What Mary Said
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
December 18, 2008 - Although historically commemorated on March 25th in some Christian traditions, the Annunciation – Gabriel’s announcement of the Incarnation to Mary in Luke 1:16-38 – is a rich source of Scriptural reflection during the season of Advent. Mary’s response to Gabriel’s declaration is stunning. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
We now live in an era of reproductive freedom, choice, and technology. This is part of what makes Mary’s reaction to Gabriel’s news almost incomprehensible. For the champion of twenty-first century reproductive possibilities, today’s underlying Zeitgeist is entirely antithetical to Mary’s spirit. “Behold, I am the servant of no one but my Self; let it be to me, with the help of all manner of technological mastery, according to my desires.” For today’s champion of reproductive possibilities, Mary’s response is quaint at best – a reflection of an arcane era of reproductive slavery. Gone is the age of Mary’s innocent naiveté: “How can these things be . . . ?” Thanks to the marvels of modern science, we now understand what Mary could not, and with the help of technology, we can control it.
Two points in particular are worth pondering. First, Mary’s response – slavish though it may seem to the untrained ear – is ultimately liberating. It is not accidental that in Luke’s gospel, the very next words that we read coming from Mary’s lips after her response to Gabriel are these: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Obedience gives birth to rejoicing; servanthood erupts into song. Second, Mary’s willing acceptance of her humble estate stands in stark contrast to Eve. Whereas Mary accepts the word of the Lord, Eve – with the Serpent’s encouragement – questions it. Whereas Mary receives what is given as a gift, Eve refuses to be satisfied with what is given, seeking to take what is in conformity with her desires.
As a consequence of her disobedience, Eve is deeply alienated from her own procreative potential: “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing: in pain you shall bring forth children” (Gen. 3:16a). These same consequences are manifesting themselves today among those who have purchased Eve’s reproductive agenda. As a recent New York Times article reports, for example, couples who have acquired children through in vitro fertilization are now struggling with the difficult decision of what to do with the remaining frozen embryos. While the study on which the Times article is based reports that a slight majority did not want to give up their remaining embryos for adoption by other infertile couples, reactions were uncertain when it came to whether those embryos should be merely discarded, donated for research, or kept frozen indefinitely.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche prophetically mused that when we kill God, “must not we ourselves have to become god(s) in order to seem worthy of what we have done?” The price of being the servant of no one but the Self is pain – not liberation. This is the lesson of Eve’s disobedience in Eden. Yet sadly, it is a lesson that we have failed to learn in relation to the reproductive possibilities that seemingly make us gods – makers of life.
Mary’s Magnificat reflects a joy of liberated restoration that overturns Eve’s curse. How marvelous that it follows Mary’s simple, yet profound, acknowledgment of who is Lord and who is not! May we learn to speak with Mary’s voice: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.”