Thursday, April 5, 2012

Mary as a Container and Mary as a Bridge

Yesterday in class we spoke about the many images Proclus uses to identify and define Mary within his homilies.  I want to examine the type of these images in which Mary is described as a door or gate as compared with those that define her as a container.  There are examples of the notion of Mary as both a gate and a container throughout Proclus’ homilies but I will look into just a few key examples and discuss some questions raised by this identification.

The container images used to describe Mary seem to place her in a completely different position than those that identify her as a gate.  Throughout this selection of homilies she is called the “container of the uncontainable.”  Proclus overwhelms his listeners with the idea of Mary being a container chosen by God to hold “The Word” which by his own definition is “the one whom (creation) cannot contain” (Homily 4, 18-19).  She is “the untarnished vessel of virginity,” (Homily 1, 16), and she is referred to as the womb, belly, or field in which God “sprouted,” (Homily 1, 57-60), she possesses the “womb of a virgin wider than creation” (Homily 4, 17-18), “Mary is venerated for she became a mother, a servant, a cloud, a bridal chamber, and the ark of the Lord” (Homily 5, 98-100).

Forgetting for a moment the obvious paradox created by Mary as a container of the Word and focusing on Mary’s position in this divine plan as such, certain questions as to Mary’s agency and importance become apparent.  As a container, she is merely the fertile ground or safe harbor in which God chose to store himself as he became incarnate with what seems like very little action on her part.  In this case, Mary appears stationary and to a certain degree dehumanized by all these references to her as inanimate objects.  She is no longer an individual but a “garden” or simply a “womb” that serves as the temporary house of the Word.  It is stated in Homily 1 that God “was not defiled by dwelling in places which he himself had created without dishonor,” (Homily 1, 42-43) indicating that Mary was created by God for the express purpose of being the container.  This coupled with the description of Gabriel “who brought glad tidings to Mary” (Homily 1, 82) not a question or an offer, seems to suggest the notion that she had very little choice when it came to her place in the incarnation nor did she contribute much effort.  In this image, God both creates and chooses Mary to be his vessel, which makes me wonder to what degree Mary as a container had any agency in this process.

In comparison, the few mentions of Mary as a gate or door seem to ascribe her a much greater importance and power within this event of God’s incarnation.  In Homily 1, she is called the “only bridge for God to mankind” (Homily 1, 24).  At the most superficial level the word choice seems to imply that Mary possesses unique qualities.  Proclus could have chosen to say that she was “a” bridge for God but instead he specifically chose to say the word “only.”  This supports the conclusion that Mary was the one human who could have served as the pathway for the Word to become incarnate in a human form.  This image is very popular in the Akathistos Hymn in which she is called the “celestial ladder” and “the bridge leading from earth to heaven” (Akathistos, 10-11) suggesting that it may have been more popular in a different time or situation.

The notion of Mary as the second Eve that was discussed last class also appears in these homilies in references to both Paradise and Adam along with more direct comparisons to Eve herself, “and by his birth what was once the door of sin was made the gate of salvation” (Homily 1, 139).  These works appear to maintain many of the points determined in the last class citing Mary as the antithesis of Eve; obedient where Eve was rebellious, chaste in situations in which Eve was lead astray etc.  Yet, Proclus seems to expand on this concept further by attributing a spiritual power to these two women.  It is not merely the decisions of Eve and Mary that determined the course of humanity but their actual essences.  Each stands as an essential spiritual doorway or mediator connecting the humanity with the divine.  One does it through the whispers of the serpent and the other through the words of God.  Eve introduces death and destruction into creation by being the method by which Lucifer gained a foothold, while Mary was the way of salvation by being the bridge that the Word used to enter the human realm and become incarnate.

Can Mary be both a container and a doorway?  Is this just another in the long line of paradoxes embraced by Proclus in reference to Mary and if so what is its purpose?  Does it merely add to the mystery or miraculous nature of the divine birth or is he combining multiple interpretations?  Whatever the answers are to these questions it appears to me that Proclus’ reference to Mary as a doorway imbues her with a greater measure of power and agency in the divine scheme of incarnation. In my opinion, this idea of Mary as the gateway makes her more integral to the incarnation because she is the necessary human link that allows the divine Word to push his way into humanity.  She plays an active role in this notion of the Word’s entrance to the world and appears to be granted a spiritual power that makes her unique among her peers.  As the doorway, Mary becomes an essential and, to a certain degree, divine member of the incarnation, which according to my understanding makes her more worthy of the “Theotokos” title. 



  1. I thought your point was interesting that the imagery of Mary as a container coupled with the Annunciation gave the impression that “she had very little choice when it came to her place in the incarnation nor did she contribute much effort.” While this may sound like a negative thing, in Ephrem’s hymns, he seems to think that her lack of action contributes to her holiness and uniqueness. “Blessed is Mary for, without her asking, You dwelt in her womb chastely” (Hymn 8, 14). While “Sarah sang lullabyes” (Hymn 8, 13), “Rachel cried out to her husband” (Hymn 8, 14), and “Anna with bitter sobs asked for a child” (Hymn 8, 15), as well as Rebekah and Elizabeth, “Blessed is Mary, who without vows and without prayer, in her virginity conceived and brought forth the Lord” (Hymn 8, 16). What makes Mary stand out as blessed is exactly that she did not ask for a child. Perhaps this implies that it is exactly her willingness to accept the task of containing the uncontainable, especially without asking for it, that makes her so special.


  2. You have hit here on a difficulty that many recent critics have had with the imagery of Mary as a container: containers seem to us so passive (and, in our throw-away culture, often disposable). But is it truly passive to contain something? Think about the effort that it takes to carry a child inside of you: the child may be growing all by itself, but the carrying is hardly neutral for the mother. And then think about what it might have meant to carry the Creator of everything! Containers, in fact, do a great deal of work: they protect what they contain, they keep it from spilling out, they create the space in which something can be contained. I think that you are right to wonder about the juxtaposition of types of metaphor (ways vs. containers), but I am not sure that passivity is necessarily what is at stake here.


  3. P.S. Although I should say, too, that I very much enjoyed how carefully you were thinking about both species of metaphor! RLFB

  4. This is an interesting device by which to examine different “tenors” of Mary as the mother of Christ. I do think that Mary is depicted with a range of attitudes in the different representations we have read (though not a broad as the different depictions of Jesus–from meek and mild to killing a playmate). While I do see your distinction between Mary as passive and Mary as agentive in the different representations, I’m not sure that I see this distinction neatly reflected in the container and bridge/gateway metaphors. Is a bridge or a gateway less passive than a container? In both cases, I see the spatial metaphors as intended to communicate the idea of a portal between two qualitatively different worlds.

    However, I do think that you have picked up on the preoccupation of Proclus to represent an agentive Mary. In two different places in Homily 5, Mary is an active figure in the Incarnation in that “she alone admitted [Christ] into the bridal chamber of her womb.” In response to your question “Can Mary be both a container and a doorway?,” this may be an image that combines the two metaphors of container and bridge.

    Do these two types of spaces (container vs. bridge/gate) correspond to the physiology of gestation and birth?

  5. MAM, in your paragraph outlining Mary’s role as a container ("womb", "garden") for the Word, you suggest that this connotation is a static, passive role that is devoid of any choice. Further, you say that when the angel Gabriel brought the glad tidings to Mary that she was to bear the Son of God, he did not do so as a ‘question or an offer’. This, I believe, is ungrounded for a couple of reasons. The first is related to our previous discussions on Mary as the new Eve. Distinguishing the two, there is the element of obedience and disobedience. Eve disobeyed by adhering to the words of the serpent. This disobedience was a choice, given the fact that Eve was commanded to act otherwise. The breaking of this command involves agency. On the other hand, Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s glad tidings should be taken in context with Zechariah’s unbelief at the angel’s message that Elizabeth was to bear a son despite her old age (Lk: 1). Zechariah made a choice in not believing, whilst Mary made a choice by believing the news that she would bear a most holy son despite her being a virgin; Mary’s famous response “may it be it done unto me according to your word” testifies to this (Lk: 1, 38). In this scriptural context, and given the fact that Mary is believed to have been aware of the potential slanders and danger of conceiving while yet a virgin, one can argue that Mary in fact made a monumental choice, and that the role as a dwelling place of the Word was not, in fact, shoved on her.