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Michael O’Carroll, C.S.Sp.

The Life of Mary

Maxime le Confesseitr. Vie de la Vierge, edited and translated by


Michel-Jean van Esbroeck, S.J., two volumes, CSCO, Scriptores Iberici:
21, Georgian text, 3,000 Belgian francs; 22, French translation, 1,000
Belgian francs; A Virgin Called tYomajr, M. Philip Scott, OCSO,
Bethlehem Abbey Press, £5.95stg.
Two different works which converge on the same theme. Fr van
Esbroeck has brought a massive answer to the hope of students of Byzan-
tine literature. For some time they have been waiting for a critical edition
of a basic text, the Life of the Virgin by John the Geometer (tenth cen-
tury). Extracts have been published by the dean of Byzantine
Mariologists, Fr Martin Jugie, A.A., by Fr Jean Galot, S.J. and by
Jugie’s intellectual heir, Fr Antoine Wenger, A.A. - the concluding sec-
tion, one fifth of the whole text, appears in his work on the Assumption
and he published extracts for the French Society of Marian Studies.
There are three MSS, one in Paris, one in Rome (both used by Avenger)
and one in Genoa, a copy of which in the Bollandiste Library in Brussels
was used by Galot. What has been read of the text has whetted the

appetite of scholars for more.


They have a surprise from Michel van Esbroeck. This Bollandiste is a
formidable linguist; he not only knows but types six ancient languages
as well as Russian and Georgian. Georgian literature is his specialty with
American competing closely: he has, in fact, edited MSS in Georgian,
Armenian and Syriac, published studies on Ethiopian and other
literatures. He has now edited for CSCO, Georgian section, a work by St
Maximus the Confessor (d.662). Maximus, &dquo;venerable master&dquo; of John
ScotusiEriugena, whose translation of the Quaestiones ad Thalassufii
appears in the CCSG edition, as the best ancient witness, is enjoying
something of a vogue, thanks to Hans Urs von Balthasar. His readers
may have been surprised that he said little or nothing about the
Tlz eo tokos.
Not any longer. If Michel van Esbroeck is right, he is the real author
of the Life of the Virgin, for long attributed to John the Geometer. The
work may have been John’s model, and it antedates him by three cen-
turies. Behind such confident statements of course lie many problems:
for example how was Maximus translated into Georgian and what are his
sources? Michel van Esbroeck deals with these matters and with any
other question that arises incidentally. In particular he compares the
work of Maximus with similar later productions from the Byzantine
235

world, not only from John but from Symeon Metaphrastes and
Theodore Synccllos.
The contents of this work are full of interest. Maximus draws on the
apocrophon, the Protevaiigeliiiiii of James, as towards the end of his
work he uses the Transitus stories. The theologian who resisted the
Monophysites and Monothelites - to the point of physical torture in this
case - comes through in theological reflections of the Incarnation.
Did Maximus teach the Immaculate Conception? His translator from
Georgian uses the French word &dquo;immacul6e&dquo; frequently and one must
assume that this is done with due advertence to the impact. The eastern
mentality was in the matter different from the west so heavily moulded
by St Augustine. Of Mary’s surpassing holiness Maximus leaves no man-
ner of doubt. He turns aside to delay on the Baptism at the Jordan -

possibly because he was attracted by the Holy Spirit, and on the marriage
at Cana. But when he comes to the Passion of Christ, he rises to the
heights and his passage on the fortitude of Mary will surely be often
quoted.
Maximus follows a tradition which may go back to St John
Chrysostom, that Mary saw the risen Jesus; it had been put at its
strongest in the previous century by Romanos the Singer; &dquo;Be reassured,
Mother; you will be the first to see my risen body.&dquo; Mary’s support in
prayer and compassion for the Apostles is described in detail - here as
elsewhere Maximus speaks very explicitly of the &dquo;Heart&dquo; of the Mother;
she is for all the Mother of mercy, an early though not the earliest use
of this title.
The story of the Assumption would demand separate treatment, as
would the tale of how Our Lady’s garment was brought from the Holy
Land to Constantinople, &dquo;city of the Theotokos&dquo;. Here it would be
enshrined in a church especially built and here honoured for generations:
a palladium often brought out to save the city. The whole work ends with
the &dquo;seventy attributes of the Theotokos&dquo; the litany of praise in the high
Byzantine manner. This, the emphasis on universal mediation, explicit
and detailed, tne sparkling shower of miracles which accompanied the
death, and the translator’s touching prayer, would be illumination to
those who think that belief in Our Lady’s intercession is a latter-day
invention. There is nothing in the west at this time, just nothing, to
match this sublime, enthusiastic composition. We still hear talk about
ecumenism relevant only to what happened eight centuries later.
F. Scott, in the Marian tradition of his order, makes his contribution
to the ongoing ecumenical debate. As Bishop Cathal Daly says in the
preface, Catholics arc often accused of getting their Marian theology
outside the Scriptures. The author of A Virgin Called Woman tackles
burning problems, courageously and with the required fire-fighting
equipment: sound exegetical method and a sense of proportion.
The passages chosen are: Galatians 4:4, which, for the author’s com-
236

fort, has been taken as the key, opening quotation of Redemptoris


Mater, John Paul II’s Encyclical on Our Lady; Luke, 11:28; the Gospel
according to Mark; and the episode at Cana in Galilee, the first of the
signs when he &dquo;showed his glory and his disciples believed in him&dquo;.
One can be quite happy with the author’s treatment of the questions
raised. He rightly parts company with the inter-faith, Mary in the New
Testament. on Galatians 4:4 and concludes that Paul almost certainly
wrote with an awareness of the virginal conception. Likewise in his
handling of what are sometimes called the difficult texts about Mary in
Luke and the other synoptics, much care is needed. The author’s analysis
of the chiastic structure of Mark will repay the attention the reader has
to give it. He joins hands with a great Johannine scholar, Fr F.-M. Braun
O.P.,in seeing Mary as the new Eve in John’s story of Cana. All
through, he remains close to the sacred text, making the meaning of the
Greek accessible to those who do not know this language. Fr Scott,
possibly because of those long periods of monastic silence, writes lucidly.
He has been well served by his printer; the book is well produced.