Thursday, October 15, 2015

Mary's Lens

In the beginning of Andrew of Crete’s first homily on the nativity, he associates the birth of the Virgin Mary with humanity’s passing from the rule of the Law to Grace. But this acquaintance of ideas seems a bit obscure – why mark Mary’s birth as the first moment in which humankind is given recourse to Grace? Why not mark it when Gabriel visits Mary (upon which Germanos exerts so much in the effort of imagining), when Christ is conceived, when he’s born, or when he dies on the Cross? The choice to make Mary’s birth the historical moment during which the Law passes away and Grace is received seems arbitrary, even nonsensical.

But it is not nonsensical – certainly not to him, and probably (almost certainly) not to us if we manage to extract his understanding of the significance of Mary’s birth, the complexity of Old Testament scripture, and the necessity of reading Mary into the ancient scriptural tradition. It would seem that, to Andrew of Crete (and by association the larger Christian tradition of the time period), Mary’s role in scripture is much greater than the few passages that mention her in the New Testament, or the few prophecies that seem to be pointing to her in the Old. In fact, she’s a lens through which the entirety of scripture must be viewed in order to receive the correct interpretation. To Andrew, scripture is a complicated object that must be, as we talked about in class, “chewed on,” masticated, digested - for only then can the real meaning of it be comprehended.

In On the Nativity I, Andrew immediately makes clear that this celebration is over a feast that “represents the first [boundary] of the [feasts] against the Law and the shadows, yet also the entrance of those [that lead] to grace and truth” (71). He goes on to cite a few scriptures so as to make sure his audience is familiar with the idea that the coming of Christ made the law null – so he does acknowledge the importance of Christ’s role in this whole Law to Grace historic phenomenon. But soon thereafter he takes up the thread with Mary, saying “this festival is a birthday and a remodeling of the race […] How and in what way? When the shadow clearly withdraws at the arrival of the light and grace substitutes freedom from the letter, the present festival stands in the middle, joining together the truth of typological symbols and substituting new things for the old” (72-3).

The focus on letters and symbols will prove to be a crucial aspect of Andrew’s methodology. The “shadow” here seems to mean, or refer to, the shadow of the Law. The shadow of the Law is certainly not a physical thing, but a metaphorical idea that is productive in two ways. One, it’s a powerful metaphor to illustrate to Andrew’s fellow Christians that they are indeed free from the Law (one so oppressive that it casts shadows). Secondly and more importantly, the shadow is an obstruction to actually reading the scripture correctly. The arrival of the light and grace makes it possible to have freedom where before there was only the (Letter of the) Law. But it would seem that, at least in part, one gains freedom by understanding the truth of the “symbols.” Whatever are these symbols?

Andrew drops this thread for a while, but when he picks it back up again, he seems to say that, what he means by symbols are those parts of scripture in the Old Testament that can only be correctly understood by looking at them through the lens of the Virgin Mary. Thus Mary becomes the way to read scripture, and the new way to read scripture becomes the key to being free from the Law.

Later in the third nativity he writes “You then, O Jew, understand the power of what has been said and do not struggle with the truth […] Cast off the veil! Receive the pure light of what has been written!” (119). He invokes the idea that the traditional way of reading scripture (probably, to him, the Jewish tradition) leads to one interpretation which is not wholly correct. Instead one must cast off the veil by realizing the efficacy of Mary’s person throughout existing scripture. Only then can one read scripture in its correct way – through Mary’s lens.

“For there is not, indeed there is not, any place in the whole of God-inspired scripture where, on going about, one would not see signs of her scattered about in diverse ways. If you were to lay these bare, as best you could, by painstaking effort from the words, you would even find more distinctly how great was the glory that she embraced from God” (127). He goes on to show that actually, all along, all throughout the entirety of the Old Testament, Mary has been being referred to, in numerous times and places, in the guise of many different names. She is the holy of holies, breath, lampstand, myrrh of unction – only to name a few. The person of Mary allows us to understand numerous parts of scripture that were before obscured. By seeing the typological symbols for what they really are, the veil over the scripture is lifted and we, who read through Mary’s lens, are afforded the scriptures actual meanings.

All of these things that were at one time obscured by the shadow of the Law, were actually looking forward to the coming of Mary and subsequently to Christ. By seeing Old Testament scripture as a text that actually predicts Grace, one gains freedom from the Law’s oppression. But this whole phenomenon begins with the birth of Mary – because only once she comes into the world could one hope to read scripture through her lens. Or, at least, this would seem to be Andrew of Crete’s position on the subject.  



  1. The idea that the proper interpretation of Scripture allows us to be free is a fascinating one, and certainly seems to be what Andrew is getting at in the passages we read. We might wonder whether this freedom is somehow granted to everyone, even those who aren't able to "chew over" Scripture in the manner of a trained exegete or if it's reserved for the spiritual elite. Does Mary in some sense surmount this problem by making the proper mode of reading available to a broader audience, somehow leading us past the shadows even if we aren't properly trained (or even, one wonders, literate)?

  2. I like very much the way you use the image of Mary as lens and the definition that you give of symbols as those parts of the Old Testament that must be read through Mary to be seen correctly--I think that Andrew would agree! I have usually understood the "shadow" as not so much oppressive as simply obscuring: the Law itself may be read as a symbol (and often is in medieval exegesis). It is not that the Law was bad, but that those living under it (in Christian understanding) did not have access to the light. Mary gives birth to the Light which drives the shadows away. The key here is the sense of being able to see clearly, whether through a lens or by way of the light. The shadow is an obscuring of the light, but the light still needs to be there in order for there to be a shadow at all. RLFB

  3. It is important to understand not only that Andrew of Crete changed conventional interpretations of Mary’s role in scripture, but also how he compels us to read and understand the Word through the Maryan lens. Andrew devotes “On the Nativity II” and “On the Nativity III” to proving that Mary’s ancestry traces directly to King David. Scholars at the time argue (from previous readings) that Jesus is a direct descendant of David through Joseph, solidifying Joseph’s role in the birth of Christ as the father who passes down the lineage according to custom. However, Andrew’s proof that Mary herself descends from David, and thus Abraham and Adam, legitimizes Mary as holding the most important and also the sole role in begetting Christ, the son of David. This heightens Mary’s influence in scripture as because of her, Jesus truly has the blood of the first man. Andrew has proven that Mary is one of the most important figures in Christianity, and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus should be viewed from the lens of the Holy Mother who gave birth to Jesus as a virgin, who bestowed upon her son regal lineage, and who was the Immaculate Conception.

    As to Dyingst’s question, I’m not sure if Andrew insinuates Mary has an ability to mediate between scripture and commoners in the same way that she mediates between God and humankind. She was of higher class from birth, and her lack of modest beginnings doesn’t seem to resonate with the uneducated as much as Jesus’s birth in a manger story. In addition, scripture cites Jesus prophesying a social revolution, saying “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Mary’s purpose throughout scripture does not explicitly have similar claims. However, I also think her ability to have blind faith in the angel Gabriel can be interpreted to speak to all people, and emphasizes that a person who trusts in God and his Word is pleasing to Him, no matter whether she is a commoner or a member of the spiritual elite.

  4. I think ALZ is correct to posit that Andrew's understanding is more aligned to the idea that Mary is a mediator between God and humankind, rather than between scripture and commoners. God has written the scriptures for humankind but they were obscured, God provides us Mary as the long awaited lens through which we might come to the perfect understanding of his scriptures, knowing full well that our knowledge was incomplete beforehand. Nevertheless, dyingst's question is poignant, because the type of understanding that Andrew would have believers read scripture with does not seem to be a readily accessible skill. It's something learned, and presumably with a good deal of practice. Obviously the illiterate - as the vast majority of people in this generation were - do not have recourse to scripture, and not even a fighting chance at understanding the revelatory nature of Mary's Lens firsthand. I however do not think that Andrew is extremely preoccupied with such a question as we might be, because he sees the church elite as the mediators between scripture and commoner, and sees nothing problematic with this relationship. Basically, the priest comes to read through Mary's lens, the priest understands the true and previously hidden meaning of scripture, and then the priest communicates the message to his following via a homily on such a feast day, as we are witnessing (reading) taking place here.