The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…” (Luke 1:35)
Does anyone else find this troubling? The most recognizable story of 2017 features men with power abusing women, while a lynchpin of the annual Advent story – the story of God’s unexpected arrival in the world – depicts a (male) power from on high “overshadowing” a young, poor, ethnically marginalized girl.
Traditional depictions of Mary focus on her “lowly estate” and humble submission. According to the hymns, she is “gentle Mary,” head bowed, a “meek and mild” maiden. In response to the angel’s announcement about God’s plan to use her body to save her people from oppression, she readily gives her consent: “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary’s submission is presented as paragon of Christmas virtue, exemplary for all who might offer their lives – indeed, as Mary does, their very bodies – to grow and labor for God’s peace and justice in the world.
It’s unlikely that Luke, the story’s male author, was aware of these dynamics. His attention was focused elsewhere. He would have known that the arrival of great kings, especially those who bring “salvation and peace to all the earth,” is commonly announced with a virgin birth. Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus were similarly heralded. Anyone hearing the angels’ proclamation from the skies in Luke 2 – “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to all people whom God favors” – would hear echoes of the adventus of Rome’s great authority, declaring peace and salvation for all who hear and embrace the “good news” of Caesar’s ever-expanding kingdom.
Even given this all-important context, Luke’s ignorance of the narrative’s impact on gender power dynamics does not excuse the story, nor our retelling of it, from culpability. Says ecumenical Mary scholar Jacques Macqarrie, “Mary is represented as meek, obedient, self-effacing, and this … has presented an ideal for women designed to keep them in subjection.”
In a dense book titled Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine, Kathryn Greene-McCreight follows the trajectory of feminist thinking about sin and grace-filled transformation. Typical (and mostly male) theological reflection on sin begins with an over-valued self, described variously as pride or ego. Greene-McCreight and others urge equal attention to the other side of the coin, the sin of “negation of self.” While careful to avoiding marking one kind of sin as essentially male and the other essentially female, she suggests that grace includes not only a challenge to overcome the false self, but an equally powerful invitation to embrace one’s true self – a whole and holy person made in the divine image, capable of bodily and spiritually birthing God’s own Child into the world.
Rereading Luke’s narrative with this in mind, we would do well to note that God’s announcement to Mary, through the angel, is that she is “favored” because “The Lord is with you” (1:28). She has not yet heard God’s proposal nor granted her consent. Mary’s partnership with God begins with divine affirmation.
In response, Mary tests God’s intent. She asks a hard question, requests more information. She “ponders.” Word choices are important. The Greek word translated “pondered” in Luke 1:29 appears 15 other times in the Gospels. Most of the time, the New Revised Standard Version translates it “questioned” – the Scribes question Jesus, Jesus questions his disciples. Sometimes it gets rendered “discuss.” Sometimes it is forceful enough to be translated “argue.” Only here, with reference to (female) Mary, is it translated ponders! Men discuss, question, and argue, but Mary ponders. The bias is blatant.
What God asks of Mary is nearly unbelievable. God wishes to be born into the world and Mary’s partnership is necessary for this task. There is no incarnation without Mary’s consent.
The joyous song of praise Mary sings next is anything but meek and mild. Her words echo the salvation song of ancient Hannah, connecting what’s happening in her body to God’s history-shaking acts of justice and mercy.
To the empire that imagines itself God’s agent of peace and prosperity, Mary sings:
God has shown strength with her arm;
she has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
With joy and strength, Mary boldly claims that what God does for her God is doing for all the earth. The narrative, the tradition, and the translation collude to give us meek and mild Mary. In spite of their best efforts, Mary’s passionate worship is unleashed; her shrewd questions illuminate God’s good news; her fierce courage claims divine mercy; and her embodied bravery delivers Love into the world.
Will we be so bold to pray as Mary did? Let it be for us, O God, according to your living word. Make our bodies bearers of healing hope for all the world.