There’s Something about Mary
"The Annunciation" Taddeo Gaddi, c. 1340

“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

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

Photo of another black nativity card

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6 thoughts on “There’s Something about Mary

  1. Absolutely brilliant. I hadn’t thought about Mary’s age at all. But oooooh, you gonna get in trouble for this one! I mean, not from me. But Mary “effectively didn’t exist”? I’d like some clarification: there was no person named Mary? the post-pubescent woman in our art isn’t Mary? or there is a Mary but the story didn’t happen the way the Bible tells it? Fascinating stuff.

    1. I foresee myself getting into lots more trouble over the next couple of years, once my book is published. I may as well get used to it.

      I believe there was a person named Mary, but the post-pubescent woman in our art, who is the one Christians revere and to whom we are to aspire, isn’t her. It’s also quite possible the story didn’t happen the way the Bible tells it. I’ve wondered about this often and entertained many scenarios; the most detailed account of Mary is written by Luke, who (I’m told) was a physician and whose writing is rather meticulous. But Luke has to go on other people’s memories, and when I think about human nature, when we view things in retrospect, we sometimes see them differently, even miracles. Maybe Mary was more resistant than she told Luke. Maybe the prospect of a virgin birth was terribly confusing, or she expressed concern about what Joseph would do. In her culture, she would’ve known an unwed pregnancy was cause for getting stoned to death, but she also would’ve known of Isaiah’s prophecy of a virgin birth, so I just wonder how she accepted so grave an assignment with, “Let it be done to me…” Or maybe I’m just petty and looking for excuses to be stubborn.

      On a slightly different topic, I also find it curious that some of the patriarchs, like Abraham, who expressed clear doubt about messages from God made it into Paul’s “Faith Hall of Fame” (Hebrews 11) Mary didn’t. Maybe she was dead already and Paul hadn’t read Luke’s account yet.

  2. Even though I question things just as much as you do I, ironically, find great comfort in the story of Mary. The fact that God chose someone young and poor reminds me that God can and will use anyone to do great things. I don’t see her question of “How?” as the preacher you mentioned does. I do see it as her moment of doubt and fear but that eventually she surrenders to God’s will trusting it is what is best. That is VERY hard for me to do but her story is a reminder of the good that comes from our surrender to God. Furthermore, it’s one thing to be told something by a preacher in a pulpit or by societal norms or even by a little voice in your head than to be told something by a freaking angel! I think you’d be a little more likely to obey if a glowing being with wings was in your room. Also, yes, Mary was a teen but we can’t imagine her like the teens of the 21st century (who are not all bad, might I add. I teach 65 amazing teenagers). People were married with children and taking care of households as teenagers back then. Anyway, thanks for such a thought-provoking post!

    1. Thanks for stopping by!

      I’m thrilled that God chooses people from every race, class, gender, etc. and I certainly don’t want to imply that he should call only rich men–they already think they’re favored anyway–or that poor, uneducated women don’t have free will. But when you’re not in a position to/accustomed to sticking up for yourself among humans, it’s hard to imagine you would stick up for yourself in front of God. Consider some of the biblical patriarchs’ interactions with God and angels. Adam and Abraham took their wive’s advice over God’s direct word. Abraham laughs at God’s promise to give him an heir. Abraham talks God into saving Soddom and Gommorah if he can find just one righteous man, way down from the original request. (I know God knew he wouldn’t find any anyway, but he lets Abraham bargain.) Jacob wrestled with an angel. WRESTLED. A few verses before Mary, Zechariah tells Gabriel, paraphrased, “I see you and I hear what you’re saying, and I’m talking to you, but are you sure, ’cause my wife and I are old, and I’m really not sure this can happen.”

      Also consider angels may look more normal than artists imagined. In most O.T. accounts, no one knows the angels are angels until something miraculous happens. Until then, they look like men. I would have many questions for a regular-looking man just showed up in my house talking about “you’ve found favor with God.” It’s like hearing the “God told me to tell you we were meant to be” pick-up line in your house instead of on the street! (And my response on the street is usually, “Child, please,” and *side eye.*

      1. I see what you’re saying, but I think we’re just looking at this story in two very different ways. You’re looking at it in more of a political manner, which is fine and very interesting, and I in a more spiritual manner, which is less interesting but allows me to still find great inspiration in Mary.

        I don’t see what’s so wrong with Mary having faith. Her story reminds me to trust God more than I do. God was obviously not happy with Zechariah’s doubt since dude couldn’t talk for 9 months afterward. LOL

        I have a tendency to want to stick up for myself in front of God just as you said and that tendency always leads to disaster and heartache. If I would just trust that God loves me and has my best interest at heart no matter how crazy the situation may seem, I’d be a lot better off. That’s what Mary teaches me.

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