Saint Irenaeus: Mary, Untier of Knots

Amongst the many interests of Pope Francis’ that have come to light during the past few months of media scrutiny, one that seems to be particularly close to the Pope’s heart is his devotion to Mary, Untier of Knots. Whilst studying in Augsburg, Germany during the 1980’s, he saw a painting of the Blessed Virgin untying knots in a long strip of fabric, whilst standing with her foot on the head of a knotted snake (c.f.; Genesis 3:15). He then discovered the devotion and chaplet inspired by the image, and introduced them to Argentina, after which it became very popular and spread to Brazil.

The essence of the devotion is that of appealing to Mary’s intercession for help in unravelling the ‘knots’ in our lives – the stubborn complications and frustrations, big or small, that assail us all (e.g.; the conversion of someone who seemingly would be the last person to come into the Church, the reconciliation of family members set against one another in bitter enmity, etc). This appeal, and the original image itself, are themselves based upon the reflections of Saint Irenaeus, who in his second-century work Adversus Haereses (‘Against Heresies’) was one of the first to develop a consistent Mariology, based upon the recognition that as Jesus Christ is the New Adam, so is Mary the New Eve. In making this comparison, Irenaeus was able to reflect on the significance of our Blessed Mother’s faith and obedience, and their importance in salvation history. It is in the following passage that the ‘untying’ which inspired the painting is mentioned:

In accordance with this design, Mary the Virgin is found obedient, saying, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word (Luke 1:38). But Eve was disobedient; for she did not obey when as yet she was a virgin. And even as she, having indeed a husband, Adam, but being nevertheless as yet a virgin (for in Paradise they were both naked, and were not ashamed, (Genesis 2:25) inasmuch as they, having been created a short time previously, had no understanding of the procreation of children: for it was necessary that they should first come to adult age, and then multiply from that time onward), having become disobedient, was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race; so also did Mary, having a man betrothed [to her], and being nevertheless a virgin, by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race. And on this account does the law term a woman betrothed to a man, the wife of him who had betrothed her, although she was as yet a virgin; thus indicating the back-reference from Mary to Eve, because what is joined together could not otherwise be put asunder than by inversion of the process by which these bonds of union had arisen; so that the former ties be cancelled by the latter, that the latter may set the former again at liberty. And it has, in fact, happened that the first compact looses from the second tie, but that the second tie takes the position of the first which has been cancelled. For this reason did the Lord declare that the first should in truth be last, and the last first (Matthew 19:30, Matthew 20:16). And the prophet, too, indicates the same, saying, instead of fathers, children have been born unto you. For the Lord, having been born the First-begotten of the dead, (Revelation 1:5) and receiving into His bosom the ancient fathers, has regenerated them into the life of God, He having been made Himself the beginning of those that live, as Adam became the beginning of those who die (1 Corinthians 15:20-22). Wherefore also Luke, commencing the genealogy with the Lord, carried it back to Adam, indicating that it was He who regenerated them into the Gospel of life, and not they Him. And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.

from Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 22.

            Thus we see that when we appeal to the prayers of our Blessed Mother, we are appealing to one who not only has lived in full accordance with the grace given to her, as have all the saints, but one whose faith was so pure, so completely untarnished by self-interest or conflicted desires, that she could offer her whole self to God in loving trust and obedience. It is this quality of Mary’s, known and enabled before all ages in the wise Providence of God, that set her apart from all other created beings, so that she could be the one to bear the Word of God within her. When we pray to her, and ask for her to recommend our prayers to God, we can be sure that all knots in our intentions have been untied and flattened out, and as we reflect on her fiat now in the last days of Advent, we can wonder and admire at the power that a pure faith and a wholly selfless love has – the power to bear the light of Christ into the world.

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