[Erin Reese co-authored this piece. She is an artist, theologian, activist, and founder of The Scarlet Community, a consortium of faith communities standing together to promote the rights of women.]
What if Mary did not have a choice?
The familiar and comforting Advent story takes very sinister overtones if we consider this question.
The gospels tell us that Mary is with child while being a virgin. The angel Gabriel, in Luke's account, comes to Mary and says:" 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 holy; he will be called the Son of God."
Did Mary really have a choice?
If you believe that Christ is divinity incarnate born to bring forth divine love and justice into the world, then the extension of that belief is that God would only act through love and equality. It is human to rise through the ranks via oppressive power and forced collaboration. It is human to rape and force procreation. However, divine action is the result of love and participation through choice.
We have to believe that Mary did have a choice in this version of the story. A choice not to be pregnant. A choice not to carry out the pregnancy. What kind of God would not give women a choice on their own bodies? Would this God be any different from the many Greek gods that liked to "ravish" women, often in disguise or with subterfuge? Would this God be any different than an abusive man?
The Bible tells us that Jesus came into the world to bring justice to the poor, comfort to the suffering, to set the captives free, to speak against oppressive powers, and to engage women equally. How could God be incarnated to live such divine praxis through a violating conception and forced pregnancy? How could Jesus bring "good news" if God had violated Mary at the very beginning of this story?
Since the early days of Christianity, stories circulated about Jesus of Nazareth being the fruit of a relationship with a Roman soldier, possibly a rape. This would be a sadly common story in an occupied country. The writers of the gospels chose to tell us another story. They chose to tell us that the baby was a product of the Holy Spirit.
To understand God as a benevolent being in this story, we must believe that Mary somehow had a choice to bring forth more life. She must have been more than an empty and passive vessel, she must have been treated with dignity and respect. The gospel indicates choice. Mary answers to the angel: "Let it be with me according to your word." She made up her own mind.
Advent is a time usually associated with waiting. It is a season spent waiting for a divine force to come among us. But Mary wasn't just waiting. She wasn't passively on the side. She was active. She chose to collaborate and co-create with the divine. In the gospel of Luke, after the annunciation by the angel Gabriel, Mary sings God's praises and makes some very clear statements about who she believes God to be. In what is commonly known as the Magnificat, Mary says that God "has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." She believes in collaborating with a God that is a liberator and a justice maker. She understands that this force would bring forth a new world.
How could Mary sing God's praises if she had not been an active participant in her own life, and did not have the option of a choice?
Mary had a choice. She chose to carry the baby. She could have chosen to take the herbs available to her to interrupt her pregnancy or even to take her own life. She could have argued with Gabriel. While the argument could have been removed due to editorial choice, Joseph's trepidations after discovering her pregnancy were not edited out. Mary chose to embrace the pregnancy and to co-create the Christ child.
Today, in the year 2013, governments continue to act in the dead of night and with malicious intent to remove the rights of women, to remove access to choice. Here in the U.S., states are enacting laws that close clinics providing medical care to women and creating loopholes for birth control and other medical needs for women to be denied. We believe that denying women rights over their bodies and their right to reproductive choice is against the spirit of freedom we find in the gospel.
Advent is about the choice to nurture a world reflective of divine justice and individual choice. To participate in a challenge to oppressive powers. Mary chose to participate, to nurture a force pushing against her experience of an occupying empire and furthering equality among peoples.
Advent is a time for us all to nurture that divine force. That force that asserts individual freedom over state dominance, and recognizes women as capable of making individual soulful choices. It is time to contribute to a presence that remembers the poor and oppressed in many ways, including through supporting access to safe and affordable reproductive healthcare.
We believe Mary had a choice. If she had not, the story would be very different.