Was Mary’s “Yes” Really a Yes?

To be honest, the Christian story of the virgin birth always kind of freaked me out. So much so, that when I was a kid I asked my mom if God raped Mary, which in tern freaked her out (it didn’t help that we were in a public place at the time). Despite the assurances that nothing untoward happened to Mary, the whole virgin birth affair still struck me as unsettling. As a Catholic, I dived headfirst into the Mariological aspects of the faith, even as I wondered about the wisdom of having Mary be so far removed from the experiences of “regular women.” While Catholic theology places a great deal of emphasis on how Mary’s “yes” to God canceled out Eve’s disobedience, it’s not clear to me that this “yes” was really what I would consider to be an example of enthusiastic consent.

Before we get to that, let’s example the comparative treatment of Zachary and Mary in the Gospel of Luke. When Zachary responds to Gabriel’s announcement of the impending birth of John the Baptist with skepticism to the idea that his aged wife would be having a baby, the angel punishes him by rendering him mute. When a similar scene plays out sometime later during the Annunciation proper, Mary behaves in much the same way as Zachary, by voicing her confusion about how she’s supposed to have a baby when she has “never known man.” Here Gabriel goes into great detail (relative to what he told Zachary, anyway) about the great fate that is in store for the once and future fruit of her womb. I never understood why Zachary was punished for demanding that Gabriel provide more information, whereas Mary asked almost the exact same thing but is lauded as “blessed art thou among women.” What’s the difference? I guess conservotrad Catholics would say that Mary “said yes” to God and Gabriel whereas Zachary was a doubter, but it doesn’t seem like Zachary was given much a chance to get anything in edgewise. And what was Zachary supposed to be saying “yes” to? It seems like the appearance of John the Baptist had been divinely planned, so it’s not like there was anything Zachary could say that would say God from his plans.

Anyway, on to the Annunciation itself. Luke 1:38 says the Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word,” once Gabriel finished with his speechifying. If we’re to believe Catholic tradition, Mary was designated to be Jesus’ mother from the beginning, thus necessitating her to be born free of original sin (exactly why God couldn’t make everyone free of original sin is never explained). The need for Jesus’ mother to be extra pure is also why Mary was supposedly raised in the Temple. So it doesn’t seem like Mary had much in the way of free choice as to whether she was going to say yes to God, because he had engineered her nature and environment to be such that saying no wasn’t going to be an option.

But what if Mary had said no? Would God have started over with another girl? Would she have been turned into a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife? Would Gabriel have said, “Tough cookies. You’re going to have this baby whether you want to or not.” The last scenario isn’t impossible to imagine, given that stories from the Greco-Roman pantheon indicate that when the Olympians saw a girl they fancied, the motto appeared to be, “Ravish and ask questions later.”

Given that females in these sorts of mythological virgin birth stories are never asked whether they want to be pregnant — rather, the pregnancy is thrust upon them and they just have to deal with it — I don’t think that Mary’s “yes” was really a “yes” in the sense of a freely chosen option, especially once you factor in the aspects of the Catholic tradition that indicate that she was groomed to be Christ’s mother from the moment of her conception. Mary is positively juxtaposed against Eve for making “the right choice,” but I would argue that Mary was never in a position to make a real choice. Without the “faith goggles,” Mary seems less like a model of faith and more like a mindless automaton with no will or personality of her own.

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