We are glad to share this guest post from Beth Anne Fisher. Beth Anne is a PhD candidate in Theology and the current Spiritual and Community Life Coordinator at Emmanuel College, Toronto School of Theology. Her research interests are in psycho-spiritual integration, spiritual leadership in a multi-faith culture, and theologies of doubt and delight.
The weekend before Advent started, a friend asked me, half in jest, “Did Mary even consent to being impregnated by God?”
The Annunciation is such a familiar story that I immediately recalled her response: “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me as you have said.”
Is that consent, though? Did Mary consent? In order for her consent to be full, it would have to be possible for her to have said, “No.” What if she had said “No, thank you!” – would Gabriel have moved on to someone else? Or what if she had at least asked a few more questions, like, “Why me?” and “What is it going to cost?”
The image of Mary that has been perpetuated in most church spaces I’ve been in is one of a meek, mild, idealized woman who simply said “Yes, of course” to anything that was asked of her. But is that necessarily the case? What if there are parts to the dialogue that haven’t been preserved for us? Is it possible that Mary was given enough time to weigh all this? Perhaps the angel let her sit with it all and come to an actual choice?
I went back to the story and re-read Luke 1:26-38, and was struck by two truths that make me think she did, in fact, fully consent:
- Mary must have known from what the angel said that this proposed experience would not be easy or triumphant. Unwed and pregnant, mother of someone who will claim a throne – she is not being asked to live a quiet and simple life. In the long-term, she lives within a political system that is already oppositional towards her faith community. Imagine the turmoil and disruption that will come if her offspring were to make a claim of kingship? And her immediate future is not her own. In the patriarchal context of the Roman Empire, she is fully dependent on a man – two men. Joseph, her betrothed, and her father. The angel gives her no promise of a support system. No guarantee that all will be well. According to Levitical law, Joseph could turn her over to death by stoning if it was determined she was not a virgin when they wed (Deut 22:20-21). The angel says nothing of this. Which leads to the second realization I had –
- Mary spoke for herself. She didn’t consult with Joseph. She made a decision for herself, for her future, for the son to be born. In a culture dominated by male power, Mary knew that the choice was hers to make, not Joseph’s, not her father’s. It was hers. Her body, her future, her family to build. There are two other biblical narratives of angels announcing the future arrival of a son. In Elizabeth’s story, told just before this passage, the angel speaks with her husband, and Elizabeth’s response comes only after her pregnancy has been confirmed. Looking further back to another story of an angel promising a son – Sarai is eavesdropping on her husband Abram’s visitors, and interacts with them only when she is caught laughing at the promise of a child (Gen. 17:1-15). In contrast, the angel comes directly to Mary and they dialogue directly. The angel doesn’t even mention the men in her life – only Elizabeth, her once-barren cousin. This is a woman’s story.
This is the first time I’ve thought that maybe Mary was a bit like me – less “meek and mild” and more “strong willed and unable to ignore her conscience.” She chose the hard path. She believed that she was having an encounter with the Divine, even when no man was around to prove her testimony. Even though it could cost her life. She knew that she was experiencing something profound and holy, and she said Yes, not out of deference, but with full commitment.
How beautiful that the story of Jesus begins here, with a teenage girl claiming a path that diverged from the acceptable cultural narrative for young women, with a teenage girl speaking directly to the divine messenger, committing herself to an uncertain and improbable future, and claiming for herself the power of autonomy.