Thursday, October 22, 2015

Hypostatic Constellation: The Stella Maris and the Star of Jacob

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.

- W.K.


  1. Another interesting parallel between Mary and her son is revealed with the development of a Marian doctrine nearly a millennium after Bernard, namely how Mary’s heavenly role as co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix, and Advocatrix is directly reflective of the Trinitarian role of God. It is made very explicit even in the names for Mary that she could not be the sole fountain of all graces and that her position is subordinate to that of her son. Nonetheless, it is understandable how Mary’s comparability with Christ could be misconstrued as equality with Him. Just as we see that in following the major events of Mary’s life we follow the life of Jesus, so also should we view the light of Mary as the Stella Maris as reflective of the light of the Star of Jacob. With this dynamic in mind, Bernard’s exaltation of Mary should not lead to heterodoxy; on the contrary, the more we praise Mary within her roles, the more we are able to see Christ. We are all one body in Christ and encouraged to be like Him; thus it is fitting that the only perfect human being with only human nature, Mary, should be the most comparably reflective of Him.


  2. Are we looking at Mary or are we looking at Christ through Mary? Lovely attention to the way in which Bernard's imagery for Mary overlaps with and intensifies his imagery for Christ--I would agree absolutely with you that his focus is really much more on Christ than is sometimes suggested in readings of his homilies. Here I think you have hit upon something that I have always found hard about Bernard and his later reputation as "Mary's troubadour": I don't myself think that he was ever very interested in Mary *except* insofar as she pointed in some way to Christ (he is also famous for his image of Mary as an "aqueduct," bringing the waters of salvation to earth). In this sense, your reading fits very well with what Dante does with Mary (which I am just rereading this weekend for my other class): Mary is the one who "most resembles Christ." Looking at her, the pilgrim sees the reflection of her Son so perfectly, it is as if she does not actually have her own face, only bears the image of her child. Oddly, while this is utterly orthodox, it can (and has) often created the impression that Mary somehow supplants her Son, when in fact it is exactly the reverse: if she is his perfect reflection, in what way can she also contain him who could not be contained? RLFB

  3. You've pointed here to a very interesting element of Bernard's thought, and I wonder if we might look at it from another direction, namely how might this apply to the individual life of those who hear Bernard's homily. If the goal of Christianity ethical life is to be more like Christ, and if Mary serves as a sort of perfect reflection of Christ, down to mirroring the apparent paradox of his heavenly sublimity and utter humility, then living properly means both imitating Mary and becoming more like her as we become more perfect. Mary not only shows us Christ but in imitating her we become revelations of Christ ourselves. Are there "practical" consequences of this? What might they be given the context of Bernard's life which we discussed in class?

  4. I definitely agree that the likeness of Mary to Christ is a predominant theme here, and I am that the original post and an above commenter see this as somehow new or unique. One of the first ideas of Mary discussed in this class was the "new Eve." While this idea obviously centers on each woman's fiat (to the snake and to Gabriel), it also depends on the intimate physical relationship between the new/old Eve and her Adam. As Eve is made from the side of Adam, and Jesus' humanity is made from Mary's flesh alone. I don't know whether our sources thought of this, but it seems obvious to me that Jesus would have looked like Mary, since she is his one human parent.

    I also think that the broad idea of Mary showing us Jesus rests on a certain unity between them (as in the mirror image that developed). The sedes sapientiae, for example, artistically aligns Jesus and Mary. They often have similar positions, and Christ is entirely surrounded by Mary. To see Christ, you have to look to the Virgin. I think the Protoevangelium also suggests a deep similarity between Jesus and Mary, since the Virgin's life is depicted as closely resembling Jesus'. (Angel announces pregnancy, presentation of child in temple, etc.) One also thinks of Augustine, who we did not read, saying that only Mary and Jesus did not sin. All of this suggests to me that Bernard is working pretty sincerely within the tradition and that Mary as like Christ is a strong part of that tradition, especially when contrasted with Vatican II's alternative - Mary as like the Church.