By Jean McCurdy Meade
It’s Advent and therefore time to revisit Luke’s account of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). Let’s get one thing straight right away: This passage recounts the time when the angel Gabriel was sent by God to Mary of Nazareth to tell her she had been chosen by God to bear the Messiah, not to announce to her that she was already pregnant with the promised Messiah.
Many agnostics, atheists, and others, including some Christians, who don’t believe in the virgin birth of Jesus anyway, have not bothered to analyze or criticize the text in detail since it is in their view merely a myth. And even many “orthodox” preachers and teachers in all branches of Christianity have glossed over the distinction between Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she was chosen vs. an announcement that she was pregnant, not seeing the distinction as very important, as a Christian colleague recently wrote to me.
Such an attitude gives opportunity to those who would discredit the Gospels as patriarchal and sexist, echoes of pagan tales of Gods impregnating human women at will, definitely without their consent. Perhaps in another day and time that carelessness in exegesis would have not excited much interest. But now, in our time of #MeToo at least one would-be debunker of the virgin birth has interpreted the Annunciation as a story about an “all-knowing, all-powerful deity impregnating a human teen” without her consent. “There is no definition of consent that would include that scenario.”
The biblical god regularly punished disobedience. The power difference (deity vs mortal) and the potential for violence for saying ‘no’ negates her ‘yes.’ To put someone in this position is an unethical abuse of power at best and grossly predatory at worst.
First, the text does not say how old Mary was, only that she was betrothed. Mary had given her consent to Joseph and so was capable of giving her consent to Gabriel’s announcement. It is ridiculous to superimpose our modern notion of adolescence upon ancient history, particularly when we do not know Mary’s age.
And far from implying a punishment for disobedience if she said No, there was no request for obedience at all. The exchange with Gabriel emphasized Mary’s active role in the dialogue, including her consternation at the angel’s greeting, her question about the possibility of conception since “I have no husband,” the angel’s explanation of how the conception would occur (if it was to occur; note the use of the future tense in the Angel’s announcement), and finally the giving of a sign: her cousin Elizabeth’s conception in her old age, along with the ancient statement inviting faith in God’s promise, from Abraham and Sarah on: “For with God nothing is impossible.”
This dialogue of question and answer and promise culminates in Mary’s reply, her assent, or consent, to being the mother that God has asked her to be: “Be it unto me according to thy word.” Her words set in motion and cause the conception that Gabriel has explained will take place by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. She has not conceived until she says, “Be it unto me according to thy word.” The Holy Spirit waited for her assent.
Mary’s choice was whether to accept God’s call to become pregnant for the salvation of the world, according to the teaching of the prophets of her faith and people, or to decline. There was a pause while she decided. Then she said Yes. She could have said No. She had a free choice, and she made it.
This has always been the clear teaching of the Church. For example, St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that when Gabriel announced to Mary that she had been chosen to be the Mother of God, it was as though the angels in Heaven held their breath waiting for her reply (Homily 4, 8-9). Renaissance painters even wrote her words in gold leaf, suspended in the air between the Virgin and the Angel, in some depictions of this event.
Now if you don’t believe any part of this story, it shouldn’t make much difference, unless you are bent on discrediting or mocking a central tenet of the Christian creed.
But to Christians who say the creeds, it is significant that Jesus was “incarnate by the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary,” that his mother was a human woman, Mary, who was not told to obey God’s message but rather was asked whether she would consent to be God’s partner in the redemption of the world. Mary’s Yes to God’s call is the prototype of the prayer her son Jesus taught us (“Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”) and of his prayer in Gethsemane as he faced arrest and crucifixion (“not my will but thine be done”) (Luke 22:42).
Especially during Advent we honor and give thanks for Mary’s courage, even as we pray we can have a small portion of her trust and faith in God’s purpose for each of us. It is hard to understand why those who do not share faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, would want to twist the text of Luke 1:26-38 to reject the story of this young woman’s courage and faith, in a choice that changed the history of the world.