“What would be a theologically sound, ecumenically fruitful, spiritually empowering, ethically challenging and socially liberating interpretation of Mary of the twenty-first century?”
Elizabeth Johnson bravely sets out to make a contribution to the theology of Mary that can measure up to this rigorous yardstick. As one has come to expect from this theologian, the result is a challenging, exciting read, honest in criticism and constructively related to real life.
Mary has been an extraordinarily complex figure in Christian history, especially since the break–up of Western Christianity in the sixteenth century. Multiple representations of Mary in some churches help explain ecumenical hesitations about Marian devotion. However, one doesn’t need statistical surveys to realise that for many Catholic women and men, in the West at least, she no longer holds the place she did just a few generations ago. In other less affluent countries, she remains a rallying point and a source of inspiration amidst poverty and deprivation. How does one address the passion, boredom, suspicion, hype and alienation that surround varied understandings of this woman?
Rahner suggested that a theology of Mary authentic for today might have to be written by women. Johnson brings a theology grounded firmly in scripture and tradition, sharpened by feminist critique, and deeply respectful of the insights of women from cultures other than the mainstream Western and academic world. Truly our Sister takes its title from an excerpt from Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Marialis Cultis, and builds on the author’s recent prize-winning work on the communion of saints, Friends of God and Prophet (New York, Continuum 1998). The first part of Truly our Sister indicates the pitfalls of that surround theologies of Mary, and explains some approaches that the author believes are cul-de-sacs, leading nowhere. Mary cannot carry the weight of the “ideal feminine” if she is to be helpful to women today. Nor can we continue to load onto her what rightly belongs to God, who is Mother of Mercy Herself. We do not need Mary to stand between us and God’s wrath! The fact that Mary has carried so many of the qualities scripture attributes to the Holy Spirit, suggests a strong like between Mary and the Spirit, but this is a link that is best served by giving back to the Holy Spirit the role that scripture indicates. Johnson then gives a quick overview of the history of Marian devotion in the West, and shows why, forty years after Vatican II, we are faced with re-articulating Mary’s place in theology. The aim of this book is to give one approach which Johnson believes will be fruitful: to place Miriam of Nazareth “within the communion of saints and to remember her, dangerously and consolingly, as a woman with her own particular history among her contemporaries and before God” (93).” The memory of her partnership with God through the power of the Spirit can create liberating energies for justice, especially given her low estate as poor and female” (112)
The second half of the book builds this reconstruction. Johnson gives us a vibrant picture of Galilee at the time Miriam of Nazareth. Separate chapters deal with the political-economic world, the religious world, the social world of women. To focus on Galilee within the Graeco-Roman Jewish culture, allows some of the stark reality of colonial oppression to emerge, as well as the riches of Jewish culture. The women’s section, showing the role of women in extended families as well as in a patriarchal culture, brings home the absurdity of reading back into the life of the Mary, Joseph and Jesus pictures of a European nuclear family of the 19th or 20th century. “Picturing her world is the first step in shaping a critical memory within the Christian community that can open up a liberating future.” (206)
The long chapter on the fragments from scripture, which together make up the picture of her particular life, is a rich mosaic. It is a wonderful compilation of the work of various scripture scholars, highlighting recent feminist insights. It challenges any superficial glossing over of difficult texts, and respects the differences between gospel writers. “Assembled together, the individual biblical portraits of Mary of Nazareth form a mosaic image of a woman of Spirit” (305), not a silent, passive, submissive plaster saint!
Finally Elizabeth Johnson places Mary within the communion of saints, friends in mutual relation with God, and prophets who love the world as God loves it. . We are also part of that communion. This alerts us that the daily life of each of us is fraught with the same possibility to participate in the work of God. We meet her as our sister, who “whether she was taking initiative, rejoicing, criticizing, pondering, suffering or otherwise finding her way through ordinary days, her loving partnership with the Spirit-Sophia inscribes in our history a story of grace”. For Johnson, this constantly calls us to recognise our lives and times as similarly grace-laden, with possibility and value. The companionship and solidarity of the cloud of witnesses who are friends of God and prophets is the heritage of all who respond to God’s call to fidelity and love. Mary’s “courageous response to the Spirit’s call charts lessons of encouragement for both women and men and nurtures the spirit of the whole community. Faithful to God through all uncertainty, she becomes part of the community’s story. Companion in memory, she becomes through solidarity with the struggles of women, a companion in hope. She is truly, subversively, our sister.(322)
This is not a book that will be on every shelf, but it is clearly written and accessible to a readership much wider than academia. I think it is a must for all women and men who join in the task of bringing the good news today, in schools, parishes and tertiary education. It will help us encourage others to “recognise that they also are part of the circle of friendship centred on the graciousness of the living God” and that Mary is with us as “truly our sister”.
From the January 2003 issue of EWA's original website, geocities.com/ecclesiaofwomen website
Christine Burke, ibvm, Australia is a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She worked for many years for the Adelaide Archdiocese in adult faith education and also was in the faculty of the Adelaide College of Divinity. an ecumenical campus which is the Theology School of Flinders University, South Australia. She was responsible for the Church Ministry program but is now enjoying a sabbatical and doing research and writing in Great Britain. She holds a Ph.D. from Monash University, Melbourne.