Saturday, October 17, 2015

Mother Mary, Temple of God, Most Accessible Mother

Throughout Christian time, we see that the church tends to have a fascination with the Virgin Mary. As we have discussed in class, her characteristics, history and relevance sat, and still do sit, in much controversy. At first, her characteristics came under debate, with James, Jacobus, and the Pseudo Gospel of Matthew all defining her purity and ancestry from two noble lines in order to establish her worthiness to carry God. Then we read Irenaeus, Tortullian, Epiphanius and Ephrem who concern themselves with the great paradox of creator of all  “the heavens could not contain” inside the womb of one woman, who in a sense, created Him on earth. These men depict Mary as the garden for the growing of God and as the obedient foil of Eve that gave birth to the cure for original sin. Later on we saw Proclus, Cyril, and Nestorius vie for the ability to define Mary’s importance through Theotokos, utilizing Biblical and metaphorical references to “loom[s]”, “garden[s]”, vessel[s]”, “workshop[s]”, and “temple[s]”. Here then, these definitions of her allow us to view God through her. She is part creator, part holding vessel for the Lord, which allows the Christian to see and flesh out the Lord’s characteristics through her. 

And now, we have reached the Office of the Virgin Mary, the daily set of devotions to the Virgin and to the Lord adopted from Marian Festivals and popularized in medieval Christianity through the Book of Hours. So I suppose the next question to ask, based on my line of introduction, would be how the Virgin Mary is seen through the Office, as interpreted by the church. But here, we have reached a conundrum. 

It is at this point that we see this discussion of the Virgin and her importance to the church turn away from mostly higher clergymen’s (bishops, important priests, etc) interpretations and move towards the laypeople and the common monk. No longer is she merely being celebrated on Marian feast days with the help of priests to emphasize her importance or solely being given meaning through who the church says she is. This Office, as a component in the Book of Hours, one of the most well-read texts in common medieval Christianity, meant that the laypeople now had a chance to interpret and understand Mary on their own terms instead of merely taking in the priests' word on who Mary is and her importance to God and the church. 

This then raises many questions, including: why Mary? Why this Office? Why would this Office be created if the church was already interpreting Mary the way they would want her to be seen? 

The short answer is that no one really knows. But based off of our most recent set of texts, we can hazard some educated guesses. 

Starting with the Office itself, we see that the passages chosen to be in the Office are those that reference Mary as an honored resting place in which God is housed, more specifically as a temple or a holy city. In the Matins hymn, we see “[i]n you the Spirit was enshrined,” and in Psalm 45 “…the most High has sanctified His own tabernacle / God is in the midst thereof, it shall not be moved…” as references to Mary as a holy resting place or temple. The entirety of Psalm 86 makes Mary to be a holy living city or temple. These must have been chosen as a reason, for there are also plenty of Scripture passages that reference Mary as a garden or as a growing place, instead of as a resting place for God (e.g. Song of Songs 4:11-12; Ecclesiasticus 24: 16-32; Isaiah 11:1-3), as well as many hymns that reference her as such. Although other references are made, Mary is mostly depicted as the “tabernacle”, “couch”, “womb” and other resting, enclosing images. Therefore, this image of Mary being representative of the temple appears specifically chosen for this Office.

But what sort of temple? Is she a temple in the sense of being a place where God can be found? To explore this, we must also examine what other themes can be found in the text. Because most of these passages are Psalms, much of these words are praises to God. But the psalms chosen also show the need to fear, respect, and follow God’s word. Psalm 18 reads, “For your servant keeps them, and in keeping them there is a great reward. Who can understand sins? From my secret ones cleanse me, O Lord: and from those of others spare Your servant.” Psalm 23 continues this theme with, “The innocent in hands, and clean in heart, who has not taken his soul in vain, nor sworn deceitfully to his neighbor. He shall receive a blessing from the Lord, and mercy from God his Savior.” And Psalm 96 says “Light is risen to the just, and joy to the right of heart. Rejoice, you just ones, in the Lord, and give praise to the remembrance of His holiness.” Obedience and praise to the Lord, then, gives rise to great joy and the saving of the “servant”. 

To combine these two ideas, Mary as a temple, and obedience to the Lord, it behooves us to look at a few things. First, the previous translations of Mary from the church. As aforementioned, Mary has already been show to represent a lens through which we can understand God and His characteristics, namely his omnipotence and omnipresence. Also, the structure of the Office itself, namely the antiphons which mostly mention Mary, as Weick explains on, “fram[e]” the Psalms and “expand[s]…the theme of the Psalm.” So Mary is framing God literally in the Office’s structure. This physical metaphor, combined with her temple imagery, creates the image of Mary as the temple in which God is housed. In physical life then, and as Baltzer explains, this imagery of the Office compares to that of the church. Ergo, “Mary was…regarded as a type of the Church” because she, like the church, is a physical place in which God can be found, housed, and connected to. 

We could stop here then and say that the whole purpose of the Office was a reminder that the Church was the most important hope for connecting to God and that by reading the Office, one was essentially being obedient as a servant and in a sense, “attending church” to receive salvation. 

That is an aspect of it- that Mary is a representation of the church and thusly a means of salvation. But once we tie in past images- her ability as a lens to see God and her great paradox- I think more can be revealed. By emphasizing Psalms, which reveal the greatness of God, and framing that greatness specifically with Mary, the temple and Mother of God, and by setting the Office in its daily hour pattern, not only does the Office reveal God’s power and Christ’s coming every day, but also sets the tone that Mary is the one through which this was possible and through which Christ and God can be made more accessible. In the end, the Office is not merely a way to gain salvation, but also a way in which God’s might can be realized from a human standpoint and felt to be more accessible to the common man, because Mother Mary, strictly because of her motherhood and servanthood, is one of the most human of the most idolized characters depicted in the Bible. 



  1. Very nice attention to the details of the imagery in the psalms for the Marian office! Could you say more about the way in which the antiphons support your reading? This, as I suggested in class and you note here, is the key (I think) to understanding the appeal of the office: the way in which its structure recapitulates the mystery of the Incarnation, the Marian antiphons framing the psalms' praises of God. And yet, as you show, the psalms for the Marian office themselves contain imagery that refers to her, so that the praises of God are also praises of the one in whom he became present. Which raises the question of what we mean by "the Church": if Mary is the type of the Church, how does this change our understanding of what the Church is? Here is it important to recall that in the medieval tradition (as in modern Christianity), the Church is not just as a physical building, but also the whole community of Christians. Indeed, properly speaking the Church is not a building of actual stones, but of living stones, that is the bodies and souls of the faithful. RLFB

  2. I want to highlight your use of the word "accessible" in the last paragraph. There seems to be a sense in our readings that Mary is this bridge, or step, between us and an often distant God. We can see this, for example, in the miraculous stories Peter Damian provides. Here, Mary intercedes over and over just when all hope is lost, when the sinner seems truly lost to pull them back from the brink of ruination and to provide that extra push which gets them into communion with God, i.e. heaven. You've noted that Mary reveals God, what does this reveal about how medievals saw God? Does it suggest a level of distance from God which can only be bridged through the help of another?

    Maybe more than what this understanding of Mary and this form of Marian Devotion says about God the interesting question is, what does it say about us and our place within the celestial hierarchy?

  3. I agree with your post’s stance that Mary acts a more concrete, human manifestation of God. Throughout these readings and those from The Golden Legend, I have been struck by how much the spirit of Mary sheds light onto her Earthly self. In class, we emphasize her purity, spirituality, and holiness as she is a temple for God to dwell within. However, Mary also appears quite human in some of these stories. Not to appear too scandalous, I suggest that in the story with the cleric who wants to take a want, Mary appears to show a bit of what might be called jealously. Mary chastises the cleric when he shows signs of doubt, telling him to not leave her for another woman. Mary also helps some people because of their love for her, in spite of the bad things they’ve done. One example is the thief who is saved by his mother and his devotion (GL 155). More disturbing is the mother who has her son-in-law killed and escapes justice (GL 157). These actions show that Mary protects her own in a somewhat human-like way. Additionally, in Damian’s letters, she appears to act quite Queenly by protecting her vassals. Mary saves her follower when he is accosted by devils on a pilgrimage to see her. Mary steps in because of her followers’ devotion, offering protection to her subject. What should we make out of these human qualities? Do they diminish her holiness? For me, they make Mary more relatable, somewhat like the way Mary makes God more relatable by helping God become flesh.