The word for the day is “simplicity.” In our reading of 2 Cor. 11:1-6, St. Paul expresses his concern about the false preachers in Corinth. He worries that their subtle arguments will deceive his flock. He writes, “But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ (vs. 3).
In this season of the Nativity Fast (Advent), we prepare for the Incarnation of the Son of God. When the angel appeared to the Virgin Mary, and she consented to become the Mother of God, she became the “New Eve” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, 19, p. 130).
The Opposites of Subtlety and Simplicity
As the early church father Irenaeus taught, by her disobedience to the Lord’s command, the first Eve “gave birth” to the sin and corruption of the human race. But by her obedience, the second Eve, the Virgin, gave birth to the Son of God, who brought redemption and immortality to the human race.
The difference between the two mothers of humanity has to do with the opposites of subtlety and simplicity. In today’s reading, Paul writes that the devil deceived Eve with his “craftiness.” The writer of Genesis introduces the story of the fall of humankind with the description of the serpent who was “more cunning than all the wild animals” (Genesis 3:1). The Septuagint (Greek New Testament) describes the serpent with the Greek word that refers to practical wisdom. Yet, in this case, it connotes that this shrewdness has an evil intent. For his part, the Apostle uses a word that refers to trickery for devious purposes: subtlety. For example, in the story of the fall of humankind, the devil disguises his temptation in the form of a clever question (Genesis 3:1 ff): “Has God indeed said…?” (Genesis 3:1). And then he twists the answer to impugn the motives of God for his command. The serpent thus plants doubt in the mind of the “Mother of the Living.” With the eyes of that mistrust, she now sees that the fruit of the tree looks irresistibly delicious (Genesis 3:6).
The Simplicity of the Mother of God
On the other hand, Luke’s account of the angel’s visitation to Mary has the opposite tone of simplicity. Mary is a virgin, pure and innocent. Luke says that this young woman was “troubled” by the angel’s greeting. She “considered” what it meant (OSB Luke 1:29). That is, the salutation of the angel disturbed her peaceful state of mind (Strong’s #1298, 67). As she pondered what it meant, she was unsettled (Strong’s #1260, 66). When the angel went on, Mary listened to the astonishing news that she would conceive the Son of God.
Furthermore, she heard that her offspring would fulfill God’s promise to send a successor to the great King David. This royal ruler would reign over the People of God in an everlasting Kingdom (Luke 1:32-33). How does the Virgin Mary respond to this announcement of the most important message yet given? She answers with a simple and practical question, “How can this be…?” (Luke 1:34).
As the story goes on, the angel discloses the Mystery of the Incarnation. Gabriel points to the sign that all that he has spoken will take place. Once barren, Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, is now in her sixth month of pregnancy. Mary’s response is testimony to her humility as she says, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). And then she gives herself to the will of God in a simple, direct statement of faith, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:39). No questions, no argument, no mistrust. Just humble and modest obedience.
The Virtues of Obedience and Simplicity
Above all, from the Mother of God, we learn obedience and simplicity. These virtues are reliable defenses against temptation. As we see in the story of the fall, temptation is rarely blatant and obvious. We know it by its subtlety. As Paul suggests, by cleverness and deceit, the devil sows the tiniest, most subtle seeds of confusion. Confusion leads to mistrust of God’s graciousness. Mistrust of God’s goodness leads to overt temptation. As it flowers into fruit that is delightful to the eyes, temptation becomes overt sin. And finally, sin excuses itself with rationalization.
Simplicity is the antidote to the turmoil of our times. When we surround ourselves with complexity, we subject ourselves to sources of confusion. As we become involved in complications, we no longer see the straight and narrow path of righteousness ahead of us. We view different and divergent roads of enticing possibilities and potentials. But these highways of the world lead us away from following in the footsteps of Christ. They take us off the trail of the cross that He cleared the way for us.
In the person of the Mother of God, we hear a divine call. It is for us to turn from our complex lifestyles. By following her example, we can take the way of the “simplicity that Paul says is “in Christ (vs. 3). This Nativity Fast is a good time to answer that call and take that path.
Here is a passage from St. Porphyrios, Wounded by Love:
“The whole secret lies in simplicity and meekness. When simplicity is lacking, and you say, ‘I’ll do this, that, and the other, and God will give me what I ask for,’ then nothing happens. Yes, indeed, I should do this, that and the other, but with such secrecy and such simplicity and such meekness that even I who ask for the thing am unconscious of it.
[Therefore] Don’t say, ‘I’ll do this in order to have that result,’ but do it naturally, without taking cognizance of it. That is, pray simply and don’t think about what God will bestow on your soul. Goodheartedness and simplicity attract the grace of God. They are preconditions for God to come and make his abode with us” (Porphyrios 2005, 138-39).