“The True Mother”: The Function of Maternal Imagery for the Spirit in the Macarian Homilies

Throughout the corpus transmitted under the name “Macarius,” this unidentified ascetic author often uses feminine and, most frequently, maternal language to identify and characterize the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s activity. The Spirit and the Spirit’s gracious activity is compared to that of a mother giving birth to, nourishing, and generally caring for her child. While this provocative theme has often been noted by scholars, especially in connection with the likely Syrian provenance of this text, little has been said about the function of this language in these writings. Thus, this paper will provide an examination of maternal language for the Spirit in the Macarian writings in order to elucidate the purpose of this unusual imagery. Through an analysis of parallels to the Macarian passages in other writers of the 4th century and earlier, as well as the theme of the “inner church” found in Macarius and the Liber Graduum, I will argue that in comparing the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s work to a mother Macarius is making a deeply ecclesiological point, steering the Christians under his care to an understanding of the Church and spirituality which is intimately connected, experienced, and lived out in and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

To make this argument, this paper will proceed in three steps. Firstly and briefly, it will demonstrate that the Macarian use of maternal language is derived from his Syrian background rather than pagan or heretical understandings of a divine mother figure. Thus, Macarius is more evidently connected to his contemporaries Aphrahat and Ephrem the Syrian, as well as older texts such as the Odes of Solomon and, ultimately, the Hebrew Old Testament than to Sethite Gnosticism or female pagan deities. Consequently, Macarius does not locate the Spirit’s motherhood within inter-trinitarian relations, but rather uses this imagery in a purely economic mode.

In the second part of my paper, I will demonstrate how the Macarian language for the Spirit finds its closest parallels in texts from and about the liturgy, especially baptismal texts. Additionally, building on the work of Martin Illert, who has identified evidences of Syrian anaphoras in the Macarian texts, I suggest, without affirming any particular literary dependencies, that these parallels are intentional rather than merely relying on shared stock imagery. This means that Macarius utilizes this maternal language with full awareness of its ecclesial and liturgical resonances.

Finally, this paper will address the function of these ecclesial motifs. Though Macarius has often been suspected in scholarly literature of having some affinity to Messalians or monastics who opposed the ecclesial hierarchy and Church’s sacraments, I argue that a closer reading of these texts clarifies that this is not the case. Thus, Macarius, though he does not refer to the maternal function of the external Church, does not seek to supplant her with the inward activity of the Spirit, but rather pushes his readers to experience the grace of the sacraments interiorly in their spiritual lives.

6 thoughts on ““The True Mother”: The Function of Maternal Imagery for the Spirit in the Macarian Homilies”

  1. Macarius in context
    The ecclesiastical motifs, the attention to Macarius, the extensive thought provided, and the Syrian context are valuable. The line of reasoning is laid out well. Cross-referenced sources are displayed. If the proposal is a forerunner of the paper, then this holds promise of a good paper.

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