Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of CultureMary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture
Jaroslav Pelikan
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(PUBYale University)In much the same manner as his highly touted Jesus Through the Centuries, recondite Pelikan takes us on a fascinating historical tour of how Mary has been portrayed and venerated inside and outside the church---as Theotokos, Mater Dolorosa, paragon of chastity, model wife, eternal feminine. . . . 267 pages, softcover.
     

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Introduction

Ave Maria, Gratia Plena

Hail Mary, full of grace: the Lord is with thee.

—Luke 1:28 (Vg)

The second sentence of the Introduction to Jesus Through the Centuries, the companion volume to this book, posed the question: "If it were possible, with some sort of supermagnet, to pull up out of that history f almost twenty centuries] every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?" The same question may be appropriately asked also about Mary. There are, on one hand, many fewer such scraps of metal bearing the name Mary. But on the other hand, she has provided the content of the definition of the feminine in a way that he has not done for the masculine; for in a distinction of linguistic usage about which it may be necessary to remind present-day readers, it was "man" as humanity rather than merely "man" as male that he was chiefly said to have defined—to the point that some speculative thinkers were willing to portray him as androgynous. Even in the absence of reliable statistical data, however, it is probably safe to estimate that for nearly two thousand years "Mary" has been the name most frequently given to girls at baptism, and, through the exclamation "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph" (or just "Jezis Mária~" as I used to hear it in Slovak from my father’s Lutheran parishioners during my childhood), and above all through the Ave Maria, which has been repeated literally millions of times every day, the female name that has been pronounced most often in the Western world. Almost certainly she has been portrayed in art and music more than any other woman in history. To mention only one example for now, not only did Giuseppe Verdi compose an Ave Maria in 1889 (as well as a Stabat Mater in 1897); but Arrigo Boito’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello for Verdi’s opera in 1887 followed Gioacchino Rossini’s opera Otello of 1816 in adding an Ave Maria to Shakespeare’s text for Desdemona to sing just before her death.2 It came in anticipation of the question Othello asked Desdemona in Shakespeare’s play before he strangled her, "Have you pray’d to-night, Desdemona?"3

The Virgin Mary has been more of an inspiration to more people than any other woman who ever lived. And she remains so in the twentieth century, despite its being conventionally regarded as secularistic by contrast with previous so-called ages of faith. The last empress of Russia, Alexandra, who at her marriage to the czar had converted from Hessian Protestantism to Russian Orthodoxy, wrote a few weeks after the October Revolution: "An uncultured, wild people, but the Lord won’t abandon them, and the Holy Mother of God will stand up for our poor Rus."4

It was only a coincidence, but a striking one, that two years later, in 1919, the powerful icon The Virgin of the Great Panagia, shown here, was discovered in the Convent of the Transfiguration (Preobrazenie) at Jaroslavl. Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, in speaking near the end about all the tragedies she had endured in her long life, said that she had constantly found inspiration and consolation above all in "the Blessed Mother," who had not lost her faith in God even when her Son had been "crucified and reviled."5 One of our most sensitive commentators on current affairs, the Hispanic-American man of letters Richard Rodriguez, has suggested that "the Virgin of Guadalupe symbolizes the entire coherence of Mexico, body and soul. . . The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe (privately, affectionately, Mexicans call her La Morenita—Little Darkling) has become the unofficial, the private flag of Mexicans."6 For the portrayal of the Virgin Mary in this Mexican

image, as another twentieth-century writer has suggested, "contains the. . . basic themes of liberation."7

Secularistic or not, this century has, for example, witnessed a continuation, and probably an acceleration, of the phenomenon of apparitions of Mary, for which the nineteenth century became almost a golden age.8 The Mariological scholar René Laurentin estimated some years ago that there had been well over two hundred of them since the 193 Os, and they have continued unabated. Television reporters and print journalists, who sometimes seem to become interested in the phenomena of religious experience and expression only when they are politicized or bizarre or both, have managed to keep the public well informed about these sightings. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, which in 1914 was the fuse that ignited the First World War and which throughout the century has continued to be a venue for religious hatred and ethnic violence, the Virgin appeared in 1981, at Medjugorje, a Croatian-speaking village of 250 families.9

Since then, more than twenty million pilgrims have visited it, despite the land mines and the sniper fire, and it has been given credit by no less an authority on such matters than the president of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, for "the reawakening of the Croatian nation." Nor is this phenomenon confined to Roman Catholic countries; in Orthodox Greece, for example, apparitions of the Virgin in the twentieth century have become a major force."

Because, as was said just when the twentieth century was beginning, it was traditionally held that "in Mary, we see in the little that is told of her what a true woman ought to be,"2 the twentieth century’s dramatic upsurge of interest in the question of exactly "what a true woman ought to be" has likewise been unable to ignore her.13 It has become a widely held historical consensus that "the theology of the Virgin Mary has not altered women’s inferior status within the Church."14 Indeed, one of the most articulate spokeswomen for the position that the modern woman cannot be truly free without a radical break from tradition, above all from religious tradition, has characterized the traditional picture of the Virgin Mary as follows: "For the first time in history, the mother kneels before her son; she freely accepts her inferiority. This is the supreme masculine victory, consummated in the cult of the Virgin—it is the rehabilitation of woman through the accomplishment of her defeat."15 More ambivalently, advocates for the movement within the Christian thought of the late twentieth century that has come to be called "feminist theology" have also been striving— or, as one of them has put it, "desperately seeking"1 6—to come to terms with Mary as a symbol for "ultimate womanhood 17 "The Mary myth," another of them has concluded, has "its roots and development in a male, clerical, and ascetic culture and theology . . . . The myth is a theology of woman, preached by men to women, and one that serves to deter women from becoming fully independent and whole human persons."18 Conversely, Mary has also served advocates of Eastern Orthodoxy as a positive resource for the reinterpretation of the place of woman in Christian thought. 19

One of the most important religious events of the twentieth century has been, and continues to be, the rise of the ecumenical movement. It began as a largely Protestant phenomenon with the heirs of the Reformation reexamining the issues that had begun to drive them apart almost from the beginning. At that stage, the question of Mary did not play a prominent role, except for the disputes between liberalism and fundamentalism over the historical accuracy of the biblical accounts of the Virgin Birth. 20 But with the participation of Eastern Orthodox and then of Roman Catholic partners in the conversation, the question became unavoidable, and eventually it came to be seen in significant ways as epitomizing many general issues that divide the churches: What is the legitimate role of postbiblical tradition in Christian teaching? What is the role of the saints, and above all of this saint, in Christian worship and devotion? And who has the authority to decide matters of Christian teaching? Thus twentieth-century explorations have made the history of Mary a major issue also for the ecumenical encounter, and a careful and candid review of the issue and its implications from Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, and even Jewish perspectives has illumined not only the ecumenical problem but the problem of Mariology.21

In the chapters that follow I shall try to show historically what Mary has meant, by following a roughly chronological order to box the compass of some of the provinces of life and realms of reality in which she has been a prominent force at various periods in history. It has been a process, as Hans Urs von Balthasar has put it, "that oscillates (from the Virgin Bride to the Mother of the Church, from the answering person to the Source of the race)."22