There’s Something about Mary
“The Annunciation” Taddeo Gaddi, c. 1340
I have a problem with obedience—not necessarily the action, but the idea of it. Obedience implies acts done with or without willingness, despite questions and absent protest. If you’re a fan of this blog, you know I question stuff all the time, sometimes just for the heck of it.
That’s why something about Mary, the mother of Jesus, bothers me. More than once, I’ve heard sermons about her virtually unquestioning obedience. In the sermon I heard at church on Dec. 16 of this year on Luke 1:26-38 (the scene often called “The Annunciation”), the pastor said Mary’s question, “How is this going to happen?” was asking just that—not doubting whether it would happen but the method by which it (the birth of Christ to a virgin) would occur. Once the angel Gabriel answered her question, she accepted her calling dutifully, joyfully and without resistance. In fact, the Amplified Bible translates her response, “let it be done to me according to what you have said.” (Emphasis mine.) No agency on her part at all.
Now that I know she was a poor teenager, probably around age 14, her response bothers me a bit more. Accustomed to being in a social position lacking any privilege or authority, and possibly with knowledge of scripture she had only heard but wasn’t taught to read for herself, what else would she have said? Teens are terrible people, so I can almost picture her having a bad day and cussing Gabriel out. (Okay, not almost. I’ve written that scene. You may see it one day.) But really, there’s not much in the way of alternatives here.
And yet I can’t think of a time I’ve ever seen Mary’s social status pointed out as a factor that may have influenced her obedience. Much to the contrary, her impoverished girlhood is even cleaned up in her look for our nativity viewing pleasure. Italian artists often depict her as royalty—haloed, enthroned and trimmed in gold.
Regal black Madonna, one of mom’s old Christmas cards
I have dozens of Afrocentric Christmas cards showing an equally regal Mary who’s also stunningly beautiful. Porcelain manger scenes display a Mary who didn’t even break a sweat while giving birth, and in every rendering, she’s at least 10 years older than she likely was. This Iman/Naomi Campbell/twelfth century Italian matriarch double is the standard-bearer for obedience. She’s the one we are to look up to.
I think this is unfair for two reasons: 1) It’s dishonest. How can one make life-changing decisions without accurate information? How are Christians in general but Christian women in particular, to model ourselves after someone who effectively didn’t exist? 2) In my obedience to God’s will, I’m expected to imitate someone I can relate to just as much I can’t.
I had an epiphany recently: For the past several years, I have not been in the financial position to make most decisions based on long-term goals or consequences. I’ve had to meet my immediate needs. In that way, I’m like the Mary we never see. But I have lots of alternatives. When it comes to seeking God’s direction for what to do with my life, I’ve often wished for so dramatic a presentation as Mary received. My question more often is, “Huh?” or “Wait, is that you, God?” than it is, “How?” which makes being like Mary impossible. And those are the somethings about Mary that bother me.
In the name of never taking time off from thinking too much about everything, even during the holidays, Merry Christmas.
Photo of another black nativity card