Thursday, October 8, 2015

Marian Mystery: The Mother of the Christian Paradox

If the nature of the Christian faith seems inconsistent, incoherent, or even irrational to the enlightened postmodernist, perhaps this is not the fault of Christianity itself, but on account of a fault in our contemporary literacy. Our most recent readings have helped bring this gap to light, especially as we have seen that the more sincerely and authentically we approach these works the more fruitful we find our investigation. As other students have already observed with remarkable clarity, since historical understanding is our primary goal it is necessary that we adopt – at least conditionally – a parallel hermeneutic paradigm as we read these documents, or else we risk wandering off the narrow way of these authors’ original intent and lose the chance to observe the cultural, literary, theological, and historical movements that gave birth to these texts. For without the ability to ask the same questions about Mary and see her through the same colored lenses as the authors of our readings, we have little hope of accomplishing our goal of historical inquiry. In reflecting upon the most consistent elements of these devices, I have increasingly noticed the regard for and use of paradox, as well as – in the words of Professor Fulton Brown - “layering” which pervade these Marian documents, and the dependence on these tools that St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, St. Epiphanius of Salamis, and St. Ephrem the Syrian possess. It is my goal to explore these devices in a few of their most profound occurrences both in reference to Mary and in reference to other Christian mysteries, and thereby to reach a more thorough familiarity with the techniques used by early and medieval Christians to state and shape their devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

As we discussed the writings of St. Irenaeus, the earliest of the four authors read for Tuesday’s discussion, the use of paradox about Mary’s role in salvation specifically, and the Christian faith in general, each served to heighten the mystery of the truth St. Irenaeus sought to expound. One notable example of this “layered” sense or hidden meaning that I wish had been raised in our discussion comes in the third paragraph of Chapter XXI. While the argument that St. Irenaeus is working to construct in these paragraphs demonstrably has more to do with validating a textual tradition than venerating the Blessed Virgin, even so the imagery that he chooses to use follows the model of juxtaposition that I find so interesting and key to understanding these authors. In particular, the Septuagint is analogized to God’s people Israel being preserved in Egypt, “where the house of Jacob flourished,” as well as a completely different image, “where also our Lord was preserved when He fled from the persecution set on foot by Herod.” Though I do intend to return to our highest subject, the Mother of God, as the prime example of these juxtapositions, I found this initial case of the scripture favored by St. Irenaeus set against seemingly disharmonious images from the history of God’s people to be a supremely simple example deserving of our attention. Of course, the more relevant instances of these techniques throughout St. Irenaeus’ writings are in reference to Mary’s place as both virgin mother and new Eve. Both of these titles are internally paradoxical as neither can a virgin be a mother nor can a first century woman be the new mother of humanity, but I contend not on account of contradiction but mystery. Mary’s own mystery leads St. Irenaeus’ audience toward the greater mystery of Our Lord’s Incarnation, the greatest mystery of all. Thus, by coming to know Mary as the “virgin soil” from which sprung “the Word of God” who had formed the very soil from which He came (note the mind boggling circularity), St. Irenaeus introduces us to Mystery by first introducing us to His Mother according to the same intrinsically difficult language.

Tertullian follows up on St. Irenaeus' work, though his shorter expose treats the Incarnation more directly than his predecessor. While St. Irenaeus, as stated, seems to have the ulterior motive of vindicating a certain branch of interpretation from a wider antiqua traditio our readings of Tertullian remain brief enough to filter these side projects out, leaving behind a concise exposition of the implications of God being made man. Those implications, I claim, are too great for the language to that which we moderns have grown accustomed, and must be crafted with paradoxical phrases such as "a virgin did conceive ... This is the new nativity; a man is born in God. And in this man God was born." Tertullian uses language at tension with itself like that of the sail on a Galilean fishing vessel, as those very elements which might seem at odds are set together in order to propel ahead by the power of the water and wind.

For that matter, it might be said that the polemic of St. Epiphanius of Salamis is likewise greater than what we at first perceive. A simple reading of his tirade might merely conclude that this author hopes to combat the potential of some proto-feminist reading of Christ's mother. But, as I further consider the necessity of linguistic and metaphorical difficulty in the Christian tradition that we are studying, I propose that perhaps St. Epiphanius is not attacking, but in fact defending, the Christian conviction that two unlike things may be held together without mingling or simplifying. By this I mean, I wonder to what extent the erroneous behavior of St. Epiphanius' audience is not guilty of an oversimplification of Mary, who stands at the center of the impossible mystery of the Incarnation. Perhaps the condemnations of this text are not against the notion of living out a new way of understanding their religion, but against the temptation to flatten the mysteries of this religion to terms that can be held together without the difficulties of paradoxical distinction. For instance, what if the question of this author is in fact nothing more than, "Do you not see that by seeking to honor Mary in this way, you are actually mistaking the greater mystery of this woman?" The true extent of that question or its validity in light of the Panarion are certainly not queries that I have completely worked out, but only possibilities that I think deserve our continuing curiosity.

Finally, there is no author who gives language paradox and juxtaposition like a poet, so in the hymns of St. Ephrem the Syrian it is no surprise that we find so many wonderful images that introduce the Christian faith by the mystery of the Blessed Virgin Mary. To illustrate the nature of my reflections on this author by one of the most sublime praises to Our Lady, I quote from hymn 8 "The laborers came to give glory to the offshoot that sprang forth from the root and the stem of Jesse, the virgin cluster of a parched vine." This archetypal example of the "layering" process that seems to undergird Marian devotion serves as the perfect conclusion to this series of observations. For in this stanza of St. Ephrem might be seen the whole of the place of paradox in our readings: only by multitudinous and inherently discordant language can any author express the wonder of this Woman, and by her the wonder of her Son Jesus Christ.  Only by baptizing language from of its natural, linear meaning (describing parched vines having virgin clusters, or the Earth bringing forth the One who brought forth the Earth) to these new hyperbolic harmonies can St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, St. Epiphanius, or St. Ephrem do justice to their truest mission - to glorify God in Jesus through Mary. 

- W.K.


  1. This theme of paradox appeared in our readings for 10/8 as well, and those readings illustrate well that paradoxical descriptions of Mary stem from the paradox of Jesus as both man and God, as both Creator and creation. This fits with our class's general theme that in order to understand Mary and her cult, it is crucial to understand the theological implications of her position as the mother of Jesus.

    For example in Proclus’s fifth homily, he discusses Jesus’s “Confinement (within the womb)” despite that “the divinity is uncircumscribable” and “(His presence in) the cave” despite that “the Trinity was never absent from its throne.” All these descriptions arise out of the ultimate Christian paradox of Jesus’s “becoming man” despite that “the divine nature did not undergo any change.”

    Mary is the focal point of this ultimate paradox; she is where God became man, and she contained what Heaven could not. In addition to being the focal point of this paradox, Proclus and our other writers see Mary as the resolution of the paradox. One of the images I found most powerful comes from Proclus’s first homily. He states, “A master builder is not dishonored if he dwells in buildings of his own design.” Not only is Mary God’s own creation, but by her immaculate conception, she is a perfect creation not stained by human sin. Thus, God’s act of becoming man – seemingly a paradox – is permitted because He has Mary as a suitable dwelling place.

    In other readings Mary is described using paradoxes that seemingly have nothing to do with Jesus. However, we must remember that people initially wrote of Mary in order to seek understand of God, Jesus, and Christianity as it was forming. Thus, perhaps our writers came to use paradoxical descriptions of Mary (even paradoxical descriptions that, on their faces, have nothing to do with Jesus) because ultimately, Mary is the resolution of the Christian paradox.


  2. These are perceptive observations, I especially liked your point about Epiphanius - that he is not so much shutting down a discussion as insisting that things are far more complex and rich than how his opponents understand. One of the most difficult things to do when encountering ancient and medieval texts is truly wrapping your mind around the way that they think, and the passage you draw out of Irenaeus is an excellent example of this. Irenaeus is not merely using it as a metaphor, flowery rhetoric, but as a genuine argument for the legitimacy of the Septuagint. What does it entail about the way that these authors are thinking that this is a legitimate argument? Indeed that it may be seen as an excellent argument? Just as the authors we read used Mary to pry into the ultimate paradoxes that they saw in Christian doctrine, in the world, we might use Mary to pry into the paradoxes of their thought and distance ourselves from our own paradoxes which prevent a full reading of the sources.

  3. I, too, liked your observation about Epiphanius: it is all too easy to try to make the paradoxes that the Christian tradition depends upon "make sense," and I think that Epiphanius would agree about the danger of oversimplifying Mary. The next question must, of course, be, why? Why so many paradoxes? Is it the nature of the mystery itself or a consequence of the tradition? Are these two actually different things? RLFB