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Published Date: November 16, 2022

Published Date: November 16, 2022

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“The Serpent Has Suffocated in a Woman”: Eve and Mary in the Liturgical Songs of Hildegard of Bingen

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2022 Writing Contest Top 5 Winner!

If, because of the one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Romans 5:17 NRSVue

Romans 5 draws a clear link between Eden and the incarnation. In Hildegard of Bingen’s liturgical songs, she also forms parallels between Eden and the incarnation, but she uses different characters. She focuses on Eve and Mary. Where our English translations say something to the effect of through one man sin entered the world and through one man life entered the world, Hildegard draws an implied link between Eden and the incarnation to say through one woman sin entered the world and through one woman life entered the world. My point is not to over-gender these verses or say something the original texts do not say, but to draw out ancient insights from a medieval abbess and theologian.

Before reading Hildegard of Bingen, I read Romans 5 as exclusively talking about Adam and Christ. I still view this chapter as talking about the corruption of humanity in Eden and the restoration of life in Christ, yet reading the liturgical songs of Hildegard of Bingen has helped me see how some of her theological insights on Eve and Mary interact with Romans 5 and what happens when we bring our modern assumptions about the two women into Hildegard’s liturgical songs. Hildegard’s reflections are helpful and devotional in nature when we read her songs as testament to the power of God in using the humblest of servants to accomplish miraculous things.

Eve and Mary in Hildegard of Bingen’s Liturgical Songs

Hildegard includes several antiphons in her liturgical songs.1 An antiphon refers to a short chant that is read or sung in Christian liturgy. Hildegard praises Mary more than most Protestants and evangelicals might be comfortable with, yet she always returns to the power of God in empowering Mary to give life to the one who would defeat death. In Antiphon 5, she addresses Mary:

The fountain from the heart of the Father
Has streamed into you:
His own unique Word
Through which he created the primordial matter of the world

Right after this, she mentions Eve, saying Eve “overturned” this glorious work “like a whirlwind. In Antiphon 6, she directly links what happened in Eden to the role of Mary in the plan of restoration:

Because the Serpent has suffocated in a woman.
Thus the flower of the Virgin Mary
Radiates illuminated in the first red of daybreak.

Hildegard’s prose is deeply poetic as she references Eden, the incarnation, Christ, Mary, and the resurrection. Her next sentence is perhaps the thesis of her writing in these songs:

Because a woman instituted death;
The clear Virgin has abolished it
(Antiphon 7)

Hildegard’s link between the sin of a woman in the garden and the agency of a woman in bringing life to a dying world is insightful. She is not saying Mary alone abolished death, nor do I believe she is saying Mary “redeemed” womanhood.

Viewing Eve as what not to be as a woman, and Mary as the perfect model of “womanhood,” is far too narrow a vision for female image-bearers and not at all what the Bible suggests. It does not tell the whole story. Many in the church point to the Genesis narrative as proof that women are more easily deceived than men. How many times have we heard from the pulpit, “There’s a reason the serpent targeted Eve”? Hildegard’s songs have helped me see more clearly that God chooses a woman to bring the Son of God into the world to save the world—men and women—from the deception and vices of the devil.

Does Hildegard of Bingen Empower Women?

It’s interesting that Hildegard herself does not hold the view that Eve was deceived just as any other person might have been. Here she aligns with the church figures who point to Eve as proof that women are weaker and more easily deceived. Medieval German scholar Rebecca Garber paraphrases Hildegard’s view of the deception of Eve, saying, “Eve yielded to the serpent’s seductions not out of willfulness or pride but because of her softer nature.”2

In Hildegard’s Scivias, she writes that women are by nature weaker and subordinate to men—not that they have a gender role to play—but that women are unavoidably weaker and subordinate.3 As much as I want Hildegard to be this empowering female figure who tears down the notion that women are inherently subordinate by appealing to Mary’s role in the incarnation, this does not appear to be her intent. However, I also doubt her intent was to paint motherhood as the ideal for women by drawing on God’s use of Mary in this way. She was an abbess, and her community of women was committed to celibacy. Motherhood was a vocation but not the only one and not above the others.

Hildegard was a product of her time regarding her subordinate view of women and yet, in many ways, she was ahead of her time in her writing and teaching roles—even going on preaching tours.

Wonderment as a Form of Empowerment

Part of the reason why Hildegard constantly marvels at how God uses Mary in the incarnation is because she saw herself and other women as the weaker, subordinate, softer sex. “If God can use Mary—a woman—he can use anyone,” I almost hear her say. Hildegard marvels:

[I]nto the humble form of a woman
The King entered.
God did this
Because humility rises above everything.
(Antiphon 11)

There is symbolism here but not prescriptive womanhood. Mary does not humble herself because of her gender. Hildegard might make the argument that by nature women are images of humility, hence her awe of Mary—but then would that not make women closer imitators of Christ? All Christians are to imitate the humility of Christ (Phil. 2).

Hildegard helps us see the great significance of Christ entering the world through a woman. This shows us once again that the economy of God is different from the economy of our world. God exalts the humble and uses those who make themselves available—women and men—for miraculous purposes.

The Son of God, Born of a Woman

Hildegard’s songs create a rhythm of reversals in the stories of Eve and Mary that mirrors Romans 5. Eve brought sin but Mary brought life. Yet Eve was not death and sin personified, and Mary was not everlasting life and salvation personified. The Serpent and Christ are the agents here. Hildegard admires Mary because God chose her to carry the one who would bring everlasting life and salvation:

[T]he highest Word
In you took on flesh.
. . . your body contained joy . . .
. . . Virgin, you carried the son of God
(Hymn 12)

The last phrase from the excerpt of this hymn is a powerful one. No one in first-century Nazareth would have expected that God would choose a woman to bring the long-awaited Word into the world after 400 years of silence. It is true that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). The Son of God was born of a woman, after nine months of morning sickness, aches, and pain. In giving life, Mary broke her body and gave herself for food to the one who would give the same for her. Redemption was already in motion, “for the serpent has suffocated in a woman” (Antiphon 6).

Photo by Samia Liamani on Unsplash.

Notes:

[1] References to the antiphons and hymns drawn from the translation of Barbara L. Grant in Elizabeth Petroff, Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature (New York: Oxford University, 1986), 157–158.

[2] Rebecca L. R. Garber, “Where Is the Body?: Images of Eve and Mary in the Scivias” in Hildegard of Bingen: A Book of Essays, ed. Maud Burnett McInerney (New York: Garland, 1998), 103–32, quoted in Amanda Joyce Benckhuysen, The Gospel According to Eve: A History of Women’s Interpretation (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2019), 21.

[3] Hildegard von Bingen, Scivias, bk. 1, vision 2, http://www.columbia.edu/itc/english/f2003/client_edit/documents/scivias.html.


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