Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Immaculate Rod of Jesse

Thursday’s class discussion and readings brought the tension between Mary as a synonym for the Word and Mary as a woman to the fore. At some points she is described a human worth emulating while at others she is the incarnation of the Word, a metaphor more than a woman. Attempts to contextualize Mary in the Old Testament led to conflation of who exactly Mary’s father and husband are and confusion on my part as I tried to make sense of Marquard, Conrad and Walter.

Mary is sometimes described as a standard humans can aspire to, emphasizing her humanity over her divine qualities or import. Marquard presents Mary as “a potent model for identification and imitation to the individual” (243). If Mary can be emulated then she is more than just the bringer of the Word, she is a person. The Legenda aurea may have had an ulterior motive for humanizing Mary; he uses her example to encourage Christians to travel to Holy sites (256), an act that I assume brought the Church revenue through donations. However, Mossman notes that Marquard does not do this. Instead he contemplates, Mary as having a “mystical union with God” (258). He describes her manner of prayer and holds her up as an example of an excellent and devout Christian. Marquard goes as far as to state that Mary completely lost herself “in the abyss of darkness” in God, seeing his eternal light (264). This oneness with God almost felt more Buddhist than Christian to me. However, it is still grounded in the belief that Mary is a very special and important human rather than some form of divinity or metaphor.

Mary’s own humanity is relevant in terms of her lineage.  In the works of Conrad of Saxony and Walter of Wimborne, Mary is described as the progeny of Jesse. Walter hails her as the “rod of Jesse” (7). The import of Mary’s lineage seems strange given that Jesus is the Son of God and, theoretically, not Mary’s by nature. However, Conrad illuminates why Mary’s family tree is important: Isaiah prophesized that the Lord’s rod of power would “spring forth a rod from the root of Jesse,” (16) and therefore Mary must be from Jesse in order for Jesus to conform Old Testament predictions of the Messiah. Yet, Conrad also conflates Jesus and Mary. He says: “the rod is the Son of God, who is the ray of Mary, our star” (12). Can Mary be both star and rod? If rod merely means descendent then Mary is a rod of Jesse, as Jesus is a rod of both Mary and Jesse. However, such generalized meaning creates a headache for interpreting scripture.

Ties to the Old Testament also create confusion as to whose wife Mary is. In what I believe is a reference to Psalm 44:11-15, Hugh uses what Mossman calls “bridal mysticism” to describe Mary’s union with God (273). Notably, this section is brimming with carnal imagery but is interpreted to describe the blessed virgin. Has Mary really “tasted [God’s] sweetness” and “yielded” to him? Can a story evocative of sexual imagery be interpreted as purely faith-based? Richard presents God as both Mary’s father and husband. By reason of her contemplation, Mary is brought to God not out of fear of punishment or desire for reward but out of “love and affection for the father like a daughter” (284). This section is confusing to me in its conflation of carnality and paternity and who exactly God is to Mary. However, it is not the first time paternity, Mary, and sex have been discussed in tandem. We know how Jesus is Mary’s son, father, groom and brother. We’ve also discussed that the erotic discussion between a bridegroom and bride in Song of Songs is commonly read as a conversation between Jesus and Mary. Mechthild describes Mary as the bride of the trinity who suckled the prophets. Yet the trinity includes a father and son. Perhaps the desire to find Old Testament references to Mary and Jesus is partially responsible for these consistent conflations.

Apparent contradictions in with whom and how Mary produced Jesus also speak to a confusion about how human Mary is. Is she more of an idea, able to platonically marry the entire trinity, or a human woman whose relationship with God and/or her son can be described in carnal terms? Is she so holy that she can be described carnally and still be understood to be a virgin? Modern religion has taken the latter view but I am not convinced. From a historical point of view, I would postulate that it makes sense that the Holy Spirit is Mary’s father, God is Mary’s husband and Jesus is her son. Mary was raised reading scripture (the Holy Spirit), is impregnated by God to have a virgin birth and raise Jesus. To me this idea has more clarity, something writers like Conrad seemed to be searching for. I’m confused as to why no one seems to be championing the possibility of delineation between Father, Son and Holy Spirit with regards to Mary; perhaps again a desire to make as many Old Testament passages applicable to Jesus and Mary governs a more conflated approach. I will acknowledge that my affinity for my theory is not purely liturgical; as a modern woman, I’m perturbed by a description of God/dad getting Mary drunk so she would “yield forth” (273) to him.

Walter too seems confused about exactly who Mary is. He calls her the “nuptial of the Word” (25). However, multiple times he refers to her as a variation of “dwelling of the Word” (2). Mary contains God and marries him, she is Jesus’ wife and mother. In Conrad, Mary is treated as the incarnation of the Word, something he is not worthy to speak about. In Marquard, the word is being born in her soul at all times (267). She is married to the Word, she contains the Word, she is the Word. It seems strange that during a time when scholars were attempting to create systems for religion, Mary is so mystified. Again, perhaps this stems from a desire to fit Mary into multiple systems.

Mary is to some degree human and to some degree divine. This idea is easy to understand in theory but more difficult to nail down with the specificity Thursday’s writers seem to desire. I found it particularly confusing (and somewhat disturbing) to distinguish Mary’s father from her bridegroom. Perhaps confusion must necessarily follow when attempting to systematize the divine using Old Testament references.



  1. You are here coming up against the kind of thinking that I have been warning about all quarter: using modern categories of analysis to make sense of the mysteries of Christianity as they were understood before the modern period changed the terms in which Christians tend to think of God and Mary. If Mary as one with God seems "more Buddhist than Christian," perhaps this is because Christianity was once more mystically inclined than many modern Christians realize, thus the appeal in the past century or so of Buddhist methods of meditation to satisfy this longing (or lack) in modern Christian thinking. Likewise the difficulties you are having in making sense of how Mary can be the bride of the Trinity and the implications this imagery carries of Mary's relationship to each of the three persons. As we have been discussing, much of this imagery comes from the Old Testament (which Barker has argued is actually much more Incarnational and Trinitarian than many modern accounts of the Christian tradition sometimes imply), but is obviously more fully developed in Christian exegesis. Rather than trying to fit medieval Mary into modern categories, try thinking of the tradition as simply itself, not addressing the kinds of questions that you might have about whether God as Father should marry his daughter, but rather encapsulating a mystery in which the divine was much more dynamic and, indeed, mystical. RLFB

  2. This post reminded me of the occasionally fraught relationship between doctrine and mysticism – which is where many of the confusions for myself certainly have come from in this course. It seems to me that many of these texts (though not all as the Dun Scotus proves) are semi-mystical in that they are trying to tease apart these divine mysteries using language that sometimes can seem inconsistent. Therefore, for me, an issue I have come up against has been my lack of firm knowledge on the development of Christian doctrine and thereby a lack of understanding regarding what theological structure these medieval authors are operating under. For example, the author’s idea that one can consider Mary as playing different roles with respect to each of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost was at first intriguing, but upon doing later research, I found that this is – I think – technically a kind of Trinitarian heresy known as Modalism (or Sabellianism/Patripassianism depending on where or when this idea cropped up), which held that the three persons of the trinity are different modes of Godhead who exist separately – as opposed to as a triune. It is this sort of specific knowledge that makes reading these texts very difficult. Normally one ascends to mysticism through long study of a religion, but – unfortunately given the length of the course we don’t have that luxury – so we have to jump to that level of understanding in order to begin discussing the shifting images of Mary through history. -LDD