Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Word is the Fruit

Although the angel Gabriel never refers to Jesus as a fruit, Bernard of Clairvaux’s Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary often use language and scripture relating to fruit to describe Christ. This includes the Psalms, among other parts of Scripture, but it especially seems to revolve around Elizabeth’s words to Mary in Luke 1:42, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” This verse links many of Bernard’s themes, including the link between Christ’s and Mary’s blessedness, Mary’s unique personal qualities compared to other women, and the natural and floral quality of God.

In Homily I, Bernard uses a series of nature images from the Hebrew Bible to set the scene for the time when “the holy Evangelist [...] made known to us in words flowing like honey the beginning of our salvation.” As part of this list, he refers to Psalm 85:12, “The Lord showed his kindness and the earth bore its fruit” (6). Here, he uses fruit in more or less the same way that he uses “the honey and honeycomb” a few sentences later-- as a way of describing natural beauty.

But although he continues to use the same Psalm, the real object of the fruit imagery becomes clear when he explains that “we understand Christ to be the fruit” mentioned in the verse, in conjunction with Psalm 132:11, which says, “I will place the fruit of your womb upon your throne” (8). Between those two verses he says that “no one doubts that the Word is the fruit, and the Word is Christ” and that “Christ is the good Fruit which endures forever” (8). All of these Psalms about fruit that seemed to be general descriptions of the world (or generic use of “fruit” to mean offspring, as in Psalm 132), are now understood as specific references to Christ, who is the Word and the Fruit.

Later, in Homily III, when Bernard discusses the angel Gabriel’s blessing to Mary, he also comments on Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary from a few verses later, when she tells Mary “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk 1:42). At first glance, it is not entirely apparent why he is citing this verse-- it appears at the beginning of a section as the phrases from Gabriel’s speech to Mary normally do. It seems to have confused even the editors of this volume, who mark “Blessed are you among women” as coming from Gabriel’s speech in Luke 1:28 (instead of Elizabeth’s in 1:42), even though Bernard marks it as “these words of Elizabeth” (36). The reason for Bernard’s digression into Elizabeth’s speech becomes clearer in his next sentence, when he says that “we must add those [words] which she spoke immediately afterwards: ‘And blessed is the fruit of your womb” (36).

Bernard explains Elizabeth’s statement by saying that Jesus, the fruit, is not blessed because Mary is blessed; on the contrary she is “blessed because he has come to you with the blessings of sweetness” (36). Bernard then continues to elaborate on Elizabeth’s statement, using words related to fruit to describe Christ’s blessedness: “Blessed in his fragrance, blessed in his savor, blessed in his comeliness” (37). He connects Elizabeth’s statement calling Jesus the “fruit” of Mary’s womb to his earlier descriptions of Christ as the fruit based on the Psalms.

This imagery reaches its climax when Bernard quotes “the Fruit himself, inviting us to go to him” saying “Those who eat me will hunger for more, and those who drink me will thirst for more” (37). He explains that Christ “was referring to the sweetness of his savor which, once it has been tasted, whets the appetite for more. This good fruit is both food and drink to the souls of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (37).

When I read this, I was surprised that Bernard does not actually mention the Eucharist here, even though he is talking about eating and drinking Christ. It seems like it would have been an exciting part of this homily, to say that Christ invites those who hunger and thirst for righteousness to eat and drink his body, and we actually get to do that. I know that many laypeople rarely took communion, but I thought that monks (probably most of the people who might read this) did frequently enough that this would have made sense.

In addition, given how important the Song of Songs is to Bernard and how much fruit imagery it includes, it seems strange that none of these fruit passages cite the Song of Songs or use the references it makes to fruit as references to Christ. He cites the Song of Songs frequently in these homilies (if not as frequently as he cites the Psalms), in addition to his major work on the Song itself, and it seems like an ideal text for imagery about fruit, but it is strikingly absent from these passages.

In some ways, I think that this look at fruit imagery is a good illustration of the important liturgical and homiletical role the Psalms have taken on. Even though Bernard has at his disposal a book of the Bible that consists in significant part of descriptions of love and praise that use imagery of fruit, and he is writing homilies about love and praise that use imagery of fruit, the Psalms are so associated with Christ that they are still a natural text to use for Christ’s self-description. Of course, he also uses New Testament sources that are explicitly Christological, such as the text from 1 Peter 2:3, where Peter says that his readers have now “tasted that the Lord is good.” But the Psalms, perhaps because of the Office, are so clearly the words of Christ that Bernard can assume that “no one doubts that the Word is the fruit, and the Word is Christ” (8).

-- ADM


  1. Very nice attention to the metaphors that Bernard is relying on and to the way in which he cites Scripture to develop them, but I am not quite clear how you are suggesting we think about this focus on fruit in the larger context of Bernard's meditation on the Incarnation. You point to some interesting puzzles--whether Bernard may be thinking in Eucharistic terms, why he does not cite the Song of Songs more in this context--but it seems to be the metaphor itself that you are chewing over (pun intended!) and trying to make sense of. Perhaps there is a key in the comparisons you suggest between what Bernard might have said and what he actually says: the most common reading of Christ as fruit is in the context of the crucifixion, where he hangs as a "fruit" from the cross as the Tree of Life, which also appears in Revelation. Just as Bernard does not seem as interested in the throne and temple imagery for Mary which we have seen in other descriptions of her, so, at least here, he seems to be giving a somewhat different emphasis to the image of Christ as fruit. Bernard is often confusing like this: he seems to be saying something utterly from within the tradition--and yet he isn't. Definitely worth mulling over! RLFB

  2. I really liked the potential connection you've drawn between Bernard's fruit language and the Eucharist. It is interesting that he doesn't make the connection directly, did he expect his readers to draw the connection for themselves? Or perhaps he leaves the connection implicit because he's trading on even more associations with the fruit and eating. Another area where medieval theologians often used eating and tasting language is when discussing reading, especially the deep reading of the lectio. Maybe Bernard wants his readers to consider a whole range of methods to "savor" Christ, reading Scripture, the Eucharist, singing the Psalms, and so on. If this is the case, does it nuance how we read Mary's role in all this? What relation does the fruit have to the vine, and how might we use this relation to better understand what Bernard is saying about Mary?

  3. Bernard also does not mention the fruit in relation to the "Fruit of the Spirit, a verse in Galatians that is one of the most well-known Biblical verses. But perhaps Bernard's failure to mention the fruit based on these seemingly obvious connections to fruit in Song of Songs and in Galatians is because it was probably common knowledge at the time that fruit, and the Fruit of the Spirit was Christ. This context actually helps create stronger imagery of Christ as the Fruit and, as dyingst is saying, of Mary as the Vine. For if the Holy Spirit is the seed that allows Mary to conceive, then in her womb is the fruit, and so she is the vine that provides life and sustenance to Christ, ultimately stemming from the Tree of Life.


  4. In reading this blog post, I came to appreciate this language of Bernard of Clairvaux's more than I had upon first reading his Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin. The idea of Mary and Jesus Christ’s connection with being “fruit” of the soul is compelling and generally overlooked. There has been attention placed on her as the new Eve but even then there is a connection to the garden, to the fruitfulness of life, and eventually the fall of humanity because of the forbidden fruit. It is truly a fulfillment of this new Eve rhetoric if then Mary’s fruit is not only the answer to the Fall, but is the perfect fruit and shows not only her own sweetness but also of that life without sin. “A woman for a woman” Bernard said with his second homily in the third paragraph and in this same breadth he is talking about Jesus as the fruit of Mary, in essence the fruit of prophecy and covenant. Though Bernard did not go more into depth at the connection between Mary and this part of the covenant, he did open the topic to where it could be studied further. Though the idea is intricate, Bernard left it to be fleshed out by others so that he could focus his efforts on Mary and his devotion to her rather than on the works that foresaw her.
    - A. Graff

  5. This focus on fruit and garden imagery is particularly interesting, or perhaps understandable, coming from Bernard of Clairvaux considering his status as a Cistercian monks. The original emphasis of Cistercian life was on simple self-sufficiency, in reaction to the perceived excesses of older orders. Cistercian monks were supposed to live close to nature and grow their own plants and food. Perhaps this also explains why we see such a proliferation of natural imagery in Bernard’s homilies. Elisabeth MacDougall wrote an interesting piece on this particularly Cistercian element to monastic life. The monks specifically chose to set up houses in barren and lonely places. Their efforts in transforming their monastic gardens provided a joyous outlet, especially in contrast to the harsh discipline and cold piety of the rest of their lives. When looking for spiritual inspiration, the imagery and vocabulary of nature and cultivation may have come especially easily to Bernard. Not only does imagery of fruit carry a lot of symbolic and scriptural weight, it also may well have had a personal relevance that shines through in these homilies.