you know if you grow up where there are snakes is that if you want to kill a snake you go for the head, you crush the head, right. You try to either chop the head off or crush its head, that's how you’ll kill it. However, you also know that if you try to crush its head with your foot you’re putting yourself in danger of getting bitten, right, and you yourself might get killed, right, through the poison of the snake. So in this case, what’s mysterious about this oracle is that both sides of the battle appear to lose, right. The serpent's head is crushed so he dies, but the heel of the woman's son is struck and so, if it's a poisonous serpent, he too would be presumed to die.
So it’s this mysterious battle in which the serpent will be conquered but the woman’s seed will also die, will also be struck by the serpent. Okay, so what does this have to do with Jesus and Mary? Well in the ancient Christian tradition, as we’re going to see in just a bit, they saw this as a prophecy of the passion of Jesus Christ, of the incarnation and the passion, in which Mary, as the mother of the Messiah, is a new Eve and she gives birth to the Messiah, the new Adam, Jesus, who comes in the world to conquer not just my sin or you’re sin, but the original sin of Adam and Eve, the first sin, and all of its effects by conquering the devil, right, by overthrowing death itself. So they saw this as a prophecy of the passion of Christ, right. So Christ is the new Adam, he’s the Messiah, he's going to be struck by the serpent in the sense that he will die on the cross, but precisely by being struck, precisely by dying, he will also conquer death and therefore conquer the serpent as well. That is the good news, that's the gospel, that Jesus conquers sin and death through his passion, death, and then his resurrection. Okay, so that's very important, the Protoevangelium, the first gospel. There is one other element though here that is important to highlight and that's why the church skips down to verse 20; verse 20 is after the fall. The man, Adam, names the woman Eve because she was the mother of all the living. Now what does that mean?
Well in Hebrew the word Eve is Havah, it’s based on the root chaya which means to live. So literally what it says in Hebrew is the man called his wife's name life because she was the mother of all the living, or you could say in Hebrew the man called his wife's name Havah because she was the mother of all the chaya, all the other people, all of the those who are alive. Actually in Greek that word Eve is Zōē, okay, like the name Zoe is from the Greek word that means life. Eternal life is Zōē aiónios, okay. So Eve’s very name is life because she's the mother of all the living. So all human beings, according to Genesis 3, are descended from this one woman, this woman named Eve. Now one reason that’s interesting is because, although we always call her Eve, Genesis doesn't call her Eve until well after the fall. Before the fall and during the fall she's called woman. Woman, woman, woman, 12 time she's called woman in the Book of Genesis. Only after does she get this name Eve because she's the mother of all the living. Which by the way, is kind of an ironic title, because what does Eve give to her children? Well not just natural life but she also gives them death, because through her sin death comes into the world. So there’s kind of an irony there in Genesis. Okay, so that's the first reading from the Old Testament and the gospel.
I have one other quick point I want to make here. The Responsorial Psalm for today is “Sing a new song to the Lord,” and it’s simply a song of praise for the miracles that God does. So verse one of Psalm 98, it says this:
"O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things!"
So it’s just a praise of God's victory of the marvelous things that he’s done in salvation history. Then the final reading for today that I want to highlight real quickly is the second reading from the letter to the Ephesians. So for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception we read Ephesians 1:3-6 and then 11-12. So I’m just going to walk through that real quickly, this is what it says:
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. And then it skips down to verse 11: In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will, we who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory."
Alright, well that’s a beautiful passage from Paul's letter to the Ephesians, but what does that have to do with the Immaculate Conception? If you look at it, what Paul's describing here is the blessings that have been poured out upon the church. It’s kind of describing the church here in feminine terms, like the church is the beloved of God, the church is like the bride of Christ. It says here about the church that those of us in the church have been chosen in Christ from before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless, and that he destined us in love to be the recipients of his glorious grace. Well, what does that have to do with the Immaculate Conception? Well, we’ll come back to that at the very, very end but let me for now just point out two things. The church chooses this reading for two keywords that are described in it. First, if you look at that verse four it says that we were chosen in the church to be holy and what? Blameless.
Now the Greek word there for holy is hagios, the Latin is sanctus, right, we get the word holy from that. But the second term blameless is interesting. Now in Greek that word is amōmos, which just means blameless, without blame, but in Latin it’s inmaculatus, or immaculate would be an English translation of that, right. Without any stain is what immaculate means or amōmos, okay. So this is one of the few times in the New Testament where we actually have the word immaculate in the text. Now you can't see it; if you're reading an English Bible you're not going to see that. But remember the church chose these readings over the centuries from the Latin vulgate. So the Latin word here is that the church is chosen to be immaculate before him. The second reason this passage is chosen, if you go down just a couple of verses, is that the church is made immaculate through the bestowal of God's glorious grace. Again the Greek word charis, the Latin word gratia; so we have the grace of the church being made immaculate or blameless in the eyes of God. I think you can see where this is going, but for now just keep that in the back of your mind.
Okay, so with all those readings in mind, what does this have to do with the Immaculate Conception? How does it lay the foundation for the Immaculate Conception? The answer to that question is real simple. It starts with the first reading, and it's this…