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

In these modern times—marked by the kind of post-sexual revolution complexities and progressive sexual politics that make even the definitions of "rape," "rapist," and "nice men" points of conflict on both a personal and an international scale—verbal consent has been put forward in some quarters as the salvation of the sexually vulnerable.

Consider the sexual conduct code enacted—to much national acclaim and infamy—by Antioch College in the mid-'90s. Among the long list of steps required or recommended by the code in order to stay this side of official sexual misconduct were these:

  • If sexual contact and/or conduct is not mutually and simultaneously initiated, then the person who initiates sexual contact/conduct is responsible for getting the verbal consent of the other individual(s) involved.
  • The person with whom sexual contact/conduct is initiated is responsible to express verbally and/or physically her/his willingness or lack of willingness when reasonably possible.

These steps are followed quite neatly in the narration of the Annunciation in Luke's gospel. God initiates, and Mary gives her verbal consent: "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word."

To be clear, in the sequence of events given, it is not until after Mary consents that the child is conceived (which, the story says, occurs through the "overshadowing" of the Holy Spirit, the same word used to describe what happens to the disciples years later at Christ's transfiguration). Furthermore, Mary's verbal consent to the conception of the Christ child by the Holy Spirit is premised on her informed consent since the words delivered by the angel foretell also the identity and future of the child she will conceive: "the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God."

So with Mary's words of "let it be," we have what just might be the first recorded instance of verbal consent in human history. And considering the times—ancient Middle Eastern cultures were not known for their justice toward women—this verbal consent to being the bearer of the Christ child is quite remarkable indeed.

Of course, we don't have Mary's firsthand account of the events. What we do have is the report of Luke, who is traditionally said to have been a doctor and is characterized by modern scholars as among the most cultured writers of the New Testament, distinguished in his writings for his overriding (and uncommon) concern for women, the poor, the sick, and the outcast. Luke mentions Mary more than any other biblical author. One of my colleagues, a professor of philosophy and religion, tells me that it is likely that Mary was one of Luke's firsthand sources for his gospel, given both textual and historical evidence. In the absence of a record of Mary's own account, there could not be a more trustworthy record than this, one hardly less reliable than, say, Plato's recordings of the dialogues of Socrates.

Yet, some things don't change: then as now, the woman's word is given too little credence. But if we take the woman at her word, Luke's account of Mary's testimony portrays a God—whether real or mythical—who was way ahead of us. And with us, too.

Presented by

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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