MARY THROUGH THE CENTURIES
DECEMBER 24, 1996
In his new book, Mary Through the Centuries, Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan takes a new look at how interpretations of the Virgin Mary have changed throughout the ages, describing her among other things, as a "bridge builder" to other religions and cultures. He talks with David Gergen, editor-at-large for U.S. News & World Report.
DAVID GERGEN: When you think about Mary during these Christmas seasons, how do you think about her? There is such a rich interpretation. How do you personally think about her?
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JAROSLAV PELIKAN: Well, as a historian, I take it to be my job tocure people of their amnesia, and that means that in connection with various things that arise, I try to remind them of the riches that are theirs in their tradition. And so Hail Mary is not just a football pass, Madonna is not just a pop star, but rather in this rich tradition, we have the one who combines elevation, and radiance, and sorrow already in the Christmas story, a sword shall pierce thy soul.
And so the full range of human experience as it is embodied in her, and it's as unsentimental a portrait as you can find, despite all the sentimentality at Christmas time. If there's a difference between healthy emotion and sentimentality, Mary is a perfect illustration.
DAVID GERGEN: Now, I’m curious about Mary because, as you say, she occupies such a small space in the New Testament that the scenes in which she appears could be written down in just a few pages, and yet in the years since she has suddenly become this major dominant figure in Christianity, second only to Christ. What happened?
JAROSLAV PELIKAN: Lots of different things. The doctrine of Mary is a very democratic doctrine. She clearly drew the devotion of common people from the beginning. Besides, every time an issue arose concerning Christ, who He was, how the Divine in Him was related to the human in Him and so -- every time such a question arose they had to ask about Mary because she had given birth to Him when St.. Augustine at the beginning of the 5th Century worked out for the western church ever after the idea of original sin, then he said, but of course there has to be one exception -- Mary Well, why is she an exception?
What makes her an exception? And before you knew it, you had a whole chapter about that So that -- because I'm very much interested in that phenomenon in general, it's really my shtick, the relation of continuity and change, and how -- Cardinal Newman says how an idea has to change in order to remain the same; that if I -- I don’t have a single cell that I had when I was 10 years old, yet I am the same. I am the same because my cells have changed, and my identity and memory has maintained its continuity.
DAVID GERGEN: So the interpretations of Mary have changed--
JAROSLAV PELIKAN: Have changed, that's right.
DAVID GERGEN: --maintain her own identity, as a paradox.
JAROSLAV PELIKAN: That's right. And each builds upon the preceding ones, is made necessary or possible by preceding ones, and takes up into itself themes from all over the place. The doctrines move, most of the devotion to Mary is in the eastern church. As a Slav, I've always been especially devoted to the study of the Christian east, and most of it has come from east to west, rather than the other way around. So it's done all of that, and then each time there's any kind of change in the development of the church, she’s there, and then she also becomes such a favorite subject of poetry, music, paintings, statutes, and all the rest.
DAVID GERGEN: Let's walk through a couple of the interpretations. The one I found the most interesting in the early Middle Ages was Mary interpreted as the second Eve. Tell us about that.
JAROSLAV PELIKAN: Well, in the New Testament, Christ is interpreted as the second Adam. Whatwas lost in the first Adam through sin was regained in the second Adam. The Garden of Eden, the Garden of Gethsemane; the wood of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the wood of the cross; and a whole parallelism of first and second Adm. But, of course, at the center of the story in Genesis is Eve. She’s the one who is addressed by the tempter and is told that she may eat, even though God had forbidden.
And so quickly the conversation arose as to what’s the parallel to Eve. And there you have the spirit, the tempter--in this case Gabriel, a spirit, comes to the woman and says, “This is the will of God.” The first one lies when he tells her that and she believes it. The second tells the truth, and she believes it. Eve was not coerced into sinning. Mary is not coerced into obeying. So as by the free will of one came sin, so by the free will of the second came salvation.
DAVID GERGEN: So you had the disobedient Eve versus the obedient Mary, which is one of the problems that feminist theologians have bad problems in the 20th Century, the obedient woman, just the one who was deferential.
JAROSLAV PELIKAN: Which is only half the story. And there's a very interesting twist to that in the Genesis story. After the fall, God says to the serpent, I will put enmity between you and the woman and between her seed and your seed. And then the Latin translation says she will crush your head. That's not in the Hebrew, but it was in the Latin very early. And so it became the theme that Mary crushed the head of the serpent, that she was the valiant woman, the battler who went to war. She was the role model for Joan of Arc, which is not exactly the submissive, docile, obedient woman.
DAVID GERGEN: So that's the other part.
JAROSLAV PELIKAN: That's the other half.
DAVID GERGEN: We’ll have to remember that.
JAROSLAV PELIKAN: That’s right. And the dialectic between those two, the paradox between those two is one of a whole series of paradoxes. Virgin, yes; supreme example of a mother, yes. Neither without the other. Always. What God has joined together, let no one put asunder. And so those belong together. So it is also with these.
DAVID GERGEN: That's very interesting. There’s another interpretation I wanted to ask you about briefly, and that is the mother of God. In the Ave Maria prayer, Mary is called the mother of God, and we don’t think about what this is, but you say that that notion was the biggest quantum leap in history and the thinking about Mary.
JAROSLAV PELIKAN: That’s right. Because it does not say mother goddess, but mother of God, or more precisely, bearer, the one who gave birth to the One who was God is the way you'd unpack the sentence. And the question was, the One to whom she gave. birth. Did she give birth only to the human aspect of Jesus, or did she give birth to a person; to a human nature or to a divine human person? And if she gave birth to a divine human person, then she is the mother of the divine human person, she is the mother of God.
DAVID GERGEN: And Christ shares that divinity with God, therefore she is the mother of God, and that elevates her.
JAROSLAV PELIKAN: Certainly. And then she becomes the first example of how our nature can be elevated and transformed. Do you want to see what we’re going to be like eventually, by the grace of God, start with her because in her, the grace of God was present fully. The Ave Maria begins with, Hail Mary, full of grace. The rest of us have grace, but she is filled with it, and therefore she is already in that process of metamorphosis into participation in the divine nature.
DAVID GERGEN: One interpretation briefly: you also describe her as a bridge builder to other religions and other cultures.
JAROSLAV PELIKAN: Well, she is a Jewish maiden from Nazareth, descended from David. She is the most important woman in the Koran; maybe the most important description of any character, male or female in the Koran is in Sora 19 which has the title "Mary." She is the mother of the church, and identified with the church, so that across all of these divisions between the eastern and western churches, between Christianity and Islam, between Christianity and Judaism, there she is on both sides of each of those chasms.
DAVID GERGEN: Dr. Pelikan, thank you for joining us this Christmas season.
JAROSLAV PELIKAN: Thank you for having me.
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