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

By Karen Swallow Prior

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

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Wikimedia Commons

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.

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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.

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2012/12/let-it-be-marys-radical-declaration-of-consent/266616/