Sergius Bulgakov: The Parousia of the Theotokos

“The Lord comes in glory with all the holy angels and with the saints, with all that is holy on earth and heaven. But,” asks Sergius Bulgakov, “where is She, the Most Pure and Most Beloved One, raised into heaven in her Dormition and sitting ‘at the right hand of the Son’?” (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 409).

This is not a question a Protestant Christian would ever think to ask; but it is one that comes naturally to Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians as they reflect on the Second Coming of Christ. Holy Scripture does not address the death and eternal destiny of the Blessed Virgin; yet both communions confess the Blessed Virgin Mary as already enjoying a glorified existence with the glorified Son. The mystery has been long kept in the inner heart of the Church. The Orthodox Church annually celebrates the Dormition of the Theotokos on August 15th:

Glorious are thy mysteries, O pure Lady. Thou wast made the Throne of the Most High, and today thou art translated from earth to heaven. Thy glory is full of majesty, shining with grace in divine brightness. O ye virgins, ascend on high with the Mother of the King. Hail, thou who art full of grace: the Lord is with thee, granting the world through thee great mercy. (Stichera)

I shall open my mouth and the Spirit will inspire it, and I shall utter the words of my song to the Queen and Mother: I shall be seen radiantly keeping feast and joyfully praising her Dormition. O ye young virgins, raise now with Miriam the Prophetess the song of departure. For the Virgin, the only Theotokos, is taken to her appointed dwelling-place in heaven. The heavenly mansions of God fittingly received thee, O most holy, who art a living Heaven. Joyously adorned as a Bride without spot, thou standest beside our King and God. (Canticle One)

Neither the tomb nor death had power over the Theotokos, who is ever watchful in her prayers and in whose intercession lies unfailing hope. For as the Mother of Life she has been transported into life by Him who dwelt within her ever-virgin womb. (Kontakion)

As the tomb of her Son is empty, so is the tomb of his Mother. Having endured the suffering and death that is the curse of fallen humanity, Mary is raised to incorruptible life by the Savior and exalted as Queen of Heaven, the first fruits of the New Creation inaugurated in the resurrection of Christ. Bulgakov beautifully expresses the significance of the Pascha of the Theotokos:

The Mother of God in her resurrected and glorified body is already the completed glory of the world and its resurrection. With the resurrection and ascension of the Mother of God the world is completed in its creation, the goal of the world is attained, “wisdom is justified in her children,” for the Mother of God is already that glorified world which is divinized and open for the reception of Divinity. Mary is the heart of the world and the spiritual focus of all humanity, of every creature. She is already the perfectly and absolutely divinized creature, the one who begets God, who bears God, and receives God. She, a human and a creature, sits in the heavens with her Son, who is seated at the right hand of the Father. She is the Queen of Heaven and Earth, or, more briefly, the Heavenly Queen. (The Burning Bush, pp. 74-75)

In the Blessed Virgin Mary, raised to the right hand of her Son, deified creaturehood is perfectly achieved and manifested. And so the Orthodox Church acclaims her “more honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim.”

Bulgakov fittingly describes the Theotokos as the image of the Holy Spirit. Unlike the eternal Son, the Holy Spirit does not have have his own hypostatic manifestation; he does not incarnate himself as a human being. He is revealed in his activities and gifts. Supremely he is revealed in the saints who have surrendered their lives to God and thus become transparent to divinity:

A personal incarnation, a hominization of the Third Hypostasis, does not exist. Still, if there is no personal incarnation of the Third Hypostasis, no hominization in the same sense in which the Son of God became human, there can all the same be such a human, creaturely hypostasis, such a being which is the vessel of the fulfilment of the Holy Spirit. It completely surrenders its human hypostatic life, makes it transparent for the Holy Spirit, by bearing witness about itself: behold the handmaid of the Lord. Such a being, the Most Holy Virgin, is not a personal incarnation of the Holy Spirit, but she becomes His personal, animate receptacle, an absolutely spirit-born creature, the Pneumatophoric Human. For, if there is no hypostatic spirit-incarnation, there can be a hypostatic pneumatophoricity, by which the creaturely hypostasis in its creatureliness completely surrenders itself and as it were dissolves in the Holy Spirit. In this complete penetration by Him it becomes a different nature for its own self, i.e., divinized, a creature thoroughly blessed by grace, a “quickened ark of God,” a living “consecrated temple.” Such a pneumatophoric person radically differs from the Godman, for it is a creature, but it differs just as much from a creature in its creatureliness, for it has been elevated and made a partaker of divine life. (pp. 81-82)

The Orthodox veneration of the Theotokos cannot be sufficiently explained by Mary’s physical birthing of Jesus nor even by her decisive fiat, “May it be done to me according to your word.” It can only be explained by the perfection of her humility and holiness and her supreme embodiment of theosis. I find it surprising, therefore, that Bulgakov’s presentation of the Theotokos should have attracted severe Orthodox critique. St John Maximovitch, for example, associates Bulgakov with the Mariological excesses of Roman Catholicism and accuses him of virtually incorporating Mary into the Godhead, of making her “an Inter­me­di­ary between men and God, like Christ.” But Bulgakov clearly distinguishes the Theotokos from the Holy Trinity. She is not divine, except in the sense in which St Athanasius speaks of theosis: “God became Man so that man might become God.” This is a deification by grace, not by nature. Bulgakov explains the critical difference:

As a creature, she does not participate in the divine life of the Most Holy Trinity according to nature, as does her Son; she only partakes of it by the grace of divinization. But this grace is given to her already in a maximum and definitive degree, so that by its power she is the Heavenly Queen. (p. 76)

For the divine hypostasis of the Logos divine nature is His proper nature, and the human nature is appropriated and assumed by Him from Mary “for our sake and on account of our salvation”; for the human hypostasis of Mary her proper nature is human nature, and divine life is communicated to her by the grace of divinization, in keeping with the visitation of the Holy Spirit. Therefore in no manner can the Mother of God be venerated as the Godman. But her pneumatophoricity, which makes her an animate temple of God and the Mother of God, elevates her higher than human nature and higher even than any creaturely nature. Mary the pneumatophoric human is more exalted than any creature and thus “every creature, the angelic choir and the human race, rejoices” on account of the Graced One. (pp. 88-89)

What is this but theosis? St Gregory Palamas speaks of deification in Christ as becoming “uncreated by grace,” and in his Homily on the Dormition he declares, “She only is the frontier between created and uncreated nature, and there is no man that shall come to God except he be truly illumined through her, that Lamp truly radiant with divinity, even as the Prophet says, ‘God is in the midst of her, she shall not be shaken’ [Ps. 45:5].”

Of all the saints in heaven, the Mother of God alone enjoys the fullness of eschatological existence, for she alone has been bodily raised from the dead. All others, including St John the Baptist, await the reunion of body and soul in the general resurrection. The theological significance of Mary’s translation is evidenced in the way the Church invokes her intercession. “Between her and all the saints,” Bulgakov explains, “no matter how exalted, angels or men, there remains an impenetrable border, for to none of them does the Church cry out save us, but only pray to God for us. With respect to the whole human race she is already found on the other side of resurrection and last judgement; neither the one nor the other has any force for her. … She is the already glorified creation before its general resurrection and glorification; she is the already accomplished Kingdom of Glory, while the world still remains ‘in the kingdom of grace'” (p. 76-77; also see Vladimir Lossky, “Panagia“).

And so we come back to opening question: Where will the Theotokos be found at the parousia? The answer is given in the icons of the Last Judgment: she will be standing at the right hand of her Son, invoking the divine mercy upon sinful humanity. She herself will not be judged, for she already lives beyond judgment, nor will she judge, for that prerogative belongs to God alone. The parousia of the Son necessarily entails the parousia of his Mother, for she is “the creaturely glory of the world, the glory of Christ’s humanity”; the parousia of the Spirit necessarily entails the parousia of the Holy Virgin, for she is “the Spirit-Bearer, the living gates for the parousia of the Holy Spirit, through which the Holy Spirit comes into the world” (Bride, pp. 409-410). The appearance of Mary at the Second Coming signifies the beginning of the resurrection of the dead, Bulgakov avers, “because She, who is resurrected Herself, can appear only to resurrected humankind together with the resurrected Lord” (p. 414).

Most Holy Theotokos, save us!

(Go to “Parousia and the Glorification of Creation”)

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17 Responses to Sergius Bulgakov: The Parousia of the Theotokos

  1. The number one issue that drew me away from the security of Evangelical Christianity (non-denominational then Covenantal) was Mary. She is so underemphasised in the Evangelical Christian traditions that the only femininity these traditions have at all is calling a God beyond gender a girl. I used to think the veneration given to her in the Catholic tradition was idolatrous but then I felt Mary start leading me toward God again and what else could I do? (I know it sounds as if the Ever-Virgin took my free will away from that statement but don’t take it too literally.) Perhaps Mary wants me to find a maternal figure to lead me to Jesus…perhaps this is why she called me first…perhaps then my calling shall be clear? Thank you for this beautiful post, Fr. Kimel.

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  2. Bulgakov was condemned as a heretic by fellow Orthodox for such excesses.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Bryan, I’m curious what heretical excesses you think are expressed in this article.

      As far as the accusations of heresy advanced by Met Sergius (Moscow) and the Bishop’s Council of ROCA in 1935, what can one say? The decrees themselves are so nebulous that it’s impossible to know precisely what the bishops find objectionable in Bulgakov’s writings or whether they even understood Bulgakov’s views. Plus the decrees only represent the views of the bishops who issued them. It’s also important to note that these accusations were advanced before the publication of The Comforter and The Bride of the Church.

      More importantly, Bulgakov was vindicated by his own bishop and died a faithful priest of the Orthodox Church. At his funeral his bishop declared, “Dear Father Sergius, you were a Christian sage, a teacher of the Church in the purest and most lofty sense. You were enlightened by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Wisdom, the Spirit of Understanding, the Comforter to Whom you dedicated your scholarly work.” These are not words one speaks of a heretic.

      Those who accused Bulgakov of heresy appear to have believed that he taught that Sophia is a quasi-divine hypostasis. Bulgakov himself emphatically denied this accusation in a memorandum to his bishop and his judgment has been confirmed by a number of recent scholars, including Met Kallistos Ware, who states that “while daring and at times speculative, Bulgakov was no heretic.” For the mature Bulgakov, Wisdom was a metaphorical way of thinking about the divine nature and the intimate relationship between God and the world.

      I highly recommend Aidan Nichols’s Wisdom from Above.

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  3. brian says:

    Difficult, daring, erudite, creative theologians like Bulgakov will always invite suspicion. Well, honestly, there aren’t too many like Bulgakov. I think he is a treasure. What I know for sure is it is really easy to cast aspersions on theologians who take risks and struggle to articulate what must always defeat our best efforts. I think Sophia is a late work. No one could read that and conclude that Wisdom is a fourth hypostasis.

    I have always thought of the Biblical Job as one of those who did not play it safe. The counselors are full of traditional piety and they are wrong.

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  4. brian says:

    Hey, I am ignorant about computers, really. I don’t know how to post links. I hope this is alright, but I copy and pasted this from another site that, ironically, copy and pasted it from a blog. The following is an excerpt from the Foreward by David Bentley Hart to Solovyov’s Justification of the Good, as quoted by Dennis Hou (smilax) at his Xanga blog.

    The figure of Sophia, admittedly, arouses more than a little suspicion among even Solovyov’s more indulgent Christian readers, and some would prefer to write her off as a figment of the young Solovyov’s dreamier moods, or as a sentimental souvenir of his youthful dalliance with the Gnostics. To his less indulgent readers, she is something rather more sinister. And indeed it is difficult to know what exactly to make of the two visions of Sophia that Solovyov had in 1875–the first in the British Museum, the second in the Egyptian desert–or the earlier vision he had at the age of nine. But it is important to note that, in Solovyov’s developed reflections upon this figure (and in those of his successor “Sophiologists,” Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov), she was most definitely not an occult, or pagan, or Gnostic goddess, nor was she a fugitive from some Chaldean mystery cult, nor was she a speculative perversion of the Christian doctrine of God. She was not a fourth hypostasis in the Godhead, nor a fallen fragment of God, nor a literal world-soul, nor an eternal hypostasis who became incarnate as the Mother of God, nor most certainly the “feminine aspect of deity.” Solovyov possessed too refined a mind to fall prey to the lure of cultic mythologies or childish anthropomorphisms, despite his interest in Gnosticism (or at least in its special pathos); and all such characterizations of the figure of Sophia are the result of misreadings (though, one must grant, misreadings partly occasioned by the young Solovyov’s penchant for poetic hyperbole).

    In truth, the divine Sophia is first and foremost a biblical figure, and “Sophiology” was born of an honest attempt to interpret intelligibly the role ascribed to her in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, in such a way as to complement the Logos Christology of the Fourth Gospel, while still not neglecting the “autonomy” of creation within its very dependency upon the Logos. Solovyov’s Sophia stands in the interval between God and world, as an emblem of the nuptial mystery of Christ’s love for creation and creation’s longing for the Logos. Sophia is the divine Wisdom as residing in the non-divine; she is the mirror of the Logos and the light of the Spirit, reflecting in the created order the rational coherence and transcendent beauty in which all things live, move, and have their being. She is also, therefore, the deep and pervasive Wisdom of the world who, even as that world languishes in bondage to sin, longs to be joined to her maker in an eternal embrace, and arrays herself in every palpable glory and ornament to prepare for his coming, and by her loveliness manifests her insatiable yearning.

    Another way of saying this is that Sophia is creation–and especially human creation–as God eternally intends, sees, loves, and possesses it. The world is created in the Logos and belongs to him, shines with the imperishable beauty of the Father made visible in him, and in the Logos nothing can be found wanting; thus one may say that he, in his transcendence, eternally possesses a world, and that the world, in its immanence, restlessly longs for him. And yet another way of saying this is that Sophia is humankind (which contains within itself all the lower orders of creation) as God eternally chooses it to be his body, the place of his indwelling, and in his eternity this humanity is perfect and sinless, while in our world it is something toward which all finite reality strives, as its eschatological horizon. One can thus speak of an eternal Christ: the Logos as forever turned toward a world, a world gathered to himself from before all the ages just as–in time–we see the world gathered to him in his incarnation. Here Solovyov is following a line of thought with quite respectable patristic pedigrees: seen thus, as the body of the Logos (the totus Christus in its eternal or eschatological aspect), Sophia is scarcely distinguishable from the eternal Anthropos of whom Gregory of Nyssa writes in On the Making of Humanity. She is not another hypostasis as such, but is the personal and responsive aspect of the concrete unity of a redeemed creation united to–and so “enhypostatized” by–Christ; or, looked at from below (so to speak), the “symphonic” totality of created hypostases perfectly joined to Christ. She is thus indeed a kind of intelligence in the created order (analogous to the intelligence of the spiritual world of which Augustine speaks in The Confessions), and she is beauty, and order, and eros, but only insofar as she personifies the answer of creation to God’s call, the beloved’s response to the lover’s address; far from a kind of Romantic pantheism, what she represents is creation’s desire for God, its insufficiency in itself, its eternal vocation to be the vessel of his glory and the tabernacle of his indwelling presence. She is, in other words, a figure for the active longing of creation and for its accomplished rest; she is both passion and repose, ardent expectation and final peace. She is still God’s Wisdom, but as mirrored in the intricacy, life, unity, and splendor of created being, and in the unity and love the Church.

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    • William says:

      I think Sophia can be connected, especially as described in this passage, to the logoi in all creatures as described by St. Maximus.

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    • ddpbf says:

      Hi Brian. 🙂
      I think I understand what is David Bentley Hart trying to prove, but I think, Florovsy touched this in one of his letters to Bulgakov:

      As I have been saying for a long time, there are two teachings about Sophia and even two Sophias, or more accurately, two images of Sophia: the true and real and the imaginary one. Holy churches were built in Byzantium and in Rus’ in the name of the former. The latter inspired Soloviev and his Masonic and western teachers -– and goes right back to the Gnostics and Philo. Soloviev did not at all know the Church Sophia: he knew Sophia from Boehme and the Behmenists, from Valentinus and Kabbalah. And this Sophiology is heretical and renounced. That which you find in Athanasius relates to the other Sophia. And one may find even more about Her in Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, from which there is a direct line to Palamas. The very terminology – ousia and energeia has its beginning in Basil the Great. I see no difficulty in this terminology. Aristotle has nothing to do with this. The basic thought of Cappadocian theology can be reduced to a precise distinction of the inner-divine Pleroma, of the Triune fullness of all-sufficient life, and it is this that is the ousia, pelagas, tis ousias in Damascene, – and: the “outward” [vo vne] direction of Mercy, Grace, Love, Activity – Energeia. The entire question (speculatively very difficult) is in this distinction. In the perceptible sense, this is the explanation of the very idea of creation, as a Divine plan-will about the other, about not-God. Ousia – according to Basil the Great and according to Palamas – is unreachable and unknowable, it is “in light unapproachable.” But “the very same God” (Palamas’ expression) creates, that is, offers another, and for that reason is revealed “outward” [vo vne]. It is this that is “Energy,” “Glory,” “Sophia” – a non-hypostatic revelation of “the same” God. Not “essence,” not “personhood,” not “hypostasis.” If you like, yes, – Divine accidentia, but accidentia of “the very same” God or God “Himself.” And it is precisely to this that Palamas’ thought leads – the accent is on the fullness and full meaning tis Theotitos. If you like, Sophia is Deus revelatus, that is, Grace. Grace – this is God to the world, pros ton kosmon (and not pros ton Theon, as in John 1:1 about the Logos). Sophia is eternal, inasmuch as it is thought – the will of the Eternal God, but it is willed – a thought about Time. There is much on this theme in Blessed Augustine. Sophia – is not only thought, “idea,” kosmos noitos, but is will, power… And in God there is not, God does not have non-eternal powers and wills, but there is will about time. Sophia never is world. The world is other, both in relation to grace and in relation to the “original image.” Therefore “pre-eternity” and “pre-temporality” of will – thoughts about time does [sic] not convert time into eternity. “Ideal creation,” “pre-eternal council,” toto genere is different from real creative fiat. Sophia is not the “soul of the world.” This negative statement distinguishes the Church teaching about Sophia from the Gnostic and Behmenist teachings about her. Sophia is not a created subject, it is not a substance or substrata of created coming-into-being [stanovleniia]. This is gratia and not natura. And natura = creatura. Sophia – is not creatura. Along with this, it is not hypostasis, but thrice-radiant glory [16].

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      • brian says:

        Hi,

        Thanks for posting Florovsky’s letter. I think I understand his concerns. I believe I told you that I like the Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar. He read Bulgakov with appreciation, but had the same kind of concerns regarding Bulgakov’s sophiology. Balthasar also did not have good things to say about Berdyaev because of his connection to Boehme.

        I am less bothered about connections to esoteric Western thinkers. Just as patristic authors took over categories of thought from Plato, Aristotle, neoplatonism, the Stoics, etc. and altered concepts to fit the truths of Christianity, I think one can do the same with Boehme and his ilk. (Admittedly, Berdyaev doesn’t really do this. I still like him and consider him a genuinely Christian philosopher on other grounds.) Bulgakov, in my opinion, articulates a sophiology that is consistent with an orthodox Christian interpretation.

        Just as Eastern Orthodox thought often sees the difference between image and likeness in Genesis as the distance between the divine idea and the “task” for the person to realize — nature finding its proper fulfillment in grace, I think one could posit a similar relational distance between an Uncreated and a Created Sophia.

        P.S. What’s your name? I appreciate the dialogue.

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        • ddpbf says:

          My name is Dalibor. 🙂
          Interesting you mentioned von Balthasar, since I was allways curious about him. I could borrow his books, from friends of friends, but at moment, I dont have that much time. Hope, I will get chance to read him once.

          I dont think Florovsky minded fact Solovyev used Boehme’s grammar and methodology, but he was concerned over content… Yet, to be honest, I still need to gather all pieces on Bulgakov, I did not read him in depth. I also apreciate discussion, and must admitt, I was positively surprised by your knoeledge of Russian philospohy, and Theology.

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          • brian says:

            Hi Dalibor,

            I wrote a dissertation about fifteen years ago on the nature of personhood that largely dealt with the work of Dostoyevski and Balthasar. In writing the dissertation, I started reading Bulgakov and some other Russian thinkers. It was only seven or eight years later, however, that I began to read deeply in Florensky, Bulgakov, etc. I love the Russian spirit and I find their particular voice very winning. It is an interesting culture because it engages the West without having fully gone through Enlightenment rationalism — Peter the Great notwithstanding.

            In any event, thank you for the good talk.

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          • ddpbf says:

            I also like Russian culture. I dont know, in my opinion, all of us, (traditionally Orthodox nations in Eastern Europe), underwent Rationalism and Enlighment. But, I basically agree with you… There is stream in Russian culture, which goes from XIX century, which goes back to foundations of Russian Culture, Byzantine legacy, Orthodox Faith, and Slavic language and Literary traditions. This was started by pan-Slavists (Slavyanophiles), lead by Homyakov. Dostoyevsky, Solovyev, Florovsky, Florensky, Neo-Patristic syntherists (Florovsky, Afanasyev, Schmeman, Meyendorff et others), all belong to this stream, IMHO. 🙂

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Brandon Gallaher, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” may be of interest to the discussion.

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          • brian says:

            Thank you for the recommendation, Father.

            I’m going to download the article, though I guess I will wait till after work to read it:)

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Thank you, Dalibor, for posting Florovsky’s letter to Bulgakov. I remember reading it, but I couldn’t remember where I had seen it.

        Just yesterday I received in the mail Paul Valliere’s book Modern Russian Theology: Bukharev, Soloviev, Bulgakov. It’s a long book (400+ pages). I read the final chapter in which the author compares the Russian school and the Neo-Patristic school. While acknowledging the weaknesses of the former, he bemoans the total victory of the latter within Orthodoxy after WW2. He believes that it has corrupted the Orthodox understanding of Holy Tradition and limited Orthodoxy’s retrieval of the Tradition, thus making it more difficult for the Church to creatively engage the modern world. But I will need to read the book in its entirety before I can make a judgment regarding Valliere’s analysis.

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        • ddpbf says:

          Father, thank you for reminding me to post source for letter: ishmaelite.blogspot.com/2009/05/palamas-florovsky-bulgakov-and.html?m=1 I think, you might hear about letter in Klimov’s article, from SVS Quarterly. 🙂

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  5. Agni Ashwin says:

    “But this grace is given to her already in a maximum and definitive degree, so that by its power she is the Heavenly Queen.”

    I take it from this statement that Bulgakov is not of the opinion that the process of theosis has no definitive end (since God has no end)?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I think that is what Bulgakov thinks, but I need to hold off from giving a more confident answer until I have read all of the chapters on eschatology. I have also noticed that in Bride of the Lamb Bulgakov sometimes modifies positions advanced in Burning Bush, which was written a decade before Bride.

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