Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints. Elizabeth Johnson. New York: Continuum, 2003.

Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson, a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood, New York, is one of the foremost theologians in the United States. She is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University, New York, past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, a consultant to the Catholic Bishops' Committee on Women in Church and Society, and a member of the Roman Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue (no.8) which produced The One Mediator, the Saints, and Mary (1992).

This most impressive book is the result of a long search for the true identity of Mary, once freed from all the many roles she has served throughout Christian history. Now, the author feels able to present an image of Mary which is "theologically sound, ecumenically fruitful, spiritually empowering, ethically challenging, and socially liberating." The search took many turns. In preparation for this work, the author researched the image of the Virgin Mary in previous eras. From these earlier studies, she concluded that the patriarchy of the Christian tradition had shortchanged the image of God. Although Mary may have imaged the female qualities of God, "restoring to the holy mystery those elements borne by the figure of Mary can be one contribution toward a doctrine of God freed from the biases and restrictions of patriarchy. Concomitantly, relieving the figure of Mary of its historic burden of imaging God in female form can also remove  from the Marian tradition one source of its tendency to distortion and set it more firmly on a gospel path, to ecumenical advantage." ("Mary and the Female Face of God," Theological Studies [1989] 504)

The book is lucidly structured, with interlocking chapters, each presenting an impressive summary of contemporary scholarship. The feminist hermeneutical principles which guide the work are given in the opening chapters; Mary is to be presented not as "transcendent symbol" but as an "historical person." In the description of Miriam of Nazareth's world, there is much valuable material on first-century Galilee: its social, cultural, political, economic situation, the recent archaeological excavations in Galilee, and the religious world of Second Temple Judaism.

The last section begins with impressive commentary on twelve passages of Scripture--featuring the Holy Spirit's relation to Mary, as well as the similarity of Mary's plight to that of so many of the world's marginalized. The final chapter on the Communion of Saints is the glorious denouement, where the Spirit-Sophia who weaves connections brings all together. All separating boundaries are broken down, and a vastly diverse people becomes one. Within "cloud of witnesses" are "paradigmatic figures" who accompany us and wonderfully exemplify what we are called to be.

The final chapters are truly exhilarating. Nevertheless, questions arise, some of which may be left over from the author's previous work, She Who Is. Much as we try to purify the Trinity of "a dreadfully masculinized conception of the Godhead" (Teilhard de Chardin), we cannot abandon the language of the Scriptures or the Creed. We wonder too, whether presenting Mary and the saints as "paradigmatic figures," but rejecting the notion of them as "transcendent symbol" as patronizing, accomplishes much. Many feel the need for being lifted and transformed.  

The Communion of Saints surpasses the limits of the Church. It stretches "backward and forward" in time, including the "great and diverse multitude of people who are continually being connected to God and one another in a unique history"--a description similar to the eschatological communion where God will be all in all. But in the mean time, what images might help us to cope with the sinful realities in which we find ourselves?

One book cannot say everything. This is a work, one of few there are, which speaks almost exclusively of Mary as the  woman related to the Holy Spirit. The author notes "I have not forgotten Mary as the mother of Jesus," but, "the Christian tradition of art and liturgy has forgotten [Mary and] the Galilean Jewish women with her...." But just as Christ without the Holy Spirit is incomplete, so we wonder about a work on Mary and Holy Spirit with little reference to Christ. It is a most rewarding volume, we hope not the final word, written perhaps, as Augustine said of his own work, "while we continue to search."

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