Thursday, April 5, 2012


Weaving is a prominent motif in the readings we did for class yesterday, but especially in Proclus’ homilies.  Proclus explains that Mary’s womb is the “awesome loom of the divine economy upon which the robe of union was ineffably woven” (Homily 1, I).  In class, we mentioned a few Biblical references this image could be recalling.  Perhaps it refers to the apocryphal account of Mary weaving the veil of the Temple when she was pregnant with Jesus.  Perhaps it hearkens to the seamless tunic of Psalm 22:18.  It could even be referring to the shining raiment of Jesus at the moment of the Transformation, when his humanity was glorified and his divinity and power acknowledged by the voice of God.  This discussion prompted me to think about other recurrences of clothing in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, that might give further insight to this paradox.

Looking at the weaving of Mary, especially after studying her as the New Eve, immediately suggests a comparison with Adam and Eve’s creation of clothing for themselves after they have sinned against God.  By providing a place for the Holy Spirit to weave a new cloth of both divine and human thread in her womb, Mary, as the New Eve, prepares a garment that does not hide the shame of nakedness of humans and cause them to hide from God, but that celebrates the Creator who humbled Himself to enter into His creation and offer Himself up to the wrath demanded by Divine Justice.  The flesh of Christ becomes the flesh of redemption because it is through the suffering endured by the Word incarnate that salvation for all creation is achieved.

Mary is also the redeemed Delilah – instead of weaving in order to find the secret of God-given power of her lover, she weaves in cooperation with the Holy Spirit to celebrate the mystery of the God-head’s strength and become his ever-virgin bride.

Perhaps a bit more indirectly, the weaving within Mary’s womb might also be prefigured in the coat of many colors that was given to Joseph, the favored son of the patriarch Jacob.  The coat was the source of jealously among Joseph’s brothers, so when they decided to throw him into the pit and then sell him to the Midianites, they first tore his coat from him, as a symbol of their power over him.  While the coat did not in itself impute any particular power to Joseph, it was a symbol of the love of his father.  In a similar manner, perhaps Jesus felt that he, a mysteriously woven garment, had been torn from its right place when he cried from the cross, “Father, why have You forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:36).  The beautiful cloak, his Being, had been torn and covered with blood, just as the brothers of Joseph soaked the coat in blood when they presented it to their father, claiming that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal, becoming a symbol of suffering with little hope for redemption.  Similarly, the Jews thought that Jesus had been killed and his following stifled.  This was certainly not the case.

There is another scenario that involves Joseph and clothing as well.  When he was serving Potiphar, an Egyptian general, Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him.  Joseph refused and escaped, but the woman kept his cloak and later accused him of defiling her.  Joseph was then thrown into prison, even though he was innocent.  Even though Jesus was fully divine, he was also fully human and therefore he was tempted to sin just as we are.  However, he resisted temptation and is sinless, just like Joseph did and was (in this scenario).  The cloak being torn from Joseph signifies the struggle with which he escaped from temptation, just as Jesus, without sin, was stripped of his flesh and dignity yet did not save Himself from the cruelty of flogging by the soldiers.  In neither case does the loss of the garment change the facts of the matter—the identity and innocence of the victim—rather the accidentals of being able to incriminate the men by the casting of the cloak and the death of the body were enough to convince their respective accusers of their claims’ justice. 

The two accounts of Joseph are rather difficult to consider through this lens, since the parallel with Christ is not exact.  Indeed, the similarities are very interesting, but they do not most accurately describe the reality of the cloth-making described by Proclus.  Indeed, the intricate unity of the human and divine elements of this cloth are more of the sense that Christ’s Being in itself is the Garment, as opposed to a suit of flesh that Christ envelopes himself with.  With this understanding, attributing a Messianic interpretation to Job 29:14 (“I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban) is misleading.  Christ himself is righteousness and justice by virtue of the fact that he is fully God as well as fully man.  He is not a man who was elevated to God via a costume change.

Considering the role of clothing in the Last Supper tale is also very interesting in this context.  In the Gospel of John, when Jesus and the disciples are gathered in the upper room, Jesus is said to take off his outer garment and then wash the feet of his disciples, giving them an example of the service they are to perform for others and thereby fully revealing his intentions for their mission.  By subjecting himself to servant-hood in the removal of the outer garment, he does not change in his nature; just as he subjected his God-head to human-ness, so was he able to humble himself to service.  It was just as much the nature of God washing the feet of the disciples as it was the nature of the human Jesus.  Because of Mary’s humility, her womb was deemed worthy to be the place of the weaving of a unique, shocking, and paradoxical Garment that though “being in the very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (Philippians 4:6).

By Mary’s assent to the angel’s message, she is given the honor and duty of weaving the not only the robes of the High Priest prescribed in Exodus 28:39, but also the High Priest Himself, while she simultaneously weaves the Offering that will gain salvation for the whole world.  Indeed, more is completed in Mary’s womb than what God created in the womb of Job’s mother (Job asks “[did you not] clothe me with skin and flesh and knit me together with bones and sinews?” Job 10:11).  In Mary was the “taking the flesh of an ancient race, without the help, however, of the ancient seed, in order that He might reform it with a new seed, that is, in a spiritual manner, and cleanse it by the removal of all its ancient stains” (Tertullian).  Thus is formed a tapestry of both mortal Davidic and everlasting Divine threads that can will to suffer for the salvation of the world.



  1. If ever there were a proof of the power of this metaphor for exploring the paradox of the Incarnation, you have given it! Wonderful attention to the possibilities of interpretation suggested by Proclus' imagery of the loom! I particularly liked your reading of Joseph's many-colored coat and of the cloak taken from him by the wife of Potiphar. Even if they do not seem to match the circumstances of the Incarnation exactly, your reading shows beautifully how we can use these images as vehicles for thinking further about what the Incarnation meant.


  2. SMTB: Yes, great extension of the analogy to the clothing of Adam and Eve. The parallels here with the Garden of Eden story are so rich and evocative–they are, after all, both originary in nature (i.e., their elements and structures are made culturally productive). Your other examples are similarly insightful, and show both what Professor Fulton Brown mentioned in a previous reply about the way that the seeds of doctrine grow. You also show how this process is, like history, an intricate, looping “conversation” between past and present, tradition and innovation (or simply “prophecy” for our authors). I do agree with you that the Joseph comparisons, while containing some suggestive elements (e.g., Potiphar’s wife uses the garment in attempted slander of Joseph, while Mary endures slander for the sake of her “garment”), are not as compelling. This is perhaps why Proclus does not include them in his exhaustive metaphoric survey.

    I think you have captured the sense of what Proclus would have responded if asked about the weaving metaphors (that is, the problems that were brought up in class) when you write that “Christ himself is righteousness . . . not a man who was elevated to God via a costume change.” You also note, as was concluded in class, that the matter is “unique, shocking, and paradoxical.” Is it sufficient to leave it at that? Was it sufficient for Christian theologians to leave it as a paradoxical mystery?

  3. SMTB, when reading your post, I was trying to think of other Biblical examples to add to your list, but you may have covered every single possibility! This was very fun to work through with you. I did start thinking, though, of another category of woven things in Christian history that we might be able to tie in with the ideas we read in Proclus: the tradition of cloth relics that claim to have impressions of Christ on them. Off the top of my head, I can think of the Shroud of Turin, the veil that Veronica used to wipe the face of Christ when he was on his way to Calvary, and the Mandylion that is found in Eastern Orthodox traditions; there are multiple extant objects claiming to be the true one of each of these things, and I’m sure there are other typologies in this category of relics that I’m not familiar with. I’ve never thought about these objects as belonging to the same category before; they’re different enough in size and story that I never pinpointed the obvious shared trait of being made of cloth. Perhaps we could read Proclus’s metaphor into this tradition of objects: could woven cloth be the perfect format to capture the dual nature of Christ by containing both evidence of his sweat (a bodily, human product) while at the same time suggesting the divinity of that sweat (as it not only left images on cloth, but images that have supposedly not faded after two thousand years)?


  4. SMTB, you have added a lot of possibilities to my contemplation of what I already thought was a beautiful and deeply meaningful metaphor. Your comment about the verse in Job stood out to me: “Christ himself is righteousness and justice by virtue of the fact that he is fully God as well as fully man. He is not a man who was elevated to God via a costume change.” Your statement about Christ is apt (and eloquent), but what about Job, who by his createdness falls short of the nature of God? Perhaps what Job can do, what we can do as the people of God, is to choose to put Christ on like a garment. Though this analogy may not capture the immutable quality of God’s saving grace, it shows that being Christ-like is something that must be continually chosen, just as we choose what clothes we put on each day, and choose if we shed them in favor of something else. In addition to your detailed list, there are a few times when garments are mentioned briefly that popped into my mind. One is Isaiah 61:3, which mentions “the garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair”; another is Romans 13:14 in which Paul commands the believers to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” to resist sexual temptation; and finally, Ephesians 6:13-17 which talks about putting “the full armor of God” (not exactly a woven garment, but a garment nonetheless). In these verses, the clothing of Christ serves a multitude of purposes—it meets our every need and combats our every danger, it is the garment of praise, the clothing to resist sensual temptation, the belt of truth…. Mary wove all this, the fulfillment of all that humanity needs, together in her womb.


  5. I really enjoyed your exploration of the weaving metaphor in connection with Mary. I think the strong association between Mary and textiles becomes very intreresting in light of her later interpretation as the symbolic representation of Woman because textile arts, and weaving in particular, are also seen as symbolic female attributes. This association perhaps provides some grounding for the symbolic interpretation of Mary or at least helps point to where that reading is coming from. Mary's association with weaving and textiles is also significant in light of how often she is identified or recognized by her clothing. In the modern Marian apparitions we read about her clothing is often described in great detail and is frequently a point of intense questioning by the Priests and other authority figures attempting to validate the apparition. The fact that Mary weaves both the physical and the metaphorical garments for the high priest feels very appropriate because she herself also fills the structural role of priest, and was seen by Bernard of Clairvaux as a model for those who dedicated themselves to a life of service to God.

    -M. Coker