Chrysostom’s Vainglorious Virgin Mary

Augustine somewhat famously said that, when it came to the Virgin Mary, he did not want to consider the notion of her sin, and some have taken this as an in nuce endorsement of her sinlessness, which would develop à la Newman in later theology.[1] Fair enough.

One of Augustine’s famous contemporaries, John Chrysostom, took a less delicate approach. Not unlike the earlier Tertullian, Chrysostom read the Mary depicted in the gospels as a complicated, more human character who repeatedly behaves imperfectly. In fact, modern scholars have even observed that the evidence for Mariology in Antioch’s theological tradition as a whole is “patchy” as well as “disparate, fragmentary, and often polemical.” To wit, some have called Antioch a terra dura for Mariology.[2] More on this anon, but first, let’s look at Chrysostom’s Homily 21 on John’s gospel.

Most of the homily explicates the wedding in Cana, where Jesus performs his first miracle of changing water into wine. Arguably, the main point of interest here for Chrysostom involves Jesus’s harsh response to Mary when she hints that he should intervene when the wine has dried up: “What is there between me and you, woman? My hour isn’t here yet.” For Chrysostom, there is no dodging the force of what Christ says to his mother: the reply to Mary’s implicit request was “rather violent” (σφοδρότερον). Thus, Jesus’s words beg an explanation, and the preacher sets out to provide one to the congregants.

If he strikes any sort of apologetic tone in this sermon, Chrysostom directs it almost entirely toward Christ rather than Mary, whose actions apparently merited a real rebuke from her son. At the beginning of the sermon before he comes to the story of the wedding at Cana, Chrysostom compares both Mary and Joseph (in Luke) to the disciple Nathanael in John 1 in that they both had some sense of Jesus’s uniqueness without fully grasping his true nature—a clever setup for the immediately-following discussion of Mary in John 2. By weaving in another story from Mark 3 where Jesus’s family opposes him, Chrysostom finds that Mary was in the wrong for wanting to capitalize personally from her son’s miracle:

But when she heard that John [the Baptist] had come because of him, and that whatever he testified, he testified for him—then finally getting up the courage, she entreats him and, with the wine gone, says “they have no wine.” For she was wishing both to settle things for them and to make herself more conspicuous through her child. And maybe she was feeling something human, just like his brothers, saying “Show yourself to the world!” [John 7:3–5] wanting to reap the glory of his miracles.[3]        

Chrysostom later adds that while Jesus understood the need to honor his mother, he was really more concerned with the salvation of her soul (τῆς σωτηερίας τῆς κατὰ ψυχὴν)—quite a striking comment, in light of later Mariology.

Even in Chrysostom’s day, this was a fairly harsh reading of Mary’s character in the gospels, one that probably would have startled other prominent exegetes in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Yet it is the moral application Chrysostom takes from John 2 that is most interesting, and it may also explain why the preacher takes this unique approach. Chrysostom elaborates on the appropriateness of Jesus’s rebuke:

For where parents would neither impede nor thwart some action with respect to God, it is necessary and an obligation to yield, and there is great danger in not doing this. But when they improperly seek something or thwart something of the spirit [τι. . . τῶν πνευματικῶν], it is not safe to obey. And so he answered in such a way here, and again elsewhere [Mark 3 and parallels]: “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?”

He then emphasizes that any special status for Mary came not from the simple fact of her being Christ’s mother but from the special virtue she usually exhibited in her life. The family relation in itself availed her nothing.

Then Chrysostom turns and throws the moral lesson right at his listeners:

And if Christ’s birth from her profits Mary nothing without virtue, all the more for us if we have a father or brother or child who is virtuous and noble. If we ourselves are far removed from their virtue, it won’t be able to help us. “For [if] a brother,” says David, “does not redeem, will [any] person redeem?” So if this by itself was going to profit the Virgin, it would have profited the Jews as well, for Christ was their kinsman according to the flesh. And it would have profited the city in which he was born and it would have profited his brothers. And even his brothers, until they were not thinking of themselves, the honor of kinship was profiting them nothing, but they were condemned with the rest of the world.

Elsewhere in the homily, Chrysostom stresses that good Christians must be willing to go against parents when necessary and they must also develop their own personal virtue apart from the reputation or quality of their family. The story of Mary in John 2 fits this application nicely, flipping a questionable moment in Christ’s behavior into a critique of social norms. Chrysostom, then, takes the awkward thrust of the story head-on. The implication is a simple but cogent lesson: if these rules of conduct applied to people as exemplary as Jesus and his mother, they apply to you as well, even—perhaps especially—if you come from a good and noble family.

As for the larger Mariological implications, Chrysostom’s particular words here and Antioch’s Marian terra dura generally help illustrate how I think doctrinal development actually plays out in real ecclesiastical history. That is to say, we—one can come up with Protestant as well as Roman Catholic examples—often remain deaf to instances where important voices in the Church we would otherwise heed have actively argued the exact opposite of what doctrine has developed into. In the case of Mary’s apparent sinlessness, the development scheme works if the only ancient data points in the graph are plena gratia in the Vulgate of Luke 1:28, the idea of Eve’s recapitulation in Mary, Augustine’s aversion to discussing Marian sin, etc. But if we throw Chrysostom into the set, suddenly that smooth, steady curve becomes quite jagged.

And all that aside, our earliest theorist of apostolic succession and tradition, Irenaeus, effectively denied the possibility of meaningful development in ecclesiastical teaching, but that’s a story for another post.

  1. De natura et gratia 36.42.

  2. Pauline Allen, “Antioch-on-the-Orontes and Its Territory: A ‘Terra Dura’ for Mariology?,” in Presbeia Theothokou, ed. Leena Mari Peltomaa, Andreas Külzer, and Pauline Allen, The Intercessory Role of Mary across Times and Places in Byzantium (4th-9th Century), (Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2015), 177.
  3. All quotations of Homily 21 are my translation.


Related Articles


Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This