Before proceeding to the substantial observation of this post, I would first remark on the breadth of possible subjects that I might address in a reflection on these readings. Doubtless, other students will have noted excellent points regarding the primary role of the humility of the Virgin, the emphasis on Mary as exemplar, or the interference that personal vendettas may have played in the texts of St. Bernard or even Bl. Amadeus. Tabling those topics for a moment, I thought it fitting to note the unparalleled presence in these homilies of a parallel between Mary and her Son the Messiah. As we will explore later when we discuss the history of Marian devotion in the Protestant Reformation, the impression that Mary is comparable to Christ has surely struck certain strains within the Christian tradition as heterodoxical if not idolatrous. Nonetheless, the convergence of Marian language with Christocentric language in St. Bernard appears frequently throughout his homilies in a multitude of parallel phrases, and the confluence of Mary and Christ likewise arises in an analysis of the thoroughly novel imagery employed to describe Mary. Namely, as Mary is notably depicted in terms other than Lady Wisdom, the Temple, trees, or any number of other Earthy, immediate, and unified figures utilized in previous authors she takes in St. Bernard a new and fascinating dual character.
Mary herself would doubtlessly affirm that the most fascinating character of these homilies is none other than Christ, yet the four homilies of St. Bernard point to a certain marriage between the figure of Jesus Christ and His mother in a manner previously unseen. To elaborate, as St. Bernard admits in his introduction to the third homily, he possesses a certain tendency to adapt – to put it euphemistically – the Scriptures which he is exegeting: “I see that the words of Holy Scripture suit my purpose.” For example, St. Bernard seems to reinvent the meaning of Romans 5:17 which originally might be translated:
“For if, by the transgression of one person, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ."
Strikingly similar in form and notion is the rhetorical supposition posed by St. Bernard in his second homily: “For if man fell on account of woman, surely he will rise through another woman.” Admittedly, the assertion that Mary might function as a new Eve in accomplishing salvation in tandem or alongside Christ new Adam is nothing new, yet this phrase has heavier and more direct implications. St. Bernard is not only comparing Mary to Eve, but in so specifically appropriating Scriptural rhythms that reference solely Christ it would seem that Bernard’s intention is to more obviously compare the work of Mary with that of Christ. In the same homily, St. Bernard juxtaposes Mary and Christ in his associating the engagement of Mary to Joseph with the doubt expressed by Christ’s apostle Thomas. To quote St. Bernard directly, “Thomas’s doubt and Mary’s engagement fit beautifully together.” In both cases, he acknowledges that Mary and Christ create the possibility of doubt – in her Virginity, or in the Resurrection – and claims that identically the “snare of a similar mistake” is thwarted. These seemingly minor comparisons actually point to a new development in the understanding of Mary – that she is not merely a vehicle for Christ, or a Temple for God’s presence, but in some very real sense Mary embodies the mission and life of Christ.
From a theological perspective, this shift toward a Christ-type Mary can be seen in the stratification of Marian imagery in St. Bernard. As stated, until this point the overwhelming majority of references to Mary in devotions, hymns, poems, and references via the Psalms point to Mary as a Temple, a garden, a fleece, etc. Each of these images not only carries a kind of Earthy and immediate symbolism, but is also unquestionably unified. There is one Temple of God, there is one fleece, and while it must be granted that multiplicity in Marian imagery is typical in the literature we have analyzed, I contend that something very new is happening in St. Bernard’s homilies. On the one hand, St. Bernard has introduced a new form of Mary: Mary as quintessentially humble virgin. Though the matter of Mary’s virginity has persisted in our readings since St. Irenaeus and Tertullian, the exposition of Mary’s virginity followed textual necessities to validate the Septuagint or typological necessities to relate Christ to Adam. St. Bernard’s exposition of Mary’s virginity, however, elevates a new necessity: humility. Throughout these four homilies, St. Bernard condemns even the purest virginity if it has not humility at its foundation: “What have you to say to that, haughty virgin? Mary, making no account of her virginity, was happy in her humility.” The first homily abounds with exhortations to follow the humble virgin Mary that “Man, learn to obey!” and “Earth learn to be subject!” in the example of Christ’s mother. Besides these examples many others might be found, but these sufficiently indicate one pole that St. Bernard uses to position his view of Mary.
Yet, in the face of this set of images and anecdotes about the angel Gabriel meeting the humble, even meek, Mary, the second homily especially introduces an entirely new image. The Stella Maris, or the Star of the Sea, dominates powerfully the conclusion of the second homily. So distinct as to form a second pole of identity, simultaneous with the humble Virgin Mary we see St. Bernard affirms the dual nature of Mary as a noble, elevated and heavenly star.
"Let us now say a few words about this name, which means 'star of the sea'... Surely she is very fittingly likened to a star. The star sends forth its ray without harm to itself... She is indeed the noble star risen out of Jacob whose beam enlightens this earthly globe."
Not only does this quote point to another double application of Scriptures to both Christ and to Mary (the Star of Jacob is referenced by the Gospel of Matthew in identifying the Star of Bethlehem), but it also encapsulates the dynamic of this second nature to Mary that incites so much passion from St. Bernard. Mary is not only the humble virgin, but also that one toward which we “gaze up” and “call out”.
There is no simple way of reconciling these two strata of Marian imagery - the humble virgin and the celestial body are two poles of seemingly infinite opposition. Only in one other example would such a dichotomy seem fitting, and that instance is the very figure who I contend St. Bernard desires to liken Mary: Jesus Christ. The hypostatic union of Jesus Christ as fully man and fully God as expressed by St. Bernard's Catholic Church is the only suitable likeness to the new Mary who is both humble virgin and noble star created in the homilies of St. Bernard. As this text makes constant use of a singular Scriptural reference or context to refer to both Jesus and Mary, and especially as this new dually natured Mary takes precedence in these homilies it becomes clear that the best way to see all the themes we noted in this reading such as the significance of Mary's humility, the role of Mary as heavenly guide and perfect example, and the function of Mary as arbiter of Salvation (recall the lengthy insistence in homily four that the consent of Mary catalyzed the Incarnation) in harmony with one another is to recognize the uniquely Bernardine comparison between Mary and Jesus, the Star of the Sea and the Star of Jacob.