In class, we focused on Andrew of Crete and Germanus of Constantinople. We neglected, however, to discuss the readings from the Qur’an. Indeed, at first glance, the selection of a reading from the Qur’an seems rather out of place. After all, the other two readings are both Christian homilies, crafted to teach those celebrating feasts in Mary’s honor. On closer examination, however, the contrasts between the passages illuminate the church’s developing view on who Mary was and why she must be so.
Of course, the Islamic and Christian traditions diverge not only on who Mary is, but who Jesus is as well. To Muslims, Jesus was “one of those who approach near the presence of God” (Qur’an 3.45). To Christians, however, Jesus was more than one close to God. As Andrew of Crete understands it in his “On the Annunciation,” Jesus is he “who was also God himself [and] who combined in perfection the [two] natures from which and in which he was formed” (207). The distinctions below all draw upon this difference; each tradition reinforces its own beliefs. Mary’s identity becomes linked to Jesus’ identity; who Mary is must support the desired idea of who her son is.
As such, the homilies portray Mary’s virginity differently than the Qu’ran. The Mary of Islam loses her virginity when she gives birth to Jesus; “the pains of childbirth came upon her” (Qur’an 19.23). On the other hand, Andrew and Germanus both weave a story that parallels that of Eve in Genesis. In “On the Annunciation,” Andrew writes Gabriel as reassuring Mary: “My manner is not wily nor have I come to lead you astray; nor again does a snake speak to you, hissing, nor am I addressing you from the ground” (213). Germanus, too, in his homily bearing the same name, proclaims:
Today the divinely planted Eden is opened, and the divinely molded Adam, who is again enrolled in it by the goodness of [God’s] benevolence, dwells there!
Today the ancestral sentence of pain has been released, and the invidious humiliation of our ancestress Eve has ceased, along with her wearisome penalty! (222)
In this tradition, unlike in the Islamic one, Mary escapes “the ancestral sentence of pain,” the pain of childbirth God laid on Eve after the fall. In turn, just as Mary parallels Eve, Jesus parallels “the divinely molded Adam” (222). The story of Jesus is the reversal, the inversion of the Fall. Mary’s preserved virginity when giving birth allows this reversal. Without Mary escaping labor pains, Jesus cannot take on the role of Adam and cannot fulfill the transition from the law to grace we discussed in class.
Another difference in the depiction of Mary in the two traditions comes after the birth of Jesus. The Qur’an contains an anecdote not seen in the Christian tradition (at least what of it we have read so far). Interestingly, the angel requests that Mary tell those who question her when she produces Jesus that she has taken a vow not speak that day (Qur’an 19.26). Instead, Jesus, even as an infant, speaks for himself.
I admit I am unsure as to the full implications of this. It seems as though Mary merely follows instructions to maintain silence; she is not struck with silence. Nevertheless, the anecdote calls to mind another story tangential to Mary’s life. It calls to mind the story of John the Baptist’s father, Zachariah, who was struck with silence when he doubted the words of an angel who told him he would father a child. As Andrew of Crete’s angel says, “Zachariah had formerly disbelieved [such a sign] in the inner sanctuaries [of the temple] and did not accept [it]; and it was on account of [this disbelief] that punishment was transferred from his reproductive to his vocal organs and sterility was exchanged for voicelessness (cf. Luke 1.5-20)” (211).
Yet Andrew draws a contrast between Zacharias and Mary, as indicated by the transition “on the other hand” (211). Germanus, here, however, seems to diverge from Andrew’s opinion. While Andrew, by separating Mary’s questioning from Zacharias’s, clearly rules out Mary’s questioning as doubt, Germanus does not. Germanus’ angel actually asks Mary, “why, and on what account, have you so much disbelief” (229). Indeed, Mary’s “disbelief” ties explicitly to Zachariah’s. “The prophet Zachariah, who is also beloved by your kinwoman Elizabeth” the angel instructs Mary, will give you reassurance, [thereby leading you] out of disbelief” (229).
Andrew of Crete,“Oration on the Annunciation of the Supremely Holy Lady, Our Theotokos” and Germanos of Constantinople, “Oration on the Annunciation of the Supremely Holy Theotokos,” in Wider than Heaven, trans. Cunningham, pp. 197-246.
Qur’an 3:35-51, 19:16-35, trans. George Sale, in Mary: The Complete Resource, ed. Boss, pp. 480-83.