On December 8th some year during my crabby adolescence, I decided that the Virgin Mary must have had a standby.
The date is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of obligation in the Roman Catholic Church. Raised Catholic by a strict Russian Orthodox mother (a background that proved useful to my doctorate in English), I had to attend mass to avoid committing a mortal sin. Reputedly hell would have been worse than having to walk into class late each year, a fate especially unfair considering that on their religious holidays the Jewish kids always got to stay home . . . even when the dates were not their own--oh, never mind.
The Feast celebrates St. Anne’s conception of Mary free of original sin. When I was growing up, no one was allowed specifically to discuss this particular miracle. The nuns at Sunday school would smile and refer to it as “Mary's day,” perhaps vowing secretly to accept martyrdom rather than explain further. As part of my special gripe, I actually listened to the annual sermons, in which the priests nicely conveyed the highly finessed meaning, so I managed to figure it out even though many other Catholics confused it with the Virgin Birth.
The idea was that unlike other embryos, Mary could not be tainted with original sin until born and baptized because she was destined to become the mother of Christ. She had to be completely pure from the get-go.
When the time came, God then sent an angel to proposition Mary. At this point the matter became interesting because the nuns insisted that Mary had free will: the angel didn't tell her that she would become the mother of God's son but asked if she would agree. (Herein lies an irony: the most venerated woman in human history was the one to whom God Himself offered reproductive choice.) I’m certain that the nuns were not latent feminists: rather their point was that good children don’t need to be threatened with hellfire because they choose freely to obey.
But hold on, thought my adolescent self—exactly who was Mary at that point? At what age were Jewish maidens betrothed? By this time I must have read Romeo and Juliet, because I couldn’t imagine her outside her teens, probably just into puberty, perhaps my own new age. Had God entrusted the entire history of Christianity to an adolescent girl?
If so, whatever had He been thinking?
"So-o-o-o like this gorgeous guy shows up with these like wings? . . . and he’s like, 'Do you want to be the mother of God?' and I'm like, 'Hel-lo-o . . . Now that I’m engaged to this cute guy who’s O.K. not like a doctor or lawyer but he does like have his own business and all, you’re saying that he has to take me out all preg?' But then I thought, ‘W-a-i-t a minute,’ and I’m like, ‘So if I do this, do I get to have wings like yours and fly wherever I want?’ and he’s like, ‘No, because artists will be like painting pictures and building statues of you and all, and if you have wings, people will like mistake you for an angel who's babysitting—but you do get to have like a halo.’ So I’m like, ‘No way—backlighting makes my face look fat; it’s wings or nothing,’ so he was like, ‘No.’"
[Translated into modern vernacular]
Had Mary declined this dubious proposition, God would have been stuck without a surrogate for the Savior, at least until He arranged the immaculate conception of another specimen and she matured sufficiently to be put to the test. But I decided that God had to be shrewder than that. He had probably created a standby for Mary, an equally unsullied girl whom the angel could fly off immediately to solicit if necessary.
Although unlike the titular understudy in the classic film All About Eve, this standby had no knowledge of a missed opportunity, let alone desire for fame, I chose that as her name. It seemed appropriate that like St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron of hopeless causes who is confused with Judas Iscariot, this sinless prospective substitute should be unfairly mistaken for her opposite, the Eve who committed original sin.
In my private mythology, when Eve the loser died and shot straight up to heaven, she finally learned about why she was especially welcome. There she spends eternity hearing the heavenly choirs sing Ave Mari-i-i—“I could have done that. Me. Eve. I was next in line. I would have made Him eat His veggies. Can we have a little Ave Eve here?"
St. Eve the Unknown, patron of all the spouses, secretaries, crews, nurses, ghostwriters, custodians, drivers, and others who are no less important for being unsung.
Copyright © 2008 by Janice M. Cauwels, Ph.D. All rights reserved.