Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.
By Kathy Staudt
There was a lively two-part discussion a month or so ago on Episcopal Café about the Virgin Birth, whether and why we should or should not believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity, what doing so says about ideas about women, the role of the creeds, etc., -- and finding myself not really inclined to weigh in because I didn’t care that much about what seemed to be at stake. It may be that it’s a gender thing: one commentator in the fray did notice that not many women were weighing in on the whole question of Mary’s virginity or not, perpetual or temporary or whatever – and I have to admit that it doesn’t seem to be that important a question to me, at least in the terms in which it was being posed, as a question of doctrine).
But then the lectionary brought us, on August 16, to the observance of “The Feast of Mary the Virgin,” and I remembered reading the lessons and pondering the whole story in Luke, that I really like this part of the story, and find it “makes sense of things” in my faith the way that profoundly true stories do, and in a way that make quarrels like the one about the nature & duration of Mary’s physical virginity (or not) seem beside the point, for me. I think this reaction comes out of my instincts as a reader of great imaginative literature and my vocation as a poet. My own reading of the story of the Annunciation, in particular, has been shaped by the way that a number of 20th century poets, male and female, have read that story – seeing it as a story about how the Incarnation happened, and about miraculous and world-changing cooperation between a human being and God. And also in how the story is told in Scripture – especially in Luke’s gospel.
The story in Luke, skillfully put together, begins with a familiar pattern that we know from Hebrew Scripture: A barren woman, Elizabeth, finds that she is with child, in her old age. This tells us that we are reading a story that is in a continuous tradition with stories of God’s grace and favor to those who are marginalized So, in Luke, we start with the story of a barren woman conceiving, just when everyone thought God had stopped acting. The father, Zechariah, doesn’t believe the angel’s promise, and he’s struck dumb until that promise is fulfilled. So we have a story about the usual way that God’s promise works in the lives of the people. (To me it misses the point to say that this business of God blessing barren women overvalues childbearing as a sign of female worth: the stories have been abused in this way, certainly, but that’s not what it’s about in Hebrew Scripture. Rather, in a story about the survival of God’s people, both naturally and spiritually, the whole barren-woman-made-mother motif is about the one who was rejected being blessed and made whole and honored by God. When his motif turns up, it’s a signal that God is working in this part of the story: NOT a normative statement about how a society should be organized).
Anyway – we get the story of Elizabeth, and a famliar motif to anyone who knows Hebrew Scripture: and then the stakes are raised.
Side by side with this story, we have the story of Mary, encountering the angel Gabriel with the extraordinary news that she will bear a child. This is extraordinary because she is a virgin/has no husband/has not known a man (pick your translation). Her status as a virgin means that she still “owns” her own body – she doesn’t belong to any man, so in that sense she is free to respond to God’s request. Now, Luke’s Greek readers were used to stories of human women conceiving by gods (the rape of Leda, by Zeus disguised as a swan, comes to mind) – but in those stories it usually happens without the woman’s consent. So you could say it’s a motif familiar to the Greeks, but here it’s told in a very Hebrew way – where the body matters. The story has to be told this way, and it works. (the issues of female purity that the tradition has brought to the reading do not seem to me to be IN the story here.) Mary doesn’t question the promise; she just wonders about the logistics: “How can this be, as I am a virgin?” In that, Luke’s telling of the story contrasts her with Zechariah, who asked for proof, and was silenced for doing so. Mary just wants to know what will happen to her, which seems to be a fair question, and the angel gives her an answer. And Mary gives her consent. That is the heart of the story.
And we know, in the story that follows – written for its audience of Greeks and Jews – that in a wonderfully earthy, Hebrew way, this Jesus whom we read about, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is actually “the Son of God” born of a woman, in the flesh. (I’ve always appreciated, in fact, the human homeliness of the Church’s wisdom in appointing March 25 as Feast of the Annuciation – 9 months before December 25, which was settled on as the Feast of the Nativity.) Aesthetically, imaginatively, theologically, and spiritually, the story “works” this way, and challenges us to consider at every turn that the Jesus we meet here is the hero of a story about how God is active (and now incarnate) in human affairs, both within and beyond Israel. He is God-with-us and “one of us” in a way that is really almost shocking, if you think about it. The story insists that we think about it.
The poet David Jones, writing in the mid-twentieth century and re-telling this story in the context of salvation history, offers a reading of it that has shaped my thinking about both Annunciation and Incarnation (and in Jones it’s all connected to the Eucharist – but that’s probably for another post). Anyway, at one point in his long poem The Anathemata, the narrative voice the poem calculates the date of the Passion by looking back to the Annunciation:
Thirty four years and twenty-one days
since that germinal March
and terminal day
(no drought that year)
since his Leda
said to his messenger . . .
(his bright talaria on)
In the poet’s retelling of the story, Mary is God’s “Leda” (the woman in Greek mythology raped by Zeus, in the guise of a swan), but this event is not a rape: Mary’s consent is the important thing: she says “fiat mihi”: “let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Elsewhere in Jones’s long poem a lively female narrator says of Mary “ her fiat is our fortune” (p. 128) -- and in a note to this passage Jones acknowledges being inspired by the doctrine that “The Eternally Begotten could not have become begotten on a creature except by a creature’s pliant will” (Ana p. 128). In both poem and commentary, Jones, a Roman Catholic, is emphasizing an aspect of the cult of Mary more familiar in the eastern church, where Mary is celebrated as the human “God-bearer,” the Theotokos.
In this strain of the Christian tradition it’s not really about whether she’s a virgin or not,: it’s about her humanity, which happens to be a female humanity, and needs to be, for God’s purposes in this part of the story: it’s about a free human being consenting to be fully used, body and soul, for God’s purposes. “Her fiat is our fortune.” The poet puts it well. This is the kind of insight that has shaped my habit of going to the poets for insight into the deep spiritual and theological questions that challenge us, both in doctrine and in Scripture.
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.