We are all familiar with the story of the Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel. We all know that Gabriel appeared to Mary, asked her to be the Mother of the Son of God and she said yes. But what is also important is what did not happen:
Mary did not tell Gabriel that She could not make that decision because she was a young woman who had no right to make decisions about her future. Mary did not tell Gabriel that she would have to check with her father, the temple leaders and/or Joseph and let him know if the men had given their permission. Mary did not tell Gabriel that he, himself, would have to go ask her father, the temple leaders and/or Joseph for their permission for her to do this.
God did not send Gabriel to Mary’s father, the temple leaders and/or Joseph to ask them to allow Mary to be a part of God’s plan to bring a Savior into the world. Sure Matthew’s Gospel narrative does have an Angel appearing to Joseph in a dream to reassure him of Mary’s faithfulness and fidelity after he discovers Mary is pregnant, but not to get his permission.
God sent Gabriel to Mary. Gabriel asked a question. The angel did not merely inform Mary that she was going to be the Mother of the Savior. God did not impose anything on Mary. God asked Mary to join in God’s plan to bring salvation into the world by giving birth to the Savior, to a Son that would be both God’s and her Child.
For many centuries, Mary’s “yes” has been used to subordinate and subjugate women. She became the epitome of the perfect woman, wife and mother because she was portrayed as meek, passive, obedient, quiet and clearly knew her place. That place was ever in the background and never in the foreground.
That is why some women cannot identify with Mary and have no real concept of why they should even care about her or look to her as a role model. Who would ever want to model a meek, passive woman who was content to simply let things be done to her? I certainly would not and I cannot imagine anyone who really would. However that is the picture, the imprint, the patriarchal Church and patriarchal society has painted of Mary and continually holds up as the ideal to which all women must aspire.
Women must be meek, passive, obedient and quiet like Mary. That is their role and their place. Those women who have a devotion to Mary are seen, at best, as being complacent in the subjugation and subservient status of women. At worst, they are seen as being willing participants in refusing women equal status in both the Church and society.
The patriarchal Church had a problem with defining the role of women in both the Church and society. They could easily use Eve to demonstrate why women could not be trusted, lacked judgment and were weak. After all, Eve, not Adam, was the one who was tempted and ultimately gave into that temptation and then coaxed Adam into also eating the apple.
But what about Mary? As the Church sought to find a way to honor her position as Mother of the Savior, they had to do so without changing the second-class status of women. They accomplished this by creating a Mary who was not just perfect and sinless, but beyond perfect. She was a role model who could never really be a role model not simply because we are all imperfect, but because that image was never real.
The real Mary stood alone with an Angel, thought about the question and made a decision on her own. The real Mary faced the consequences of her decision at a time when she could have been put to death for being pregnant. The real Mary raised a Son whom she loved beyond all measure and had to say goodbye to much sooner than she wanted.
The time has come to liberate Mary, to set her free, to paint a new and more realistic image of this woman who, with tremendous courage and faith, said “yes” to God. In doing so, we will also further liberate women. Embrace the real Mary and echo her “yes”with the courage she did. That is what we should strive to emulate. Her courage, the faith, the trust, not the unattainable perfection.