Virgin Mother New

The riches - some might say the excesses - of the Marian tradition have their origins in three theological insights of the early church: Mary is Virgin, Mary is Mother of God or Godbearer (Theotokos), and Mary is the New Eve. In patristic theology, none of these titles is an optional extra - all of them are central to the doctrine of the incarnation and the meaning of salvation.

From the fourth century, Mary's virginity has been increasingly interpreted as a sign of sexual purity, with the implication that there is a fundamental incompatibility between sex and God. However, for the early church, the doctrine of the virgin birth attested first and foremost to the divine origins and nature of Christ, so that it represented the vertical, God-human dimension of the incarnation (see Campenhausen 1964). To quote Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397) in his Exposition of Luke (2.15), "[a] virgin giving birth is the sign of a divine mystery, not a human one" (Ambrose in Gambero 1999: 192). Mary's virginity is therefore primarily a theological symbol, or, according to Manuel Miguens, a theolo-goumenon. Miguens argues that this does not mean that its significance is purely symbolic, since "God's real interest in Christ's birth, and coming in general, is by far more aptly and efficaciously signified by a genuine and factual intervention than through a narrative which has to fabricate an imaginary event where, after all, the message remains highly conceptual and dialectical" (Miguens 1975: 162).

But while the doctrine of the virgin birth was primarily theological in the early church, Mary's virginity also had anthropological significance since it symbolized the transformation of the human in Christ. The redeemed person has escaped the cycle of sex, procreation, and death, and therefore the virginal body is a potent symbol of resurrection and eternal life. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330-c.395) writes in his treatise On Virginity (ch. 13) that when death came to Mary, he "dashed his forces against the fruit of her virginity as against a rock, that he was shattered to pieces upon her, so in every soul which passes through this life in the flesh under the protection of virginity, the strength of death is in a manner broken and annulled" (Gregory of Nyssa 1994: 359-60).

Mary's virginity therefore represents the supernatural intervention of God into the human story, and the consequent transformation of the finite human into a divinized and immortal being. This idea is beautifully expressed in the Orthodox concept of theosis: "The human vocation is to fulfil one's humanity by becoming God through grace" (Clément 1997: 76).

The patristic understanding of the virgin birth poses a challenge to modern interpretations, both liberal and conservative. Liberals tend to interpret the conception of Christ as typical of mythological couplings in which a human mother is impregnated by a divine father and gives birth to a hero or a god (see Hamington 1995: 58; Ludemann 1998; Baring and Cashford 1993: 563). But the first Christians formulated the doctrine of the virgin birth as an explicit refutation of pagan ideas of divine sexual procreation.1 René Girard is more faithful to the early Christian vision than many theologians, when he interprets the virgin birth as a refusal of sexual violence and an affirmation of the essentially peaceful nature of the incarnation. Girard claims that "[t]he birth of the gods is always a kind of rape" (Girard 1987: 220), and he contrasts this with the fact that "all the themes and terms associated with the virgin birth convey to us a perfect submission to the non-violent will of the God of the Gospels" (Girard 1987: 221).

Conservatives share with liberals the tendency to endow the virgin birth with sexual connotations, thereby losing sight of its primary theological significance. Balthasar posits a "suprasexual (and not sexless) relationship between the incarnate Word and his Church" (Balthasar 1988-98: II, 412). In his elaborate metaphysics of sexual difference, this relationship is personified in the relationship between Christ and Mary, and there is an implicit suggestion that the conception of Christ is a transcendent act of divine copulation between an essentially masculine God and an essentially feminine creature.2 But to suggest this is to deny the theological insight that Mary falls pregnant by the power of God acting through the Holy Spirit in an entirely non-sexual way, which introduces something new and unheard of into the human story Justin Martyr (died c. 165), refuting comparisons between the virgin birth and the sexual procreation of the gods in his "First Apology" (ch. 33), writes of the Spirit which "when it came upon the virgin and overshadowed her, caused her to conceive, not by intercourse, but by power" (Justin Martyr 1996: 174).

The tendency to interpret the conception of Christ exclusively in metaphors of heterosexual intercourse is undermined even further when one considers that for the early church, particularly the Syriac Church, the Holy Spirit by which Mary conceived was sometimes understood as feminine. Consider, for example, Ode 19 of the second-century Odes of Solomon, which uses startling gender metaphors to describe Christ's conception and birth:

The Holy Spirit opened her womb, and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father. . . .

The womb of the Virgin caught it, and She received conception and gave birth. . . .

And she did not need a midwife

Because He [God] delivered her.

Like a man she gave birth by will.

(Quoted in Harvey 1993: 125-6).

Such "queering" of the conception of Christ renders it inherently unstable so that it defies any fixed positioning within the bounds of human reason and gender constructs. As theological symbols become more literal in gendered and philosophical terms, they lose this capacity to unsettle intellectual theories about the relationship between God and humanity in Christ.

If the virgin birth represents discontinuity and transformation in the story of creation, the motherhood of Mary represents continuity and integration, so that it affirms the fullest possible identification of Christ with the human condition from the beginning. Mary's motherhood is the horizontal dimension of the incarnation, incorporating Christ into the historical, social, and material realities of life in all its contingency and finitude. To quote Athanasius (295-373), in his Letter to Epictetus (7), "[t]he nature which came forth from Mary was human, according to the divine Scriptures, and the body of the Lord was real; real, I say, since he existed like we do. Moreover, Mary is our sister; for all of us surely have our origins in Adam" (Athanasius 1998: 573; in Buby 1996: III, 106).

In the earliest Christian defenses of the incarnation, Mary's motherhood represents the supreme challenge to those who argue that the divine cannot identify itself with the inherent corruption of the flesh. The fact that God was born of a mother affirms that the flesh is good and created by God. Tertullian (c. 155-c. 225), in his characteristically polemical style, gives a graphic account of the gestation and birth of Christ which is, as far as I know, unique among Christian writings on the incarnation. His treatise On the Flesh of Christ culminates with a challenge to his opponent, Marcion: "You detest a human being at his birth; then after what fashion do you love anybody?. . . Well, then, loving man [Christ] loved his nativity also, and his flesh as well" (Tertullian 1870: 164). Augustine (354-430) uses a similar argument against his opponents with less vivid imagery. He acknowledges that Christ could have been born without a woman, but says, "Suppose I am not able to show why he should choose to be born of a woman; you must still show me what he ought to avoid in a woman" (Augustine 1991c: 21). He continues by imagining Christ saying:

To show that it's not any creature of God that is bad, but that it's crooked pleasures that distort them, in the beginning when I made man, I made them male and female. . . . Here I am, born of a man, born of a woman. So I don't reject any creature I have made, but I reject and condemn sins, which I didn't make. (Augustine 1991c: 22)

The motherhood of Mary, therefore, is symbolically significant for two related reasons: first, it affirms the full humanity of Christ, and secondly, it affirms the inherent goodness of the material world and human flesh - including female flesh - as created by God. Gradually, particularly since the Counter Reformation, these insights have been lost to Catholic Mariology. Instead of a fully human mother who incarnates the fully human God, Mary has become a transcendent feminized principle identified with a transcendent and disembodied Christ (see Boss 2000: 26-72; Beattie 2000: 150-9). From the seventeenth century, depictions of Mary in art tend to show her without the child in her arms, an image of idealized femininity divorced from the reality of the flesh. Related to this, the emphasis on Mary's virginal purity has lost its early significance as a symbol of the redeemed flesh free from the corruption of death, and has come instead to signify a body uniquely set apart and preserved from the taint of the flesh itself, especially the sexual female flesh symbolized by Eve. Such shifts in the theological imagination distort the very heart of the Christian faith, for they deny the significance of Mary for the incarnation as a symbol of reconciling peace between the Word and the flesh, the body and God, creation and the Creator.

But the wonder of this reconciling peace lies not in Mary's virginity nor in her motherhood, but in the juxtaposition of the two. It is here that opposites meet and the ruptured world of the fall is restored to a state of integrity and wholeness beyond our human capacity to comprehend. In the words of Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 208) - in Against Heresies (3.19.3) -"The Lord has given us a sign 'as deep as Sheol and as high as heaven', such as we should not have dared to hope for. How could we have expected to see a virgin with child, and to see in this child a 'God with us' (Isaiah 7.11, 14)" (Irenaeus in Clément 1997: 36). In an era of genetic engineering and in vitro fertilization, it is perhaps impossible for us to appreciate the significance of the term "virgin mother," but for the pre-modern mind it marks a shift beyond a conceptual world of binary opposites (either/or), to a conception which is literally impossible because it takes place in the excluded middle of both/and. Gregory Nazianzen (c. 330-90) declares (Oration 45, For Easter 9): "What a strange conjunction! What a paradoxical union! . . . [H]e occupies the middle ground between the subtlety of God and the density of the flesh" (Clément 1997: 88). In this paradoxical union, either virgin or mother becomes both virgin and mother, and in this reconciling movement the world is transformed from within by the divine presence through the refiguration of language around the poetry of faith. Between the virgin and the mother we encounter the Other, who comes to us as one of us if we ourselves remain within that space of wonder which we call faith.

The title New Eve has multiple associations which are also complex and diffuse, and which introduce a third term - that of woman - into early representations of Mary's virginal motherhood. New Eve refers both to Mary and the church in early Christian thought, but my concern here is with its Marian associations.3 In patristic typology, a connection was made between Luke's account of the annunciation, and the Genesis story of creation. From this point of view, Mary became identified with the virgin earth of Paradise from which the Second Adam was created, and as the first woman of the new creation she also became known as the New Eve in relation to Christ, the New Adam. In Irenaeus's theory of recapitulation, Mary's identification with Eve signifies that all of creation from the beginning has been redeemed in Christ, in such a way that there is an "intercircling which traces back from Mary to Eve" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.22.4).

Such typology gave rise to a series of associations between Mary and Eve which have, in later interpretations, been understood in starkly contrasting terms. The Vatican II document on the church, Lumen Gentium (1964), repeats the patristic aphorism "death through Eve, life through Mary," in a series of oppositions in which Eve remains unambiguously identified with fallenness, death and sin (Flannery 1992: 416). However, once again this represents a distortion rather than a development of patristic theology. At least until the early Middle Ages, the relationship between Mary and Eve was expressed in prismatic images in such a way that Mary represented the redemption, not the condemnation, of Eve. As the New Eve in the story of salvation, Mary is the generic woman who guarantees the redemption of all women. Patristic writings on the Magnificat sometimes interpret it as Eve's song of salvation, so that Eve is the humble handmaid who is exalted in Mary. In a homily which sings the praises of Mary in the context of women's redemption, Proclus of Constantinople (d. 446) preaches (Homily 5.3) that on "account of Mary all women are blessed. No longer does the female stand accused, for it has produced an offspring which surpasses even the angels in glory Eve is fully healed" (Proclus in Constas 2003: 261).

In art and devotion as well as in doctrine, this reconciling image of the redemption of woman has yielded to dualistic imagery in which Mary and Eve represent opposing and irreconcilable images of womanhood as either the carnal, unredeemed female flesh, or the impossible ideal of the virgin mother who is, in the title of Marina Warner's book, "alone of all her sex" (Warner 1985).4 There are abundant images in patristic theology which lend support to such dualisms, but only if one loses sight of the fact that these functioned to develop an understanding of what it would mean to be unredeemed - a question which is only ever asked from the perspective of redemption. Mary is, in the words of Cardinal Newman, "a daughter of Eve unfallen" (Newman 1891: 47; in Graef 1985: 112), and Eve is what Mary would have been, had God not redeemed the world in Christ. This is not a dialectical struggle since the two are not in conflict. Eve is always already redeemed in Mary, and therefore Eve's suffering must be understood as the other face of redemption, not as the face of damnation. Eve represents the creative suffering of the woman who from the beginning lives in the promise of redemption, since the protoevangelium, the first good news of Christ, was given before she was cast out of Eden. God says to the serpent, "I will make you enemies of each other: you and the woman, your offspring and her offspring. It will crush your head and you will strike its heel" (Genesis 3.15).5

It is not difficult to see how these three core theological symbols - Virgin, Mother, and New Eve - gradually led the devotional imagination into complex labyrinths of kinship and nuptial relationships as Christians reflected on Mary's relationship to Christ. Ephrem was the first to call Mary the Bride of her Son (Graef 1985: 58), but such imagery does not become common in the Western church until the Middle Ages (see Balthasar 1988-98: III, 300-18), when Mary's identity increasingly becomes merged with that of the church as Bride of Christ. Although certain verses of the Song of Songs had always been applied to Mary, Rupert of Deutz, writing in the early twelfth century, was the first to give an exclusively Marian interpretation to the whole Canticle. This marked the beginning of a trend in which nuptial Marian imagery became increasingly lavish and widespread, borrowing as it did from the language of courtly love (Graef 1985: 226-9, 245-59). Philip of Harvengt (d. 1183) writes, "[n]ot only does the Mother most tenderly embrace the Son, but also the Spouse the Bridegroom; and he enjoys their mutual embraces as much as she, when he, kissing her, reposes most sweetly between her breasts" (Philip quoted in Graef 1985: 255).

Perhaps unsurprisingly in the face of such devotions, the church has been cautious about using nuptial language in Marian doctrine, and Vatican II documents do not use the word spouse in relation to Mary (see O'Carroll 1990: 333-4). However, the trajectory of Marian devotion from Ephrem to Balthasar shows that such imagery exerts a powerful hold over the Christian imagination. In Balthasar's theology, the relationship between Mary and Christ represents "the creation of an absolute relationship between man and woman that is free of all entanglement in sin: here the woman is both Mother and Bride with regard to the same man, in a real but suprasexual way" (Balthasar 1988-98: III, 327).

I turn now to consider the theological significance of the foregoing, not from the perspective of doctrine but from the perspective of the psychology of prayer and worship. These are, however, not separate concerns, for central to my argument is the belief that the separation between doctrine and spirituality does violence to the holistic and reconciling vision of the early church. The language of theology and the language of devotion should be an integrated whole which finds expression and practice in the liturgical life of the church, which in turn shapes the Christian life both communally and individually around the story of Christ. So with the insights of psychoanalytic theory, how might a theologian interpret these developments in Marian devotion? Are they evidence of repressions and neuroses which have accumulated around the symbols of the Christian faith, which should be replaced by more ethical or "healthy" concepts of relationality? Or are they potentially points of creative instability in the Christian narrative, which can push the imagination beyond the constraints of law and reason, to inhabit a once and future world where everything is possible with God? Space precludes a detailed exploration of these complex questions, so I am going to focus on the psycholinguistic theory of Julia Kristeva (for a psychological analysis of Marian devotion see Carroll 1986). My concern here is more with the analysis of culture than the individual psyche, although as cultural theorists such as Kristeva, Lacan, and Irigaray argue, culture forms the psyche in its image so that the hierarchies and values of the social order are sustained through the psychological structuring of the individual socialized subject (see Grosz 1989 and 1995). To recognize this, and to acknowledge the validity of psychoanalysis, is not to render the theological narrative redundant. On the contrary, it can demonstrate why theology goes beyond the secular discourses of modernity, without ever being free of their influence and interrogation.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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