The Humility of God by Amy Peeler

This article is an excerpt of Prof. Peeler’s larger project on familial language and themes throughout the New Testament, provisionally entitled A Theology of the Family of God.

“Mary … encompasses the intersection of God and the world.”[1] She is one of the places where heaven and earth meet,[2] and she is the one place where this meeting is embodied, literally in-bodied, with her bearing of the incarnation. Hence, this is an answer to the question, “Why Mary?” for she functions in the Christian confession as the necessary affirmation of a textually and traditionally adherent view of God’s presence with humanity.        In a formative class entitled, “Women and the Letters of Paul,” Beverly Gaventa instructed her divinity students to broaden our vision, for if we only attended to the passages in Paul that explicitly mentioned gender, we might very well miss the forest for the trees. Paul had much to say to women even when, and maybe especially when, his words had no feminine endings.[3] So too, I think, with Mary. Following sections of this chapter will attend to those places where authors refer to her specifically, but in this section I give attention to texts largely from the Epistles that assume her rather than name her.[4]  I begin here because her vital yet unnamed presence in these texts confirms the event of God becoming human.  Perhaps God could have reconciled creation in any way that God chose—in adherence to the intrinsic constraints of the being of God—yet the canonical texts attest that God chose to become human.[5] The decision that God made to become human—comprehensively human— not as an adult who appeared on earth but as an infant who was born of a woman, discloses the humility of God.

This humility in becoming human culminates in a willingness to suffer. The first Petrine letter is quite abundant with assertions of the humanity of their Lord (1:3; 3:15) in this way. The readers have been sprinkled with his blood and have been given hope through his resurrection from the dead (1:12–3). His suffering body is the means of righteousness and healing (2:24), his flesh dealt with sins (3:18; 4:1). Hebrews too reflects upon his humiliation in suffering (Heb 2:10; 5:8), and Paul agrees with this author particularly on the shame of dying on a Roman cross (Phil 2:8; Heb 12:2; 13:12).

Such humility in suffering, however, is not reserved only for the passion. Instead, entry into the human condition itself includes suffering, even before the point of death. Paul in Galatians as well describes how God sent this Son into the same condition in which Paul and his fellow Jews found themselves under the law (Gal 4:4–5).[6] God was willing to send his Son, and the Son was willing to go, into the bounded human condition. Hebrews employs a similar framework. In taking on flesh and blood, the Son Jesus relinquishes any shame in calling humanity his siblings, and enters with them into the condition of enslavement to the fear of death (hence his display of unease in the face of death in 5:7). Becoming human, living in the human condition, and dying, especially in the public shame of a traitor, clearly is an act of descent for One who is God.

Attention to Mary’s strong but silent place in such “humanity” texts yields one more element of God’s humility. The Son of God’s coming is an even more intense act of humility in the way in which God became human by being born.[7]  Despising birth is rather self-destructive since all humans undergo this journey. Nevertheless, birth was regarded in cultures of the first-century as a dirty and dangerous process. Plutarch notes the gracious love of the gods that they attend birth “with its accompaniment of blood and travail is no lovely thing.”[8] He praises Nature who has so designed parents to love their offspring even when humans come as they do:

For there is nothing so imperfect, so helpless, so naked, so shapeless, so foul, as man observed at birth, to whom alone, one might almost say, Nature has given not even a clean passage to the light; but, defiled with blood and covered with filth and resembling more one just slain than one just born, he is an object for none to touch or lift up or kiss or embrace except for someone who loves with a natural affection.[9]

Gore that accompanies birth shows close association—as the quotes of Plutarch show—with death. Although numbers vary,[10] birth was an intense time for the possibility of death either of the mother and/or the infant.[11] There were few other times in life in which the gripping power of the fear of death must have pervaded the thoughts of the family of the baby.[12]

A brush with this reality could be the reason why ancient cultures viewed birth as polluting for those who experienced it and attended it.[13] Greek religion demanded a sacrifice after birth,[14] and Roman culture recommended washing for the mother after birth.[15] In Leviticus 12, the law lays out the purification rituals following birth.[16] It is no moral failure to have a child, but it is unclean. Hence, if it would be an act of grace for the gods to attend and preserve birth, how much more so would it be an astounding act of grace, a great humiliation for the God of Israel, God above all gods, to be born, to enter this place of filth and death. As the ancient liturgy said, he abhorred not the virgin’s womb.[17] To assert that Jesus the Son of God is human is to assert that he, God, willingly humbled himself not only even to the point of death on a cross but also even to the point of death-threatened birth.

 

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Amy Peeler is a Fellow with the Logos Institute, an Associate Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, and Associate Rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Geneva, IL. Her primary research centers in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which has prompted her to explore ancient rhetoric, the use of the Old Testament in the New, Israel’s sacrificial system, atonement, family and inheritance in the Ancient World, and theological language. 

 

 

[1] Sarah Jane Boss, ed. Mary: The Complete Resource (London: Continuum, 2007), 5.

[2] N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2006), 56–59, 188–92.

[3]Others can largely benefit from the insights of this class in Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007).

[4] In the discussion of Jesus’ royal descent, I utilize the testimony of the Gospel texts as well.

[5] I find most convincing those who argue for a “High Christology” in the New Testament (Martin Hengel, The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976]; Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008]; and Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003]). In other words, that these first-century authors believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the human revelation of the God of Israel. In the following sections, I bring forth evidence for this thesis from the story of Mary.

[6] Betz, Galatians, 207–208; Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians (WBC 41; Dallas, TX: Word Books Publisher, 1990), 171–72; Frank J. Matera, Galatians (Sacra Pagina 9; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 150. While Paul will draw an association between Jewish pedagogy under the law and the general human condition of enslavement, the particular association here seems to be Jewish rather than universal (contra Martyn, Galatians, 269–70). See discussion of Galatians 4 in the fifth chapter.

[7] John Seward’s Redeemer in the Womb: Jesus Living in Mary (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993) offers an exegetical and historical theological treatment particularly of Mary’s pregnancy.

[8] Plutarch Dialogue on Love 15.758 (translation from Plutarch, Moralia, vol. 9 [trans. Edwin L. Minar, Jr.; LCL 425; Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1961], 359).

[9] Plutarch On Affection for Offspring 3.496c (translation from Plutarch, Moralia, vol. 6 [trans. W. C. Helmbold; LCL 337; Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1961], 349).

[10] Edith Gillian Clark, “Childbirth,” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth; 4th ed.; Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012), 309.

[11]Christian Laes, Children in the Roman Empire: Outsiders Within (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011), 50–56.

[12] Laes quotes the sentiment, “Will my wife give birth to a child? And if she does, will the child live? These are some of the questions that appear in the Lots of Astrampsychus, a kind of do-it-yourself oracle book that was extremely popular during Antiquity” (ibid., 56).

[13]In presenting the various reasons why “Leviticus excludes new mothers from sancta,” Matthew Thiessen concludes, “Either interpretation suggests that the mortality of humanity is the issue and that it is such mortality that cannot approach God” (“Luke 2:22, Leviticus 12, and Parturient Impurity” NovT 54 [2012]: 16–29, here 20 n. 121). Eisenbaum also discusses the connection between childbirth impurity and death (“Remedy,” 678–79), as does Tina Beattie in her analysis of Irigaray, stating, “Many of Irigaray’s writings seek to expose the hidden connection between the fear of the sexual female body as a source of corruption and pollution, and the fear of the maternal body as a source of death” (God’s Mother, Eve’s Advocate: A Marian Narrative of Women’s Salvation [London: Continuum, 2002], 131).

[14] Women and Weasels, 51-–53. Eisenbaum, “Remedy,” 677.

[15] Elaine Fantham, “Purification in Ancient Rome,” in Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity (ed. Mark Bradley; Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012), 62.

[16] Thiessen, “Parturient Impurity,” 19–23.

[17] This is a line in the Te Deum (non horruísti Vírginis úterum) an ancient hymn utilized still today by many Christian groups in liturgy.  The line is replicated in Frederick Oakeley’s English translation of a Latin hymn, “O Come All Ye Faithful.”