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Proclus of Constantinople and His Homily on the Theotokos Delivered in the Presence of Nestorius

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

Pappas Patristic Institute Proclus Theotokos
St Proclus of Constantinople, tempera on wood, 38 x 28 cm. Holy Monastery of Xenophontos, Mt Athos, 2015 (private collection). The icon is based on the traditional iconography of St Proclus, in particular the three images of the saint contained in the Menologion of Basil II (Vat. gr. 1613, fols. 65, 136, and 353), with one exception. In recognition of Proclus's devotion to the Theotokos, the iconographer has replaced the Gospel book traditionally held by hierarchs with a medallion of the Theotokos.

The Pappas Patristic Institute is pleased to provide a biographical note on the fifth-century Proclus of Constantinople, along with an English translation, by Fr Maximos Constas, of the saint's famous Homily on the Mother of God. This sermon was most likely delivered on the day after Christmas, when the Orthodox Church celebrates the synaxis of the Theotokos, and is fitting reading for the season of Advent.


Proclus of Constantinople

Proclus of Constantinople was born ca. 385 and died in 446. He was an early archbishop of Constantinople (from 434 to 446) and a popular preacher in the rhetorical style of Gregory Nazianzus (who died in 390, during the lifetime of Proclus himself). An ally of Cyril of Alexandria in the fifth-century Christological controversy, Proclus was the principal architect of early Byzantine devotion to the Theotokos. Nothing is known of his early life, and later sources make him the student of John Chrysostom (archbishop of Constantinople from 397 to 404). Chrysostom died in 407, and Proclus returned his relics to Constantinople in 438. However, contemporary sources place Proclus in the service not of Chrysostom, but of Atticus of Constantinople (archbishop from 406 to 425), who ordained him to the diaconate and priesthood, and whom Proclus served as secretary and ghostwriter. After the death of Atticus, Proclus was a candidate for the archiepiscopal throne, but lost the election to Sisinnius (archbishop from 426 to 427), who subsequently ordained Proclus to the see of Cyzikus. The people of Cyzikus, however, resisting the interference of Constantinople in the affairs of their church, rejected Proclus, who remained in the capital, where he became a popular preacher. After the death of Sisinnius, Proclus was again put forward as a candidate for the throne of Constantinople, but was blocked by the emperor, Theodosius II (who reigned from 408 to 450), who offered the position to an Antiochene presbyter named Nestorius (archbishop from 428 to 431). The emperor’s choice was unfortunate, for Nestorius embroiled himself in a theological controversy after he brashly criticized local devotion to the Virgin Mary. The controversy quickly spread beyond the confines of the imperial city and culminated in the deposition of Nestorius by the Council of Ephesus (431). Nestorius was replaced by Maximian (431-434), and it was only after the latter’s death that Proclus became archbishop of Constantinople (434-446), making him in all likelihood the first archbishop of Constantinople to have been born in that city.

As archbishop, Proclus continued to promote the cult of the Virgin, primarily through his homilies, which are masterpieces of Greek Christian rhetoric. The relatively small core of his genuine homilies is surrounded by a large penumbra of the spurious and the doubtful, while many other works are misattributed to Chrysostom and other writers. Proclus’s first homily on the Theotokos (featured below) is considered the most famous sermon on the Mother of God in all of ancient Christian literature. Delivered in 430, the homily was a direct attack on Nestorius, who had condemned the propriety of calling the Virgin Mary the “Theotokos” (i.e., “She who gave birth to God”). Nestorius, who was present when the homily was delivered, responded by claiming that the controversial Marian epithet was essentially pagan, and that a God born of a woman and subject to suffering and death was alien to the Christian faith. Proclus disagreed and insisted that it was precisely the weaving together of divine power and human frailty that was essential to the Christian experience of salvation.

In one of his signature metaphors, Proclus compares the Virgin’s womb to a “workshop” containing a “textile loom” on which a garment of flesh was woven for the incarnate God. Proclus returns to this image in another homily, in which the domestic metaphor of weaving becomes a public imperial adventus. Here the garment of the divine body is compared to a “consular toga,” and the maternal lap of the Virgin to a “consular throne.” Proclus’s weaving metaphors may owe something to the symbolic attributes of ancient goddesses, notably the weaver Athena (whose thirty-foot bronze statue was brought from Athens to Constantinople during Proclus’s lifetime). A more direct influence may have been exerted by his ally in the fight against Nestorius, the empress Pulcheria, who is known to have occupied herself with weaving and embroidery and had dedicated one of her imperial robes as a covering for an altar table in Hagia Sophia.

Proclus, in another signature metaphor, advanced the idea that the Virgin conceived “through her sense of hearing” (δι᾽ ἀκοῆς), a motif which had a long afterlife in medieval art and theology. If the Virgin had conceived the “Word” of God, it was only natural that this occurred through the mode of “hearing.” This was largely encouraged by the typological connections between Mary and Eve, so that the damage caused by Eve’s reception of the serpent’s words was reversed by Mary’s reception of the divine Word (cf. Gen. 2:2-7; Lk. 1:26).

Proclus’s tenure as archbishop was absorbed by the political and theological repercussions of the Theotokos controversy. His immediate concern was with a group of recalcitrant Syrian bishops who were threatening the tenuous union reached at the Council of Ephesus. Yet Proclus realized that the roots of the problem ran deep, and in his efforts to arrest the growth of Nestorianism he ventured to condemn Nestorius’s deceased teachers (Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia), who were highly revered in the Church of Antioch. The problem came to a head when the writings of these teachers were translated into Armenian, a region whose loyalties were divided between Antioch and Constantinople. When representatives of the Armenian Church brought the translations to Proclus’s attention (in 435), he responded with his Tome to the Armenians. While Diodore and Theodore were never mentioned by name, Proclus appended a series of extracts from their writings that left no doubt about his larger purpose. The Tome led the Armenian Church to reject the theology of Antioch, but Proclus found little support in his efforts to condemn those who had died in the communion of the Church.

Throughout this period, Proclus emphasized that the word “Theotokos” was a corollary of the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation, safeguarding the union of humanity and divinity in the person of Christ. Positioning himself between the theological extremes of Antioch and Alexandria, Proclus championed a duality of natures (human and divine) inseparably united in the one person (hypostasis) of Christ. Proclus’s formula marked a significant advance on the ambiguous language of Cyril of Alexandria (archbishop from 412 to 444), who at times verbally elided “person” with “nature,” and was successfully conveyed by his successors to the Council of Chalcedon (451).

For the Greek texts of Proclus’s works, see PG 65:680-888; ACO I, I, I, 103-107 (= Homily 1); ACO IV,2, 187-95 (= Tome to the Armenians); F. J. Leroy, L’Homilétique de Proclus de Constantinople: Tradition manuscrite, inédits, études connexes (Studi et Testi 247) (Rome: Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, 1967), 174-256 = Homilies 26-34; Nicholas [Maximos] Constas, Proclus of Constantinople and the Cult of the Virgin in Late Antiquity (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 128-72 = Homilies 1-5 (texts and translations with notes and commentary). For a complete list of Proclus’s works, see CPG 5800-915 (with the CPG Supplementum 5800-916); and Constas, Proclus of Constantinople, ibid., 388-91. For English translations of Proclus’s homilies, see: J. H. Barkhuisen, Proclus of Constantinople: Homilies on the Life of Christ (Queensland: University of Pretoria, 2001).


Proclus of Constantinople

Homily 1: On the Holy Virgin Theotokos, Delivered while Nestorius was seated in the Great Church of Constantinople


The Virgin’s festival, my brethren, summons us today to words of praise, and the present feast has benefits to bestow on those who assemble to keep it. And surely this is right, for its subject is chastity. What we celebrate is the pride of women and the glory of the female, thanks to the one who was at once both mother and virgin. Lovely is the gathering! See how both the earth and the sea serve as the Virgin’s escorts: the one spreading forth her waves calmly beneath the ships, the other conducting the steps of travelers on their way unhindered. Let nature leap for joy, and let women be honored! Let all humanity dance, and let virgins be glorified! For “where sin increased, grace abounded yet more” (Rom 5.20). She who called us here today is the Holy Mary; the untarnished vessel of virginity; the spiritual paradise of the second Adam (cf. Rom. 5.14; 1 Cor. 15.21–22, 45–49); the workshop for the union of natures; the market-place of the contract of salvation; the bridal chamber in which the Word took the flesh in marriage; the living bush of human nature, which the fire of a divine birth-pang did not consume (Ex. 3.2); the veritable swift cloud (Is. 19.1) who carried in her body the one who rides upon the cherubim; the purest fleece (Jg. 6.37–38) drenched with the rain which came down from heaven, whereby the shepherd clothed himself with the sheep (cf. Jn. 10.11); handmaid and mother (cf. Lk. 1.38, 43), virgin and heaven, the only bridge for God to mankind; the awesome loom of the divine economy upon which the robe (Jn. 19.23) of union was ineffably woven. The loom-worker was the Holy Spirit; the wool-worker the overshadowing power from on high (Lk. 1.35). The wool was the ancient fleece of Adam; the interlocking thread the spotless flesh of the Virgin. The weaver’s shuttle was propelled by the immeasurable grace of him who wore the robe; the artisan was the Word who entered in through her sense of hearing.


Who ever saw, who ever heard, of God dwelling without restriction in a woman’s womb? Heaven itself cannot contain him, and yet a womb did not constrict him. He was born from a woman, God but not solely God, and man but not merely man, and by his birth what was once the door of sin was made the gate of salvation. Through ears that disobeyed, the serpent poured in his poison; through ears that obeyed, the Word entered in order to build a living temple. From the place where Cain, the first disciple of sin, emerged, from there also did Christ, the redeemer of the race, sprout unsown into life. The loving God was not ashamed of the birth pangs of a woman, for the business at hand was life. He was not defiled by dwelling in places which he himself had created without dishonor. If the mother had not remained a virgin, then the child born would have been a mere man and the birth no miracle. But if she remained a virgin even after birth, then indeed he was wondrously born who also entered unhindered “when the doors were sealed (Jn. 20.19, 26),” whose union of natures was proclaimed by Thomas who said, “My Lord and my God! (Jn. 20.28).”


So do not be ashamed of the birth pangs, O man! For they were the beginning of our salvation. Had he not been born of a woman, he would not have died. Had he not died, he would not “through death have destroyed him who has the power of death, that is, the devil (Heb. 2.14).” A master builder is not dishonored if he dwells in buildings of his own design. Clay does not defile the potter who repairs what he himself had fashioned. Neither was the pure one defiled by coming forth from a virgin’s womb. From what he formed without pollution he came forth without defilement. O womb, in which was drawn up the bond that gave us all liberty! O belly, in which was forged the sword that defeated death! O field, in which Christ, nature’s farmer, himself sprouted forth unsown as an ear of corn! O temple, in which God became a priest, not by changing his nature, but by his mercy clothing himself with him who was “according to the order of Melchizedek (cf. Heb. 6.20; 7.11; Ps. 109.4)”! “The Word became flesh” (Jn. 1.14), even if the Jews disbelieve the Lord who said so. God has put on the from of a human being (cf. Phil. 2.7), even if the Greeks ridicule the wonder. For this reason, the mystery is a “scandal to the Jews” and “folly to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1.23),” because the miracle transcends reason. Had the Word not dwelt in a womb, the flesh would never have sat on the throne. Were it a disgrace for God to have entered a womb, it would also be a disgrace for angels to serve a man (Mt. 4.11; cf. Heb. 1.14).


So he who is by nature impassible became in mercy most passible. Christ did not by progress become God—heaven forbid!—but in mercy he became man, as we believe. We do not preach a divinized man, but instead we confess an incarnate God. His own handmaid he acknowledged as mother, he who in essence is without mother and in the incarnation is without father. How otherwise could Paul speak of one and the same (Christ) as both “without mother” and “without father” (Heb. 7.3)? Were he merely man, he would not be without mother; and yet he has a mother. Were he solely God, he would not be without father, and yet he has a Father. But now the same one is both without mother, as Creator, and without father, as creature.


You should also pay attention to the name of the archangel. He who brought the glad tidings to Mary was called Gabriel (Lk. 1.26). What is the meaning of “Gabriel”? God and man. Now he of whom Gabriel was bringing these tidings was God and man, and thus his name was an anticipation of the miracle, given to assure us of the incarnation. Listen to the reason for his coming and glorify the power of the one who became flesh. The human race was deep in debt and incapable of paying what it owed. By the hand of Adam we all signed a bond to sin. The devil held us all in slavery. He kept producing our bills, using our suffering body as his paper. There he stood, the wicked forger, threatening us with our debts and demanding satisfaction. One of two things had to happen: either the penalty of death had to be imposed on all, because “all had sinned” (Rom. 3.23), or else a substitute had to be provided who was fully entitled to plead on our behalf. No man could save us; the debt would have been his liability too. No angel could buy us out, for such a ransom was beyond his powers. One who was sinless had to die for those who had sinned; that was the only way left by which to break the bonds of evil.


What happened then? The very one who brought every creature into existence and whose bounty never fails, he it was who for the condemned won life most sure and for death secured a fitting dissolution. He became man (he alone knows how—to explain the miracle is beyond the power of speech). By what he became he died; by what he was, he redeemed—as Paul says, “in him we have redemption through his blood, the remission of our trespasses (Eph. 1.7).” What a transaction! It was for others that he procured immortality, since he himself was immortal. Another, able to do this work, there neither was nor has been nor is nor will be, beside him alone who was born of a virgin, God and man. His dignity was such as not only to outweigh the multitude of the condemned, but also to prevail against all sentences given against them. For he was the Son, maintaining his unchangeable likeness to the Father; the creator, possessed of unfailing power; the merciful, revealing his unsurpassable compassion; the high priest, who was worthy to plead on our behalf (cf. Heb. 3.1). None of these qualities could ever be found in another, whether in equal or in similar degree. Behold his love! Freely accepting condemnation, he destroyed the death that was due to those who crucified him; and the transgression of those who killed him he turned into the salvation of the transgressors.


A mere man could not save; for he would have needed a savior himself, since, as Paul said, “all have sinned (Rom. 3.23).” By sin we were delivered to the devil, and by the devil handed over to death. Our affairs were in utmost peril; there was no means of rescue. This was the verdict of the physicians who were sent to us. What happened then? When the prophets saw that our wounds were beyond human resource, they cried for the heavenly physician. “Bow thy heavens and come down” (Ps. 143.5), says one. Another, “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed” (Jer. 17.14). One says, “Stir up thy might, and come to save us!” (Ps. 79.2). Another, “Will God indeed dwell with men?” (3 Kg. 8.27). One says, “Let thy mercies speedily overtake us, for we are brought into great poverty” (Ps. 78.8). And another, “Alas my soul, for the godly man has perished from the earth, and there is none upright among men” (Mic. 7.1–2). Another says, “O God, come to my help; O Lord, make haste to help me” (Ps. 69.1). Another, “Yet a little while and the coming one shall come and not tarry” (Hab. 2.3; cf. Heb. 10.37). Another, “I have gone astray like a sheep that is lost; seek thy servant whose hope is in thee” (Ps. 118.176). And another, “God, even our God, shall come manifestly and shall not keep silence” (Ps. 49.3). So our natural King did not allow our nature to remain for ever under tyranny. The merciful God did not permit us to remain subject to the devil to the end. He came, who was always present. He paid the ransom of his own blood. He gave to death in exchange for mankind the body taken from the virgin that he bore. And he redeemed the world from the curse of the law, by death destroying death—as Paul cries, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law” (Gal. 3.13).


So he who bought us was no mere man, you Jew! For the nature of man was enslaved to sin. Nor was he solely God, without humanity. For he had a body, you Manichee! Had he not clothed himself in me, he would not have saved me. Rather, when he appeared in the Virgin’s womb he clothed himself in him who was condemned; there it was that the awesome contract was concluded. He gave spirit and took flesh. The same one was both with the Virgin and of the Virgin; by his “overshadowing” (cf. Lk. 1.35 ), he was with her; by becoming incarnate, he was of her. If Christ is one (person) and God the Word another, then there is no longer a Trinity, but a quaternity. Do not rend the robe of the incarnation which was “woven from above” (cf. Jn. 19.23). Do not be the disciple of Arius, for he in his impiety divided the divine essence; you must take care not to sunder the union, lest you be sundered from God. Who was it that “shone on those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Lk. 1.79)? A man? But how? For men dwelt in “darkness,” as Paul says: “He has delivered us from the power of darkness” (Col. 1.13), and again: “Once you were darkness” (Eph. 5.8). Then who was it who “shone”? David teaches you when he says, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Ps. 117.26)! Tell us plainly, David: “Cry with strength and spare not; lift up thy voice like a trumpet (Is. 58.1),” and tell us who this is. The Lord the God of hosts! “The Lord is God, and he has shined upon us” (Ps. 117.27)! For “the Word became flesh” (Jn. 1.14), the natures came together and the union remained unconfused.


He came to save, but he also had to suffer. How were both possible? Mere man had no power to save. One who was solely God could not suffer. What happened then? He who was God became man. By what he was, he saved; and by what he became, he suffered. When therefore the church saw the synagogue crowning him with thorns, she bewailed the outrage in these words: “Daughters of Jerusalem, go forth and behold the crown with which his mother crowned him” (Song 3.11). For he both wore the crown of thorns and undid the sentence of the thorns (cf. Gen. 3.18–19). For the same one was in the “Father’s bosom” (cf. Jn. 1.18) and in the Virgin’s womb, in his mother’s arms and on the “wings of the wind” (Ps. 103.3), adored by angels (Heb. 1.6 ) and “dining with tax collectors” (Mt. 9.10; Mk. 2.15). Seraphim would not look at him (cf. Is. 6.2), and “Pilate interrogated him” (Mk. 15.2, 4). A “servant struck him” (Jn. 18.22), and creation trembled. While nailed on the cross, he did not depart from his throne; while shut in the tomb, he was “stretching out the heavens like a curtain” (Ps. 103.2); while numbered with the dead, he was plundering Hades. Below he was accused as a “deceiver” (Mt. 27.63), above he was glorified as the Holy One. What a mystery! Beholding his miracles, I extol his divinity; seeing the sufferings, I cannot deny his humanity. As man, Emmanuel opened the gates of human nature; as God, he left the bars of virginity unbroken. As he entered through the ear, so too did he come out from the womb; as he was conceived, so was he born. His entering in was altogether without passion, and his coming out was altogether beyond understanding—as the prophet Ezekiel said: “The Lord brought me back by the way of the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. And the Lord said to me, ‘Son of man, this gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened. No one shall pass through it, but the Lord, the God of Israel, he alone shall enter and come out, and the gate shall be shut’ (Ezek. 44.1–2).” There you have a clear testimony to the Holy and ‘God-bearing’ Mary. Let all contradiction now cease, and let us be enlightened by the teaching of the Scriptures, so that we may attain to the kingdom of heaven in Christ Jesus our Lord. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.


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