'Let It Be': Mary's Radical Declaration of Consent

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The Biblical account shows that Jesus' mother knowingly and willingly chose the role God offered her.

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A modern myth claims that the biblical account of Mary's conception of the Christ child shows God to be a rapist.

Last Christmas, placards proclaiming "God raped Mary" were posted around the property of a Youth for Christ chapter in Toronto, Canada. Likewise, an atheist web site claims of the biblical story, "There was no asking Mary 'Hey, do you consent to this?', she had no choice, god just knocked her up and told her afterwards." Then there's the Internet meme depicting an illustration of Mary emblazoned with the words, "You think you got it bad? God raped me." Even some lighthearted half-believers—who concede the historicity of Mary, but not the supernatural circumstances around her son—theorize that she was raped, not by God, but by a Roman soldier, as portrayed in a 2002 BBC documentary.

However, whether one considers the scriptural account to be the inspired word of God or merely a literary text, understanding it properly requires an accurate reading of its actual words. Whether one interprets the story of Christ's birth as literal or metaphorical (or both), a faithful reading, as is true of the reading of all texts, starts at the literal level. I am a Christian, the kind who believes in the literal virgin birth of Christ, as well as his literal death and bodily resurrection. But I'm far less offended as a Christian by unbelieving than I am as an English professor by misreading.

Here is the account of Mary learning that she'll be the mother of Christ, as told in the first chapter of Luke's gospel:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?"

And the angel answered her, "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 called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.

The literal words in the Bible (across various translations) make clear that the angel Gabriel's words at the Annunciation convey to Mary what will happen, not what has happened, a future conception not a past one. The Annunciation—which is celebrated in the Christian liturgical calendar nine months before Christmas, on March 25, and has been the subject of countless works of art through the ages—is the commemoration of God's choice of a woman to bear the Savior of the world and of her willing acceptance of that role.

As it turns out, the Annunciation offers an invitation to Mary to give a very modern turn to a very pre-modern event: verbal consent.

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Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More.

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