Friday, April 6, 2012

The language of the paradox of Mary

“As a fish swims through the sea/ while the sea, is, in a certain sense, contained within the fish/ ah, what am I to think/ of what the writing of a thousand lifetimes could not explain?” – “The Dryness and the Rain”, Mewithoutyou

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Language is pretty complicated (hence the lyric included above). It’s certainly possible to understand a concept, or at least grasp its meaning, without being able to neatly explain to someone else the meaning of the concept at hand or define its consequences. Despite its shortcomings, language is the mode of communication that is most able to relay meaning.

Thus far, we have considered three important theological concepts of Mary, each of which is much more complicated than the language used in describing. First, there is the notion of Mary as the virgin who would “conceive a son and call him Immanuel” in accordance with the prophesy of Isaiah 7:14. There is also the concept of Mary as the new Eve inasmuch “as Eve believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel” (Tertullian, Chapter 17). And finally, there is Mary as Theotokos, the birth-giver of God.

These unique conceptions are all inherently contradictory, simply by virtue of what each claim asserts. In analyzing the implications arising as a result of the attributes of Mary according to these three teachings, it seems to become increasingly more and more difficult to provide an adequate explanation or justification that would help the early Christians understand Marian theology (and more specifically, Mary as Theotokos). This is especially evident when one considers the dialogue between Cyril and Nestorius, or the homilies preached by Proclus. However, despite the confusion that pervaded the early Christian community, there must have been some way to reconcile the dichotomies that these paradoxes of Mary as Theotokos presented. To simplify the question, how exactly can one explain that which is unable to be explained – that Mary, a mortal woman somehow contained that which could not be contained and had created all things?

This reconciliation process isn’t able to precisely articulate something that is so clearly paradoxical and mysterious and confounding; but rather, it is able to scratch the surface of the significance of what it means to assert that Mary was the birth-giver to God. It is through the deployment of carefully constructed language that the paradox of Mary as Theotokos is able to be expounded and explained. Like the lyric included above, the authors relied on the usage of language, particularly metaphor drawn from Scripture, in order to impart some sense of the meaning of Theotokos on the populace.

In “On the Holy Virgin Theotokos”, Proclus highlights the contrasts that exists within the paradox of the figure of Mary. He claims that the “present feast” – the nativity of Jesus Christ – is “both splendid and strange” for “the birth of a child has conquered the laws of nature.” (Homily 4) Likewise, Christ “bears all things, including the one who bore him.” (Homily 4) This mirrors Ephrem’s language.

Proclus’ language is effective in that it places the contrasting extremes of each paradox in the same discussion and convincing in that it follows a logical argumentative structure. More than that, though, it is able to elegantly describe the unbelievable with lyrical style. For instance, Proclus writes, “Heaven itself cannot contain him, and yet a womb did not restrict him.” (Homily 1) He adds, “He was born from a woman, God but not solely God, and man but not merely man, and by this birth what was once the door of sin was made the gate of salvation.” (Homily 1) Proclus is able to explain the nature of Mary and the nature of Jesus in his homilies.

However, this should not underscore the complex, confusing nature of the Incarnation. Language, in the case of the correspondence between Cyril and Nestorious is used in a precise manner in order to illuminate exactly what the church teachings are in order to combat heresy.

In his second letter to Nestorious, Cyril writes:
For he was not first begotten of the holy virgin, a man like us, and then the Word descended upon him; but from the very womb of his mother he was so united and then underwent begetting according to the flesh, making his own the begetting of his own flesh.
Here, Cyril makes a distinction between the humanity and divinity of Christ as it relates to the Incarnation. Mary as Theotokos depends on the Incarnation, and it is necessary that this distinction be illuminated.

Finally, in the Qur’an, Mary is portrayed not unlike the depiction of Mary presented in the Protoevangelium. However, in looking at the language at hand,  readers see that the Qur’an refutes the idea that Jesus is God. Rather, he is fully human, not unlike his mother Mary. He functions as a prophet. Therefore, Mary cannot be considered Theotokos.

“Let all contradiction now cease, and let us be enlightened by the teaching of the Scripture,” proclaims Proclus in his first homily from “On the Holy Virgin Theotokos.” This statement urges believers to terminate the debate on the matter of Mary’s role as birth-giver of God. However, it is only by looking at the nuances of the paradox of Mary as Theotokos that one can begin to glean insight into its implications. Undoubtedly, the idea that language is unable to fully explicate the meaning of the mysteries of faith is something that still resonates today. This inability to, through language, provide a complete understanding of the paradoxes of faith, especially in considering Marian teachings, presented a problem for the thinkers and teachers of the early church. It is precisely what that the lyricist of the song quoted above must have grappled with, even today. Though language may be inadequate to prompt complete understanding of Mary as Theotokos, it is a tool in which we can begin to understand the complexities this paradox presents. 



  1. Perhaps it is not language as such that is incapable of conveying the paradox, but rather language used as a tool of logic rather than metaphor. This is one of the things that I was trying to get across in class, but needed a bit more time to develop. You might enjoy looking at Peltomaa's discussion of how she reads the metaphors in the Akathistos hymn. As she puts it (p. 120), metaphor not a “transfer of meaning” but “a meaning born out of transfer": “For when a word or term is moved to a context where it does not belong and in which it becomes ‘strange,’ a meaning arises to which nothing in the dictionary corresponds.” This is the way that language is able to express things for which we have "no words." Does this help?


  2. LCM: Language certainly seems to fall short. But the contradictions of language are not restricted to “the mysteries of God.” In our readings we don’t get Lewis Carroll, but serious attempts to understand and reconcile all the loose ends that come with the condescension of God. The way I see it, the real difficulties are logical. These guys are absolutely bent on making the Virgin Birth and Incarnation logically consistent and sound. As you mention, this can look like squaring the circle, theologically. Still, it is quite impressive to read through the reconciliation process, and I think that you are exactly right that the problem of contradiction and even ineffability are dealt with through both logically structured arguments and the “poetic reason” of metaphor.

    If we think back to the Song of Songs, it may seem that language, uncoupled from strict logical demands, is precisely the medium to transport us to a place of knowledge (i.e., revelation).

    In the psychology of religion, “sonic driving” (like chanting, song, prayer) is discussed as a typical means for entering alternate states like trance. In these cases, the performance of the language, rather than its syllogistic precision, that makes it powerful. Could this be why we see the combination that you mention (together with the music discussed in earlier posts) in the development of Marian devotion?