As I first began reading Fr. Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church, I rolled my eyes at the emphasis so many early Church theologians placed on the word “of.” Origen did this in his Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, writing, “In the case of any man, it is appropriate to say that he was born “by means of a woman,” because before he was born of a woman, he took his origin from a man. But Christ, whose flesh did not take its origin in a man’s seed, is rightly said to have been born “of a woman”” (MFC 75). Surely, I thought, it was silly to make so much of a single preposition. What did it matter if Jesus was born from, by, or of a Virgin as long as we all believe she was a Virgin? But, for some reason, all of these writers thought this one preposition was crucial. Cyril of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, Athanasius of Alexandria, and a dozen others all stress that Jesus was born of a Virgin and not merely through or from.
Father Gambero explains the importance of this language to Origen who “poses the question exactly in the terms in which it had to be phrased for the mentality of his time. According to the biology of that time, the conception of a baby was caused solely by the male semen, while the mother’s womb was considered to be only the receptacle in which it developed” (MFC 74). Origen understood the impact these words had on his audience. For people of these early centuries, it was impossible to imagine a Virgin-birth because a human being was simply the mature “plant” grown from the man’s seed. The theological danger, then, was two-fold. One temptation was simply to deny the Virgin birth. The other was to imagine a spiritual Christ as springing from a spiritual seed. In this view, Mary would serve as a kind of surrogate, a channel for the divine child to pass through. Origen argued specifically against this latter idea which was taught by the Docetists. These heretics were similar the the Gnostics, teaching that Christ’s physical body was illusory.
To this formulation, the Fathers say, “No!” In his The New Adam and the New Eve, Irenaeus of Lyons writes that, if we accept the idea of Mary as mere surrogate of a merely divine being, Jesus’ “descent into Mary would have been superfluous. For why would he have descended within her, if he did not need to take something from her?” (MFC 57) And this is where things get interesting. Jesus took something from Mary. John Chrysostom explains that Jesus took from Mary “a part that he augmented and formed.” Athanasius of Alexandria says it like this:
“If the Son of God had wanted merely to appear, He could certainly have assumed any kind of body, even one better than ours. Instead it was our own kind of body that he took, and not just in any way. He took it from a pure and unstained Virgin, who had not known man… the All-powerful and the craftsman of all things, He made for Himself a temple within the Virgin, that is to say, a body.”(On the Incarnation of the Word, MFC 102)
Cyril of Jerusalem explains it this way:
“He was made man, not in appearance only or as a phantasm, but in a real way. He did not pass through the Virgin, as if through a channel; rather he truly took flesh from her and by her was truly nursed, really eating and really drinking just as we do.” Cyril of Jerusalem, (Catecheses, MFC 133)
These Church Fathers explain that Jesus did not just appear to have a body of Flesh and bones like us. Nor was his body created out of thin air. Instead, Jesus took flesh from Mary to form his body. Even more scandalous than the idea of God becoming flesh was this idea that his flesh came from a woman. This was a kind of reversal of the creation of men in the garden where the flesh for Eve was taken from Adam. Now, the flesh for the new Adam, Jesus, was taken from the new Eve, Mary. Although certainly scandalous for Jews and Greeks alike, the Church Fathers did not shy away from this teaching. Instead, they held fast to the difficult but orthodox teaching. In doing so, they walked the fine line of Christ’s dual natures. He did not just appear as a human being, nor was he a human being to whom divinity was conferred. No, at the moment of conception, he was truly God and truly man.
In keeping their Christology orthodox, these early theologians were also able to say beautiful things of Our Mother. John Chrysostom compared her to the Garden of Eden. “As the first soil produced for us the garden of paradise without any seed,” he writes in Commentary on Psalm 44, “so the Virgin gave birth to Christ for us without any manly seed” (MFC 178). Mary is the soil of the new garden from which sprang the shoot of Jesse, the Lily of the Valley, and the Rose of Sharon.
Of course, what the Fathers say of Mary’s role in the incarnation is not just the esoteric musings of dead philosophers. There are powerful practical applications for these teachings. Because Mary was not just the first Christian (receiving Jesus first) but the best Christian and our model in all ways. But how can we follow Our Lady here? We can’t literally give birth to Jesus. No, but Mary didn’t just give birth to Jesus. She gave him flesh. She incarnated the Word of God. And so should we. As Christians, we are meant to follow Mary by becoming the flesh of Christ, his hands and feet. We are the body of Christ on earth. Also, like the New Eden, the Blessed Virgin, we are the soil in which Christ grows.
It can often be difficult to predict the practical impacts that result from heretical teaching. But orthodoxy, “right-thinking,” must always go hand-in-hand with orthopraxy, “right action.” Although they go by different names today, the Gnostic heresies are alive and well. Against them we must say, “We are the children of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We will follow her in becoming the flesh and soil of her son, Jesus Christ.”
This post is a part of this series on Mary.