IntroductionThe early Church saw Mary in a number of ways: as the New Eve, as the new Ark of the Covenant, and as “The Woman.” As some have pointed out, Mary is not a goddess and should not perceived as such, but nor should she be ignored. Mary played an etremely significant role in the birth, life, and death of Christ. She was present in each. She was also present when the Church began at Pentecost. She lived with the apostle John in Ephesus for several years before she passed on from this world. How, then, did the early Christians - and many Catholics - view Mary?
The New EveThe early Christians identified Mary as the New Eve. The earliest surviving testimony to this is from Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho (AD 160), which describes conversations that Justin had with a rabbi around AD 135 in Ephesus. It was in that city that Justin had been instructed in the faith and where, according to tradition, Mary lived with John. Justin Martyr wrote, "Christ became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience that proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her..." and so forth.
Here, Justin Martyr both compares and contrasts. From him, we move on to St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who compares and contrasts the obedience and disobedience of the virgins. He wrote that "The knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. The knot which the virgin Eve tied by her unbelief, the Virgin Mary opened by her belief." Then later on he wrote, "If the former [Eve] disobeyed God, the latter [Mary] was persuaded to obey God, so that the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell in to bondage to death by means of a virgin, so it is rescued by a virgin." Tertullian and many others had this idea. Tertullian once said, "As Eve believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel. The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing, the other effaced by believing."
Also, quaint fact - some medieval poets noted that the angel Gabriel's Ave (Latin greeting of “Hail, Mary”) reversed the name of Eva, or Eve. Interesting tidbit. The idea of Mary as the New Eve, some scholars suggest, may have been passed down from St. John the Apostle himself, given his associations and connections with several of these early individuals (Justin was taught in Ephesus, Irenaeus learned from John's disciples Polycarp, etc). It was then handed on by St. Justin, St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, St. Augustine, St. John Damascene, St. Thomas Aquinas, and others. Several of the early authors directly called her "New Eve." But aside from the aforementioned - there's another major reason why she's considered the New Eve.
She's "The Woman." This “Woman” is first mentioned in Genesis 3:15. Of course, the early Christians saw Genesis as being highly christological (foreshadowing Christ), so that Jesus was tested in a garden as Adam was (at Gethsemane); like Adam, Jesus was led to a "tree," where he was stripped naked; so forth. The motif of the New Adam, really, is very much developed in John's gospel. It isn't explicit, but the connections between John and Genesis are fantastic. For example, Genesis and John start off with, “In the beginning...” Now, at the wedding feast in Cana (John 2), Jesus interestingly calls Mary "Woman." He didn't call her Mary, or Mother, just "Woman." He does the same thing in John 19:26 when hanging on the cross, and if Revelation 12 symbolizes Mary, she is called "Woman" multiple times there as well. But Jesus' name of Mary also echoes Genesis - it's the name Adam gives to Eve.
Further, as Eve was the "mother of all the living," when Jesus gave us Mary as our mother (in John 19, “here is your mother”), she became the New Eve as the mother of God's children. But here at Cana, instead of leading "Adam" to evil, she prompts the New Adam - Jesus - to do good. In Genesis 3:15, the Protoevangelion, we see a prophecy of Jesus crushing Satan, or so we interpret it christologically. If, then, Jesus is the "he" then the "woman" is therefore both Eve - and Mary.
The Ark of the New CovenantSeveral scholars argue that if St. John did indeed write Revelation, then John does indeed portray Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. Many modern Christians interpret the Woman in Revelation 12 as an image for Israel and/or the Church. Now, given Scripture's multiple levels of meaning, that's entirely possible, and perhaps probable. But not the only meaning.
At the end of Revelation 11 we read, "Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of His covenant was seen..." Now, the Ark of the Covenant, a sacred and honored object that has not been seen or heard of for six hundred years at that point, pops up. But in the entirety of Revelation, nothing more is said about it. That's a bit odd, given its Jewish prominence. Well, chapter and verse divisions were not added until the Middle Ages. So in the original manuscript, Revelation 11 ended and Revelation 12 began - they flowed into one another. Immediately after the temple is open and the Ark of the Covenant is revealed... "a woman clothed with the sun" appears. Many scholars (and ancient Christians) believe that St. John was revealing the Ark as a woman - and indeed as St. Mary.
Now, there's a lot to this identification, but when we consider that this may not only be Mary in Revelation 12, but that she may also be viewed theologically as the Ark of the New Covenant, this elucidates many things. Consider that the enmity between the serpent, clearly identified here in Revelation 12 as Satan, and the child - which we can assume is Christ - echoes again the words of Genesis 3:15 and the enmity between the serpent and the woman's seed (and again, she is not given a name here, but is called "woman"). St. Ambrose believed that this woman was Mary, as did St. Ephrem of Syria, St. Augustine of Hippo, and several others. It's also interesting that the "other offspring" are likely us - the brothers and sisters, given further credence to seeing Mary as a mother figure. Other Marian elements seem to be present in Revelation 12, such as the flight into the desert being a stylized narrative form of the flight into Egypt by the Holy Family. There are several other curious aspects of identifying Mary as the woman in Revelation 12.
One of the more interesting points about Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant is the literary connections between 2nd Samuel 6 and Luke 1. Dr. Scott Hahn in his book Hail, Holy Queen writes, "The greatest difficulty for interpreters seems to be the apparent uniqueness of John's typological insight in Revelation. Where else, after all, is Mary called the ark of the covenant? Yet closer study of the New Testament shows us that John's insight was not unique - more explicit than others, certainly, but not unique. Along with John's books, the writings of Luke are the Bible's other gold mine of Marian doctrine... Luke was a meticulous literary artist who could claim the additional benefit of having the Holy Spirit as his coauthor. Down through the centuries, scholars have marveled at the way Luke's gospel subtly parallels key texts of the Old Testament. One of the early examples in his narrative is the story of Mary's visitation to Elizabeth.
Luke's language seems to echo the account, in the second book of Samuel, of David's travels as he brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The story begins as David 'arose and went' (2 Sam 6:2). Luke's account of the visitation begins with the same words: Mary 'arose and went' (1:39). In their journeys, then, both Mary and David proceeded to the hill country of Judah. David acknowledges his unworthiness with the words 'How can the ark of the Lord come to me?' (2 Sam 6:9) - words we find echoed as Mary approaches her kinswoman Elizabeth: 'Why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?' (Lk 1:43). Note here that the sentence is almost verbatim, except that 'ark' is replaced by 'mother.' We read further that David 'danced' for joy in the presence of the ark (2 Sam 6:14, 16), and we find a similar expression used to describe the leaping of the child within Elizabeth's womb as Mary approached (Lk 1:44). Finally, the ark remained in the hill country for three months (2 Sam 6:11), the same amount of time Mary spent with Elizabeth."
Why, though, would Luke be so coy about this? Why not just come right out and call Mary a fulfillment of the type of the ark? The well-known Cardinal John Newman addressed this question, saying, "It is sometimes asked, Why do not the sacred writers mention our Lady's greatness? I answer, she was, or may have been alive, when the apostles and evangelists wrote; there was just one book of Scripture certainly written after her death and that book [of Revelation] does (so to say) canonize and crown her." Was St. Luke, in his quiet way, showing Mary to be the ark of the new covenant?
Prayer BeadsA final - and perhaps more controversial point - prayer beads. The use of prayer beads is an ancient practice. It's present in all major religious traditions. Ancient Africans used ostrich shell beads to pray. Islam uses prayer beads to recite the 99 names of God or related elements. Some Sikhs use prayer beads. Some Hindus and Buddhists use prayer beads. Some Anglicans, Lutherans Episcopalians and others use prayer beads. In early Christianity, the Desert Fathers would collect pebbles and use these pebbles to count prayers. Some prayer beads were found in the tombs of early Christian martyrs, and tradition attributes initial usage to St. Dominic (AD 1200s).
As for early practices in regard to Mary, Christians from the earliest of times realized that Mary should not be worshiped. However, as the woman who gave birth to and raised God himself, several hymns were made in her honor (the Egyptian Sub Tuum Praesidium is the earliest on record), as well as artwork and other such things. This is when the use of prayer beads came about. Now, when people think of the Rosary, they may think of the repetitious aspect of the Rosary (as with other parts of liturgy), but let us be reminded that Jesus himself prayed the same prayer multiple times (Matthew 26:44), the book of Daniel shows a prayer with "Bless the Lord" repeatedly used, several Psalms - used of course in Jewish liturgies (services) - have repeated phrases. I never tire of telling my Mom "I love you." Christians never seem to tire of repeating "Amen," Alleluia" or "Praise the Lord" in service.
Also, the prayers used in a common Rosary are scriptural in their basis. Jesus himself gave us the Our Father, the Hail Mary is made up of the words of Gabriel and Elizabeth from Dr. Luke's gospel, and the Glory Be is a praise of the Trinity based on early Christian doxologies (including those used by St. Paul in the New Testament). Prayer beads offer those who need such a thing a physical and tangible object to hold as we pray. It engages us sense-wise, in that while we are orally praying, we are also physically holding beads, which help us to stay focused instead of trailing off. Praying with beads is not intended to simply be a way of repeating prayers, but as a way to meditate. For those who know the words - just as when singing a worship song you know the words to, your mind drifts. So too is this purposed in the Rosary. It is not a prayer to Mary per se, but rather a meditation on the life of Christ. Our hands hold the beads, our words pour forth, and our heart and mind contemplate Christ.
Historically, the Hail Mary - as noted - is Scriptural. The first part of the Hail Mary is entirely the words of Gabriel and Elizabeth, and the only real changes or additions are the names of Mary and Jesus. But that is a non-issue. Then comes to second section of the Hail Mary - "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen." This second half was not part of the original Hail Mary, but added later in the sixteenth century. However, its origin is also scriptural. For example, "Mother of God" (Theotokos) sees its root in Elizabeth's proclamation about the "Mother of my Lord" (Luke 2). Also, having a believer pray for another believer is entirely Scriptural. If I ask you to pray for me, I should also be able to ask St. Francis to pray for me, and also Mary, and so forth.
These brief thoughts on Marian theology are ruminations on the doctrinal underpinnings which make up many high liturgical churches, including the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and others. But for any Christian, it is helpful to be mindful and be aware of our heritage, our theological tradition as well as theological insights the Christians throughout history can teach us. Further, the use of sacramentals such as prayer beads helps remind us that as most major religious traditions are connected, so too are we all connected like the beads we hold together in common.