A Homily for the Descent of the Holy Sophia
by Bishop Steven Marshall
The date that Gnostics celebrate as the Descent of Sophia corresponds to the traditional date for the Birth of Mary in the Church Calendar. Both of these mythic motifs relate to the coming down to earth of the feminine image of the Redeemer. The story of the descent of Sophia is the story of our own fall into matter. The story of the birth of Mary describes the role of the Holy Female Power in our own redemption and liberation. The apocryphal text of the Protevangelion describes the mission of Mary in this light:
“…But being an unparalleled instance without any pollution or defilement, and a Virgin not knowing any man, shall bring forth a son, and a maid shall bring forth the Lord, who both by his grace and name and works, shall be the saviour of the world.”
Here Mary is described as a Virgin-Power and relates to that feminine spirit of the Epinoia who was sent down into Eve and who was not defiled by the archons. This Holy Female Power watches over the Children of the Light and finds its fulfillment in the birth of Mary who is to bear the savior of the world. Whereas Sophia in her initial error, without her consort, gives birth to a flawed Demiurge, so Mary, without knowing any man, gives birth to a saving power that can correct the deficiency. By putting the two stories together in this fashion we can begin to see that Sophia’s fall into matter is a pre-ordained act in the pattern of redemption.
According to the Pistis Sophia, Sophia does everything that she does and suffers all that she suffers by the command of the First Mystery. Much of what happens to her is not her fault or intent; the very act of her leaving the Pleroma comes out of her yearning for the Light of the Father. That she was led downward into the chaos by the false light of the Arrogant One brings about the alchemical condition for her redemption. She becomes the light shining in the darkness. She becomes herself the manifestation of the redeeming mission that is the redemption of all creation. As she suffers and languishes in the darkness and the chaos, her calls for deliverance are the calls of our own souls for redemption. Our own yearning for the light and wholeness of the Pleroma leads us to follow the false light of the lower ego and fall into the chaos of material existence. It is not until we have truly descended into the chaos; it is not until we have bottomed out that we can become conscious of the nature of our own suffering and the divine light that suffers with us in the world. Not until we become conscious of the nature of our suffering in the chaos can we discover the true direction of our yearning for the Light of the Fullness.
The descent of Sophia and her suffering in the chaos represents the existential condition of the human soul in the world. The feelings of fear, frustration, alienation and despair that Sophia experiences when she is trapped in the chaos are certainly not unknown to the Gnostic soul, nor to many in our contemporary society. If we lift up our repentances to the Light, our voice becomes Sophia’s voice and we are redeemed from this condition with her. Sophia is then the redeemed redeemer. Through her prayers to the Light all salvation has come to earth and our redeemer and liberator comes to us.
In Ptolemaeus’ Letter to Flora it is not Sophia herself who gives birth to the Demiurge but her passions: grief, fear and ignorance. These passions become a Pandora-like figure named Achamoth. Achamoth, filled with some of the light-power of Sophia and left in the material chaos, gives birth to the Demiurge. She longs to return to the Pleroma but cannot pass the Limit, that boundary which exists between the spheres of the archons and the fullness of the Pleroma.
In response to the distress of Achamoth, the Alone-Begotten, the First Mystery, engenders a new pair for her redemption: Christ and the Holy Spirit. The Christ brings Achamoth out of the chaos and into the Pleroma, while the Holy Spirit remains on earth to guide and care for all the scattered sparks of Sophia’s light that remained. The fragments of light still trapped in the material world are collectively the anima mundi, the Soul of the World.
The Soul of the World still suffers. She is the anima mundi who cries out for redemption from the cruel and oppressive system in which she is trapped. The Holy Sophia still sorrows for us lonely ones in this world. As stated in the Sequence of Sophia, “I will never fall asleep upon the green grass, while the earth rings with the cries of the exiles.” We can seem to ignore and often even forget the world’s pain until we remember something better, our true and perfect home above the aeons.
We can not go to that perfect home until we find and bring back those sparks of light, our own human souls, which are trapped in the world. We must recover that pearl of consciousness that Sophia sowed in us in the beginning, for only through human consciousness can the redemption of all creation occur.
We, the children of Sophia, are the mediators between heaven and earth. The bodiless powers are really quite helpless in this world without our hands, and we are quite helpless to bring the redeeming light-power that can awaken the slumbering sparks without their divine aid and assistance. Even as the human soul cries out for redemption, so the soul of the world cries out for deliverance, a deliverance that can only occur when all human souls have been awakened and liberated.
The descent of Sophia is the descent of the redeeming power of the Divine Feminine as expressed in three important female images: Eve, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalen. In the Gnostic account of the myth of Genesis, Eve takes on the figure of the first redeemer. In this story, the first human created by the Demiurge has no intelligence or consciousness. He can only crawl around on the ground; he cannot even stand. Sophia, taking pity on this creature, infuses the first human, Adam, with an emanation of her own light-power and spirit which she calls Zoe (Life). The Demiurge is jealous of the light of this spirit-woman. The Demiurge causes a sleep to fall over Adam and, while he sleeps, takes the spirit-woman out of Adam and places her in another image of his own fashioning. This feminine spirit-self of Adam is named Eve. She awakens Adam from his sleep and raises him up. Adam recognizes the light of his own spirit in her and exclaims, “You are the one who gave me life.” (Eve means the “Mother of All Living.”) The archons become jealous of Eve’s light and attempt to rape her, so that her offspring might come under their dominion. When they forcibly take her, she secretly enters into a tree and leaves only a material replica behind. The archons cast their seed upon and defile only their own creation. Eve’s true spiritual self remains undefiled and virgin. She is an image of the virgin whom no power (archon) defiled. Through Eve a portion of the light-power of Sophia descends as the seed of light in the divine race of humanity. She becomes the source of that essential spark of the divine light which is the redeeming power within each of us.
Another image of the descent of Sophia is the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The Gospel of Philip refers to her as “the virgin whom no power (archon) defiled, who is anathema to the Hebrews, the apostles, and ignorant men.” This enigmatic description refers the Virgin Mary back to the figure of Eve and the descent of the Woman Spirit who gave life and intelligence to Adam. The Church has had a long tradition of Mary as the second Eve, and Christ as the second Adam, yet the Gnostics put an unusual twist to the story. The Hebrews do not simply refer to those descended from the cultural heritage of the Jews but to the “psychic” Christians who upheld the conventional teachings and laws of Judaism and Christianity, and failed to see the spiritual and redeeming role of the feminine. Eve is anathema to ignorant men, because of the conventional view of Eve as the origin and cause of the Curse and the Fall. The Gnostics, however, see the figure of Eve as the original embodiment of the redemptive feminine power, which is carried in the seed of light among the race of humanity and brought unto its later fulfillment in the image of the Virgin Mary.
A third image of the descent of Sophia is Mary Magdalen, the consort of Christ. The church has had a long tradition of identifying Mary Magdalen with the harlot who anoints the feet of Jesus with myrrh oil and her tears. Not only is one of the titles of Sophia “Prunikos” (harlot) but in the Simonian gnosis the Holy Spirit is also incarnated in a harlot named Helen. In the Simonian myth, Simon finds Helen in a brothel, recognizes her as the embodiment of the Epinoia, takes her as his consort and restores to her the memory of her divine estate. Even so, Mary Magdalen is depicted as the image of the harlot given to men that do not recognize her, yet who is eventually redeemed through her love of her consort, the Christ. So too, the divine soul of humanity is given to material powers and forgets her divine nature, awaiting the Savior who can come and restore her memory.
The Gospel of Philip describes Mary Magdalen as a reflexive image of the Virgin Mary, the spiritual and physical aspects of virginity being counterchanged between them. “The Sophia whom they call the barren is the Mother of the Angels and the consort of Christ is Mary Magdalen.” The Virgin Mary knows no man physically and yet gives birth as a physical mother. Mary Magdalen knows many men physically, is barren physically, and yet has given birth to spiritual children as the Mother of the Angels. By this description Mary Magdalen refers to that aspect of Sophia, the consort of the Christos, who emanates the light-power that becomes the sparks of light, the angelic light-seeds that come to rest in the Children of the Light.
In these three images of the descent of Sophia, we find a continuity of the manifestation of the Holy Female Power from illo tempore (outside of time) to the present day. The manifestation of Sophia in the world is the connecting principle between the feminine figures of redemption from the generation of Eve and the nativity of Our Lady to the love of Mary Magdalen. In this way, Sophia is present in all the relationships of the feminine to the Redeemer Christ. Even so, these three images describe our relationship to the Redeemer as well. As stated in the Gospel of Philip, “For Mary was his mother and his sister and his consort.”