CONSENT AND THE ANNUNCIATIONDo we have a choice in whether we participate in God’s plan?
(Editor’s note: This piece was originally written on December 20, 2016.)
Finally, with just a few weeks left of gasping breath, 2016 has given us something of redeeming quality.
The 1940s holiday song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is a story of a woman who wants to go home at night but a man does everything he can to force her to stay. He blames the weather, uses flattering words, and … even tries getting her drunk enough that she can’t leave. The woman repeatedly refuses to consent, and the man refuses to take “no” for an answer.
I ought to say no, no, no, sir / Mind if I move in closer?
Yes, she does mind! She just said so!
The song isn’t new and neither are the concerns over its lyrics, but recently — with new focus on combating rape culture and the powerful people who legitimize it — it’s reached a fever pitch.
Well in the past few weeks, a couple recording artists from the Twin Cities have made headlines when they produced a new version of the song. In the video embedded above, you can see them performing it for The Current.
The Bible’s Old Testament chronicles the struggles of God’s people at every juncture. Creation and fall. Covenant and slavery. Freedom and rebellion. Land and exile.
As we turn the page to the New Testament, the people of Judah had returned from exile and tried to settle back into the land.
It still didn’t feel like home.
The temple — the place where God was said to live — was gone. The wall around Jerusalem — the thing that was supposed to provide them protection — was in ruins. Their autonomy — freedom to live under no one’s rule but their own — had disappeared.
Some gave up. Some gave in. And some continued to wait, trusting that God would act.
And finally … he did.
In this Year C of the Narrative Lectionary, we’re reading from the Gospel According to Luke. Each of the four Jesus stories in our Bible has different authors with different flavors, and Luke is written to sound very “Old Testament-y” with lots of statements like “In those days” and “It came to pass.” So as the book opens, Luke tells us about an aging woman named Elizabeth who had previously been barren but will now give birth to a son. Sound familiar (think Sarah, Rachel, Hannah)? What’s different from the Old Testament depictions of infertile women miraculously giving birth in old age is this son will be the forerunner to the Messiah, the promised king of Israel.
The stage is set for the king to arrive. But then things get particularly weird.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled by his words and began to wonder about the meaning of this greeting. So the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! Listen: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.” Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God. “And look, your relative Elizabeth has also become pregnant with a son in her old age — although she was called barren, she is now in her sixth month! For nothing will be impossible with God.” So Mary said, “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
-Luke 1.26-38 (NET)
In Christian theology, this event is known as “the annunciation.” Rather than going to a palace, an angel goes to a town in rural, northern Israel. The young peasant girl he visits — not a queen — receives the announcement that she will be the mother of the promised Messiah.
Also unexpectedly, it seems that this Messiah will be the “Son of God” in the most literal way possible. Other kings were called the sons of God, but thisangel suggests that God will actually be the baby daddy.
From here most of us know how the story goes, so two thousand years later we hear the angel’s message and think “Of course Mary is blessed.”
One problem. Why was Mary “greatly troubled”?
A few weeks ago, a friend reached out on Twitter looking for my thoughts about something I had not previously considered.
“Interesting to think of story of Mary & pregnancy in terms of consent. She ultimately agrees to carry but not til AFTER the Holy Spirit impregnates her. Where is consent? And what is it’s importance in this story?”
Admittedly, we religious types are often quick to discredit or divert these types of questions. Some typical responses include:
- Reading the text, it does not seem that Mary’s consent was the primary concern of the author, nor possibly even in his purview.
- This is God we’re talking about. God can do whatever he wants to fulfill his plan.
- Just stick to what the Bible clearly says and don’t ask questions.
But let’s entertain this question. Did Mary have a choice in the matter being announced by the angel, or was this “divine rape?” If she did have some say, what can her response teach us about God and our own response to him?
Let me tell you a little bit about Mary. (Take this as cultural exegesis rather than mansplaining.)
Mary was a Jew living in the backwaters of ancient Israel, a once sovereign kingdom now under occupation of the Roman Empire. Her hometown was Nazareth with an estimated population between only 200–500 people. In a town that small, it’s likely that everyone would have known Mary and her family. She was of the female gender, an entire half of the population whose words weren’t reliable enough to be used in the courts as testimony. She was also a virgin engaged to be married, meaning she was a teenager whose parents had forged an agreement to marry her off to an older man. And then, of course, she was not only a woman but a girl, a child.
Mary was on the lowest rung in society — a poor female child from a marginalized people group — and would never be taken seriously. She was an unimportant drop of water in the ocean of humanity. A drop who had absolutely no control over or say in the most important decisions in her life.
So now put yourself in THAT Mary’s shoes.
An angel comes to you.
In the middle of the night when no one is around to corroborate your story.
And he calls you “favored.”
He then explains that you will miraculously become pregnant by some means other than her husband.
Yes, Mary is told that not only will God be the father but that this child is the fulfilment of God’s promises. The long awaited king, the messiah, the one who will restore blessings to Israel. All of that is incredibly important to the story.
AND you are Mary. A poor young girl. You’ve never known the ability to make decisions for yourself. You’ve always had to face the consequences of the decisions that others have made on your behalf. To quote Jyn Erso from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, you’ve “never had the luxury of political opinion.” Now it appears you’re facing a pregnancy that had been sprung upon you, not to mention the wrath of family and friends and neighbors who are convinced you’ve been sleeping around.
There’s bound to be talk tomorrow, At least there will be plenty implied.
Despite all this, Mary responds to the angel, first with a question — “How will this be?” — then with a statement — “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word.”
My friend was partially right. Mary was not and likely had never been asked for her consent … for anything.
But in response to the annunciation, she gave her consent anyways. Regardless of the very real cost that lay before her.
It’s almost as if Mary recognized that the winds had changed. That something was different now. That God was even better than she had been led to believe. That she was even better than she had been led to believe.
Maybe, just maybe this king in her womb and the kingdom to which he would give birth would heap blessing on those who were cursed, would bring freedom to those stuck in their circumstances, would bring safety to those who felt scared, and would provide equity to those who were powerless.
Maybe this king wouldn’t use people like her for his own pleasure or advantage.
Maybe her voice actually mattered.
What’s happening in Luke 1 is radically subtle, but radical nonetheless.
Mary has a name!
Mary has a voice!
Mary pushes back!
And Mary then gives her approval.
The empowerment of marginalized groups is a theme throughout the Gospel According to Luke, but this is particularly the case with women.
Women are “blessed” and “favored” (Lk 1.26–56).
Women are counted among the disciples (Lk 8.1–3).
Women are literally called out of the kitchen to be his learners (Lk 10.38–41).
Women stayed with Jesus when he was executed and prepared his body for burial (Lk 23.49–56)
And women were the first to see Jesus after his resurrection (Lk 24.1–12).
Empowerment is rarely free, though.
Mary knew what this new life was going to cost her. Luke doesn’t tell us Joseph’s response, but Matthew suggests an angelic dream is the only thing that saves their engagement. Could he ever truly believe her? You can bet the glances and slurs were flying from her fellow Nazarenes. Could she really not come up with a better excuse for her promiscuity than “the Holy Spirit did this to me”? Frankly she’s lucky that Mosaic Law which placed a death penalty on adultery wasn’t invoked.
Mary jumps on board despite all this, and not begrudgingly either. In fact she bursts out into a beautiful prayer of praise known as the Magnificat.
And Mary said, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior, because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant. For from now on all generations will call me blessed, because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name; from generation to generation he is merciful to those who fear him. He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position; he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
– Luke 1.46–56 (NET)
So it seems that the simple birth announcement was actually an announcement about the kind of king who was being born and the kingdom to which he would give birth.
God is better than we thought.
We are better than we thought.
God is acting decisively in human history and he’s doing so through flipping the entire societal stratification.
There is, however, always another side to things.
Given the chance to offer their consent to the the very same kingdom as Mary, there are plenty of people who have and do and will say no to that kind of kingdom.
It’s too costly.
It’s too painful.
It’s was too political.
And by all of these, most mean they aren’t willing to challenge a status quo from which they continue to profit.
As much as some people would say otherwise, the grace of the kingdom of God given life in a tiny baby born to a virgin mother in a feeding trough ISresistible. Many willingly resist it every day.
God won’t force himself upon us.
It is the type of kingdom to which he hopes we will say “yes.”
Certainly to adopt this Jesus story as our own is to be inconvenienced.
It will be uncomfortable.
It will be painful.
It will put us at odds with people around us.
It will often put us at odds with very powerful people in the places in which we find ourselves.
But it also has the potential to birth within us a belief — no, a conviction — that God is better than we could have thought.
That we are better than we thought.
That the last will be first and the first last.
That in losing our lives we’re in the process finding life.
So will we give consent to this upside down kingdom and our role within it? Will we step back in order to let the marginalized take privileged center stage, or will we get caught up in not being in charge?
The Christmas story — and all of the good news about Jesus — is good news that asks us to participate, but leaves open the possibility that we might revoke our consent.
May we, like Mary, find the courage to say YES to the annunciation.