“Mary Consoles Eve”
Sr. Grace Remington
Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey
Today, I’m co-blogging with a seminary friend and local pastor, Karen Slappey, about the painting “Eve Consoles Mary,” an Advent painting that we have been disagreeing about on Facebook, every Christmas, since 2013. Both of us are feminist and ex-evangelical, but approach this painting in very different ways. Today we’re both sharing why we love and hate it. You can find Karen’s piece on her blog here!
The first time I saw this picture, in 2013, I cried.
I printed out three copies of it, and made one of them into a wooden icon and hung it over my writing desk. Eve and Mary, next to the San Damiano cross (St. Francis’ cross) and Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity.
Four years later, and this picture still makes me cry a little bit.
I’ve heard a lot of women, included Karen, talk about their difficulties loving this piece. Reading Karen’s piece reminded me how differently we experience art, mythology, Scripture, our religious traditions, even women who all identify as feminist, or progressive, or theologically liberal.
I wrote three drafts of this article. The first draft focused on how fantastic and lovely it is to see the whole story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, as told between two women, and how sacred it is to see the story of God told without men. I still think that’s true. My second draft was more defensive, arguing that the piece is not inherently sexist, and I have a right to feel what I feel, that this piece matters. I think that’s true, too.
But I’ve come back to what I love most about this painting. I love it because it tells me things about sin and grace that touch me in a particular way. I also do love that it’s two women. I love the redemptive moment of Mary, reaching back into the past to touch her sister. I love that I am both Eve and Mary, always, at once.
But what I love most is the story of grace. For me, that story is raw.
I am a girl who is hyper aware of sin.
I notice when I’m bad. I notice when I fall short. I feel it in my body, a dull ache that throbs or sometimes hits quickly and sharply like the really bad period cramps that we got when we were teenagers. I am always cataloguing my sins, and trying to fix them with checklists and rules and “To Do” lists that will, hopefully, somehow, be able to rip out the deep roots of Sin that I can feel running through the dry dirt of my soul.
But pulling weeds out of dry dirt is hard. You rip the tops off of them, but the root system keeps its grip on the earth. All your frantic ripping doesn’t get rid of the pernicious spread of the weeds that choke out whatever holiness you are trying to grow. This is, obviously, a thankless task. But I don’t stop doing it, because I am so scared that if I stop trying to dig these roots out of the earth, the weeds will take over. I live in anxious vibration, carrying tension inside my body for every wrong step, false motive, unholy action.
Here’s what I see when I look at Eve.
I see that oh so terribly familiar “fuck, what have I done” posture. I see that exhaustion in her body. Hi, Eve. I know you. I’ve seen those weighed-down shoulders in my mirror before.
Her shoulders are low. Her head is bent. She can’t look up. She is naked, but she’s covering her body with her hair because now she’s not naked like she used to be when she was free. She’s naked, and now she’s ashamed of it. I am achingly sad for her, because I am achingly sad for myself. I know what it feels like to fuck up in a way that feels world-altering. I know how heavy shame can feel. I know how shame gets carried in our bodies and I sure as hell know what it is like to be naked in your shame and to know you’re naked, but not have any way to cover yourself.
Eve, my dearest. Eve, I know you.
My heart is hit hardest, though, by how she is still holding on to that goddamn apple. I almost want to scream at her. Eve! Let it go! Put it down! She’s holding it to her breast, a protective gesture, like you would hold a nursing child. She is nursing her sin, her failures, afraid to put them down, or maybe unable to put them down. I’ve been there, clutching my sin, because my sin feels like all I have left.
Eve! Put it DOWN!
Here is what I would tell Eve. Get a fucking grip, Eve. Make a list. Put down your sin. Get your shit together. Be better. Be more holy. Cut your goddamn moody, needy act, and put some pep into your step, and be better next time.
I know that I’d say that to Eve, because I say that to myself, pretty much every single day. I also say that, implicitly, explicitly, to people that I know and love, because I do not always know how to deal with sin, and because I try to deal with sin with grenades, and with bombs, and with weed killer.
But Mary doesn’t do that to Eve.
Mary is not ripping the apple out of Eve’s hand. Mary is not scolding. Mary is not using Eve for an object lesson (“through WOMEN came all the sin in this world, and also, EVE, the reason that I am GOING THROUGH THIS SHIT is because of YOUR bad choices MMKK?”). Mary doesn’t seem to be troubled or worried or bothered at all.
She’s comforting Eve with one hand, a hand on Eve’s cheek, no scolding or yelling. And not only does she not look worried, but Mary is smiling. It’s a smile that knows things. It’s a smile that isn’t afraid of how terribly Eve has fucked this one up.
Mary knows something else.
That ridiculous Christmas song that jars me every year – Mary, did you know? – is terrible not just because it’s silly and mansplainy and infantilizing Mary, but because the most wonderful thing about Mary is that she does know. She’s a co-conspirator in this Redemption plot, and she has said a holy yes to it. In this painting, Mary knows it all, too. Mary knows that Eve has broken something very beautiful. But Mary is not worried. Mary feels redemption in her body the same way that Eve feels shame in hers. Mary knows that it is going to be made not only OK, but right. My soul magnifies the Lord, she whispers to Eve. The rich he has sent away empty.
William Langland wrote in the 14th century, “All the wickedness in the world that man might work or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped into the sea.” Mary isn’t bothered by how large Eve’s sin was, because Mary knows that redemption is here, and it is an ocean of unquenchable love that all of the sins of the world can’t extinguish.
So while Eve still holds on to the apple as if holding on to it will save her, Mary places Eve’s hand on Mary’s own body. While Eve can’t even bring herself to make a move towards her own freedom, Mary takes Eve’s hand for her. While Eve’s body is heavy with shame, Mary doesn’t force her to give up anything she’s not ready to – she just invites her to touch what is new.
Go ahead, love. Hold on to the apple, if you must. But also – can I take your other hand? Can I show you something else? Put your other hand here, sister. You are carrying shame in your body, Eve, but I am carrying salvation in mine.
Mary is so intent on healing and saving her sister, it is a wonder that she is able to also crush Satan under her heel, but would you look at that. Without even looking down, Mary is also real casual like stepping on the Evil, as if it’s not even her number one priority these days but just something that’s got to be done. Hey, y’all. Before we head out, let’s crush this systemic evil. Let’s kill this snake.
It looks like Eve is the one clutching her sin, but Eve is also being clutched by sin. Sin is pervasive. When we are busy attacking individuals, we lose sight of the fact that while they might be clutching their sin in one hand, Evil is also wrapping its way around them. The cycles of abuse, the systems of violence – those are webs that undergird our society, systems that are broken, sin that is cultural and generational and deeper than one person’s choices. This is, perhaps, why Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Evil is always bigger than one person, and when we attack each other, we are ripping out the weeds at the top instead of getting it out at the roots.
Perhaps Mary is able to be so gentle with Eve because Mary hasn’t mistakenly traced the root of evil to Eve. Mary knows that her sister is just trapped in something bigger than herself. She knows that real evil isn’t in the human being next to her. She knows where the real evil is.
So without even deigning a second glance at the snake, Mary crushes it to death.
Maybe I love this picture so much because I know I am Eve, in this picture at least.
Maybe I love this picture so much because I want to learn to be Mary, too.
God calls us, us foolish silly humans, into the work of redeeming the world. People broke the world, but God is using people to redeem it, too. My soul magnifies the Lord!, Mary sings. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly!
Advent is not about how we were so terribly good and amazing, and so holy, and fought sin so profoundly and well, that God just had to come for us. Advent is not a story of good people winning over a skeptical, distant Deity. Advent is the story of people who would not let go of their sin, and God came for us anyway.
Advent is Eve, holding her sin. Advent is Mary, comforting her anyway.
So I will worry less about the fact that I am clutching my sin so tightly, because I will also be brave enough to let my other hand be guided to touch redemption.
And I will be gentle with myself and my sisters and brothers, and hold on to hope for the broken world, and I will sing a song of victory (my soul magnifies the Lord!) while I also crush evil right underneath my feet.
Because I am a keeper of sin, but I am also through Jesus Christ a keeper of Mary’s secret, and a witness to it, and partaker in it.
My soul magnifies the Lord!