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-by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

The Evolution of Mary(Part 1)

Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture

By Jaroslav Pelikan

Yale University Press

267 pp.; $25

Among the myriad demands for liberty and freedom that engulf the contemporary world, it would be difficult to think of one that has fewer champions than the "liberty to obey." In a sweeping attack on the very notion of legitimate authority, our secular culture has impatiently repudiated the notion of obedience. Obedience stands condemned as a last vestige of the servitude that has enchained humanity, most notably women. The widespread distaste is forcefully captured in the word "liberation." Modern celebrations of liberation assume that any freedom worthy of the name must be infinite: In the name of what, for example, may one legitimately claim to limit freedom of speech or freedom of choice?

Christians should know better. For across denominations, Christian theology has consistently held that infinite freedom belongs only to God. As the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar put it: "No finite freedom can be freer from restrictions than when giving its consent to infinite freedom."

For Christians, the Virgin Mary, to whom Jaroslav Pelikan, a Lutheran and a premier church historian, devotes this learned and engaging book, ranks, if we except Jesus, as the leading human exemplar of faithful obedience. She responded to the Annunciation: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). The Gospels, apart from the Annunciation and Nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke, offer little information about Mary. She is glimpsed in John's gospel at the wedding at Cana and at the foot of the cross on Calvary, where Jesus willed her to the "disciple he had loved," saying, "Woman, behold, your son!" and, to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" For the rest, she appears here and there, mostly in the company of other women, many also named Mary. In John's account of the wedding in Cana, she tells her son, "They have ...

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