A Provocation: The Annunciation (April 4): Luke 1:26-38

A Question:

  • The storyteller does not mention that Mary is afraid.  Why, then, does the messenger tell her not to be afraid?

Some Longer Reflections:

The answer to this question is probably too easy.  The angel tells Mary not to be afraid because that is what one does when one is in the midst of an angelophany.  There are just rules for these things.  That’s all there is to it.

When the same angel appeared to Zechariah, everybody followed the rules.  Zechariah was afraid; Gabriel told him not to be afraid; he ceased being afraid; and the scene proceeded normally.

That is how angel-appearance scenes work.

There are regular rules, and Gabriel is just saying his lines.

Gabriel’s problem is that Mary is different.  The storyteller does not say that she is afraid.  We are told that Mary is disturbed, maybe even shaken, stirred up, or (as the NRSV has it) perplexed.  All of those reactions make sense, given that a messenger from God has suddenly appeared to her.  But she is not afraid.

In fact, she responds by reasoning the whole thing out.  Though translators have her “trying to think,” or “wondering,” the storyteller informs us (in Greek) that she dielogizeto.   This word does not imply that she “really wishes she was smart and good at thinking.”  Quite the contrary: the word means that she begins a rational dialog as she works to understand what is going on.  And the conversation with Gabriel from that moment on is presented as a dialog of Mary speaking and Gabriel responding with reasoned answers.

This way of describing Mary’s response matters.  She is not presented as a meek, submissive woman who needs to be put back together by Gabriel’s soothing baritone voice.  Quite the contrary.  When my actors have explored this scene, it is more often Gabriel who looks a little discombobulated.  Zechariah, a man fully grown, was scared spitless.  Fear fell on him, we are told.

By contrast, nothing falls on Mary, not without her knowing why.

My actors usually end up with Gabriel surprised, maybe even shocked, by the calm, rational courage that Mary shows in this scene.

This courage, this ability to engage in a dialectical exploration and assessment of the situation is important.  It means that Mary’s choice to accept the task of giving birth to God’s messiah is a real choice, rationally made.  She is not overwhelmed.  She is not forced into submission.  She listens to the messenger.  She asks pointed questions.  It appears that the messenger from God likes her questions better than the spluttering attempts Zechariah made at questioning: Zechariah is silenced, Mary is not.

And the next time we hear Mary speak she reveals that she has expanded upon what Gabriel had said to her.  Gabriel set up the arrangement so that it included bearing one who would be called Jesus, one who would be great, a son of the Most High, one who would rule over the Jewish world as a descendent of David.  Mary extends this contract considerably.  She tells Elizabeth that this baby soon to be born will overthrow the mighty from their thrones, will raise up those too long oppressed, feeding the hungry and sending the rich empty away.  This baby will enact the remembrance of Mercy, bringing into force promises that have been pending since the time of Sarah and Abraham.

This is no kind of meek submission.  Mary makes it clear that she will take on the risk of being untimely pregnant, which risk includes the possibility of being the victim of honor killing, so long as the risk brings God’s promises into force.

Centuries of interpreters have explained to us, using their best and most resonant baritone voices, that Mary is meek and demonstrates complete submission.  They explain this to us at great length, apparently reassuring themselves along with us.  There’s nothing quite like knowing that they are wrong to make a baritone nervous.

But Mary is not afraid.  She is not overwhelmed.  And she is not submissive.

Mary hears; she reasons; she deliberates; and she decides.

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