Adam and His Slumbers

So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; 22 and the rib which the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. (Gen 2:21-22)

But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. 35 He who saw it has borne witness--his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth--that you also may believe. (Jn 19:34-35)

Today's post is by a great exegete, Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P. He, in turn, is commenting on the work of another noted theologian, Fr. Jean Danielou, S.J. who is, in turn, commenting on the Fathers.

Adam and especially the sleep of Adam - that is, the sleep during which Eve was drawn from the side of our protoparent, the first man. Saint Hilary of Poitiers, sometimes called "the Athanasius of the West," writing in the fourth century, in his Tractate on the Mysteries says that all the outstanding persons and leading events of Scripture can be considered both stages preparing the mystery and also rough outlines prefiguring the mystery that is one day to be fulfilled in Christ. He calls them sacramenta, signs, as the sacraments of the Church are signs. And of these, he goes on, the very first to be mentioned is "the sleep of Adam." The thinking is that, just as Eve, Mother of all the living, was drawn by God from Adam's side, so the Church, the Mother of all the supernaturally living came forth from the side of Christ as he slept on the cross - namely, through the blood and water that flowed from his opened heart when he died, according to the testimony of Saint John’s Gospel (19:34-35)

The Letters of Saint Paul, and especially the Letter to the Romans, already make the point that Adam, the Head of the old humanity, is a type of Jesus Christ, who is Head of the new. (“Lovely Like Jerusalem,” Aidan Nichols, O.P., Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, 2007, pp 176-7)

Fr. Nichols here introduces us to a typology where Jesus’ death is a kind of sleep, similar to when Adam slept. The opening of Christ’s side by the lance was prefigured by the opening of Adam’s side by God. In both instances, something came out, something we recognize as a maternal source of life. The former was the mother of biological life (Greek: bios); the later the mother of supernatural life (Greek: zoe).

What the Fathers do, then, is to take this Adam-Christ typology, with its combined likeness and difference, one step – or more than one step – further. Here is how Danielou presents the key text from Saint Hilary. “Eve, born of Adam’s flesh [is a type of] the Church born of the Word made flesh, since it is first from the pierced side of Christ, sleeping on the cross, as from the pierced side of Adam, that blood and water flowed out, symbols of Baptism and the Eucharist, giving birth and life to the Church – and this continuation of life is continued by the sacramental life, through which the flesh of Christ received in communion continues to sanctify the Church.” “This theme,” explains Danielou, “is at once Christological and sacramental:” here we have “the mystery of Christ himself, prefiguring the mysterious bond between his passion and the birth of the Church.” (1) Danielou emphasizes that this is not simply an imaginative insight on the part of some individual – and therefore possibly isolated – theologian. It is found in Tertullian, in North Africa; in Saint Methodius of Olympus, in Greece; in Gregory of Elvira (near Grenada), in Spain; in Saint Zeno of Verona in Northern Italy: four writers who between them span the whole of the period from the subapostolic age to the Council of Nicaea and the entire Mediterranean world where the Church came to birth.

Saint Zeno’s account is especially rich because it brings “the sleep of Christ” theme into connection with other aspects of the Adam-Christ, Eve-Church typology. He writes:

As the devil by his plausibility had found a way into the ear of Eve, inflicting a deadly wound, so Christ, entering the ear of Mary, brushes away all the heart’s vices and heals the woman by being born of the Virgin. Adam is circumcised on the Lord’s cross, and as it was through a woman who alone had touched the deadly tree that both the sexes had found death, so in an inverse fashion by this man who hung on a tree the whole human race had been redeemed. And lest the beginning should fail to appear as totally restored to its earlier condition, man on the cross is first offered [in sacrifice] but then during that blessed sleep his side is pierced by a lance. Yet it is not a rib that is removed, but through water and blood, signifying Baptism and martyrdom, the spiritual body of a spiritual woman issues forth in such a way that while Adam is renewed by Christ, Eve is renewed by the Church. (2)

Here we are listening to the authentic sacramental catechesis of the teaching Church, the teaching given, especially at Christian initiation, not just to inform people about Christian doctrine, but to insert them into the Christian life in depth. It is, we can say, mystagogical teaching, teaching that is aimed at profound spiritual initiation. (ibid, pp 178-180)

Fr. Nichols here emphasizes that this exegesis is not so much catechetical as it is mystagogical. Understanding the anagogical meaning in Scripture, in Christ’s passion, develops my soul more than it does my mind. He finishes his topic:

We saw how the messianic hope, sensu lato (“broadly conceived”), includes among its intrinsic aspects a return to Paradise. The baptismal life is – we hardened folk of the storm-tossed Church of the early twenty-first century may be surprised to hear – the paradisal life. As Saint Gregory of Nyssa tells the catechumens: “You are outside Paradise, catechumen, as sharing in the exile of Adam our first parent. But now that the gate has been opened once more, enter in again.” (3) (ibid pp180-1)

This simple act of St. Longinus (that’s the soldier’s name from tradition) piercing Jesus’ side with a lance is packed with meaning. The Garden, the Fall, Paradise, the sacraments – all of the basic elements of the Christian Faith – are all intimately tied to the Passion of Christ. It is no wonder that St. John, after writing an entire book about the miracles of Jesus, mentions this particular episode with such emphasis, as if it’s a more amazing thing than anything else he’s mentioned so far; he basically swears himself as a witness to its truth, because it's so amazing that it's hardly even believable. We Christians enter into this mystery, contemplating this amazing truth, leading us deeper into the Lord.


(1) J. Danielou, From Shadow to Reality: Studies in the Biblical Typology of the Fathers (London, 1960), pp. 52-53, with reference to St. Hilary of Poitiers, Tractate on the Mysteries, I.3. (back)
(2) St. Zeno of Verona, Tractates, I.13; translation modified. (back)
(3) St. Gregory of Nyssa, On Baptism, (Migne, PG 46:418c).