Warning: Including some crass humor in the description of a Great Christian Mystery is intended to drive home just how extraordinary a woman Mary must have been, as well as the extraordinary — indeed quite odd — nature of the mystery involved.
Ave Maria, gratia plena… Hail Mary, full of grace… These words, whether set to the sumptuous music of Biebl’s much-beloved one-hit wonder, sung to another tune, or simply spoken, will ring out through many a church today, the last Sunday of Advent, the last caravanserai parishioners pause at before reaching Bethlehem itself, and the Word Made Flesh.
Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariæ… Mary hears angel Gabriel’s announcement, and replies, Ecce ancilla Domini. Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. And then — only then — do we hear the beautiful words from John’s gospel: Et Verbum caro factum est. Et habitavit in nobis.
The order of events recited in the Angelus reflects traditional Christian understanding of the order in which the events of the Annunciation happened. Mary doesn’t merely hear God’s word, passively obeying it as if she had no other choice. Instead, she first proclaims, “Let it be to me according to your word,” and then the Word is Made Flesh to dwell among us, full of grace and truth. Mary, in short, consented.
As Simcha Fisher points out, Christian sexual ethics must include more — much more — than mere consent. But you can’t very well leave consent out of Christian ethics. In 16 things Catholic girls should know about consent (which might be better titled 16 things Christians should know about consent) Fisher emphasizes that Christian sexual ethics don’t stop with consent, but they bloody well must start there. We can’t be judged by our moral choices if those choices aren’t ours to make. For Mary, mother of God, to have made the moral choice to be the God-Bearer, it must have been a choice. Mary must have consented.
Here’s where some wag might pipe up asking how Mary could have consented when she was so young — by our age-of-consent standards still a minor, formally incapable of consent. If Mary was below our age of consent, does that make our age of consent too high, or does that make God a pedophile? We have to choose one or the other, right?
Of course not. Age-of-consent laws exist as convenient bright-line rules. It’s not that everyone below the age of consent is incapable, and that everyone above that age is fully capable (though hopefully the vast majority are by then — that’s why civilized societies set the age of consent so high). It’s just that we’re not God: We’re not omniscient beings capable of knowing just when a child has become mature enough to know just what she’s getting into, so we pick an age instead. Fortunately, God is God, and so does know.
Luke’s Gospel account of the Annunciation suggests Mary is no mere credulous child, despite her young age. Mary is greatly troubled by Gabriel’s arrival, and suspicious of the offer Gabriel makes: She asks him, “How will this be, since I am virgin?” — a question suggesting resistance to being sexually invaded as well as awareness of what sex is and does. When Gabriel answers, Mary replies, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”
Gabriel frames his announcement to Mary as what will happen, not what has happened. Clearly, Gabriel is not telling Mary she has already been impregnated without her knowledge or consent. Still, could Gabriel’s message be a threat telling Mary she will fall pregnant whether she agrees to it or not? Or is his message a promise to Mary, a promise whose fulfillment depended on her assent? I believe it’s only moral to consider it the latter — a promise which Mary had the choice to say yes or no to, a promise revealing Mary’s bravery in saying “Yes.”
After the Annunciation, Elizabeth, Mary’s kinswoman, greets Mary with, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” Promises, not threats. Promises, though, which most young women of Mary’s time would have scarce reason to look forward to. People back then weren’t too dumb to know where babies come from or recognize a lame excuse when they heard one. Most sensible, upright people would quite rightly suspect a girl who insisted, “No, seriously, it’s not what you think — a god made me pregnant, I swear!” of lying to excuse her shame.
Sure, the pagan mythology of Mary’s time featured several stories of randy gods raping helpless mortals, but would a girl who claimed that’s really what happened to her be believed? Doubtful. I doubt she could hope for better than “belief” not much different from disbelief — “Well OK, then, sweetheart. You keep pretending that’s what happened to you, and we’ll keep pretending to believe you.”
Mary was not supposed to be That Kind of Girl. For that matter, our God is not supposed to be That Kind of God. Our God is not just one god among many, a being scarcely different from modern superheros, indulging human appetites, like getting frantically horny every now and then, only on larger-than-life scale. Our God is the God. Transcendent. All-wise. All-good. Infinitely above getting His almighty rocks off by raping little girls.
Mary, in knowing she should not be That Kind of Girl, must have realized that decent people would have good reason to suspect she was exactly That Kind of Girl — a lying slut. Worse than that: an obnoxiously sanctimonious, adulterous lying slut. Mary’s betrothal to Joseph was binding: sex with anyone else was adultery. And can you imagine the nerve it would take to insist that, after some “god” had “overshadowed” you, you were still a virgin? Would Leda have dared claim the Zeussian form which “overshadowed” her, weird swan genitalia and all, (yes, waterfowl genitalia are weird) had left her a virgin? By Jove, the sanctimony of it!
No wonder Mary was greatly troubled.
And yet she said “Yes” anyhow. Brave girl. Brave Joseph, too.
Joseph’s first reacted to Mary’s pregnancy by wondering whether he should divorce her quietly to avoid scandal. Had Joseph been the father of Mary’s child, any scandal involved would have been minimal, a mere matter of having gotten the nuptial rites a bit out of order — yes, you should wait till the marriage is completed, but as long as you’re engaged and will get married anyhow… Instead, Joseph, holy man that he was, needed an angel to reassure him before believing Mary’s story and deciding against divorce. Even the reassurance of an angel wouldn’t have prevented gossip, though. If word gets out that Mary claims it’s God’s kid, that means it’s not Joseph’s. Would a respectable man like Joseph cuck himself by raising someone else’s spawn?
The Holy Family could not have been the Holy Family without fidelity to transcendent holiness, fidelity despite the risk that this holiness would be indistinguishable from tawdry scandal to most reasonable, decent people.
Not all Christians agree on whether Joseph left Mary a virgin once they married, or whether they instead had normal marital relations. The oldest Christian tradition holds that Mary did remain virgin for life, Joseph’s marriage to her providing guardianship over her status as a consecrated virgin. If Mary weren’t sworn to lifelong virginity, traditional reasoning goes, why would Mary be so troubled by the news she would soon bear a son? After all, Mary was engaged, and it’s perfectly normal — not at all troubling — for engaged virgins to marry, then lose their virginity before conceiving a son.
Whichever branch, perpetual virgin or ordinary wife, you believe Mary took after having agreed to walk down the path leading to the Word Made Flesh, meek and mild Mary must have been one helluva brave soul to agree to that path to begin with. I suspect those described as meek and mild in God’s service often are.
A blessed Advent and Merry Christmas to you all!
PS: I wasn’t kidding about Biebl’s sumptuous setting of Ave Maria, a piece America discovered thanks to a chance encounter between a German radio producer and an Ivy-League glee club. You can read about the history of Biebl’s piece here, if you like, but of course listening to it is even better! The men’s chorus Chanticleer widely popularized the piece, adopting it as a signature song:
If you also want to read the musical score while you listen, you can do so here: