Mary Didn’t Know

In his most recent Patheos column, my friend G. Shane Morris answers the question “Whose Face Did Mary Kiss?” While the title is, as you have probably guessed, a reference to the song “Mary Did You Know?’ the subject of the column is whether it is proper to call Mary the “Mother of God.”

Shane says “yes” and, frankly, I’m having trouble understanding how someone could answer otherwise. The alternative requires denying the full divinity of Jesus of Nazareth and/or the fact that a woman who carries a child to term is that child’s mother.

Where I take issue with Shane is when, in reference to the lyrics of “Mary did You Know?” he writes “Yes, Mary knew much of what [song composer] Mark Lowry asks, though she was probably fuzzy on the details.”

No, Mary didn’t know. That’s what makes her “Ecce ancilla Domini. Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum” so extraordinary. Reducing her lack of knowledge to being “fuzzy on the details” diminishes what is, aside from her son’s setting His face like flint on the way to His crucifixion, the greatest leap of faith in human history.

Mary only speaks four times in the New Testament, three of them in Luke chapters one and two. (The other time is at the wedding in Cana in John 2.) Not only does Luke quote Mary directly, he also, on three occasions, tells us what Mary was thinking: at the Annunciation (Luke 1:29), in response to learning what had happened to the shepherds (Luke 2:19), and in response to her son’s reply when she found him in the Temple twelve years later (Luke 2:51).

At the Annunciation, she is visited by an archangel who, instead of the usual “fear not,” says “Hail” (chaire), calls her kecharitōmenē, which is usually rendered “full of grace” or “most favored,” and eulogēmenē, “well spoken about” among women.

How did Mary respond? We are told that Mary was “perplexed” or “troubled” (dietarachthē, the only time the word appears in the New Testament) and “pondered” (dielogizeto) what had been said to her.

The picture is that of a young woman — a girl by our standards — thinking something along the lines of “You’ve got the wrong girl. I’m a nobody from the back of beyond.” It must have shown on her face because that’s when Gabriel finally gets around to “Do not be afraid.”

Then comes the ask of all asks: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”

If Mary was perplexed and confused before, she is even more so now: “How will this be since I have not known a man?” Gabriel’s reply wasn’t so much an explanation as an invitation to her assent. Mary’s question is in the future tense (“will be” estai in Greek) and Gabriel replies in the same future indicative: the Holy Spirit “will come upon” and “will overshadow.”

At that point, Mary knew that God had, for reasons she couldn’t begin to understand, chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah, which is how she would have understood how Gabriel described him, through some equally mysterious means.

None of this had happened yet and wouldn’t happen without her assent. Our familiarity with the story causes us to overlook the fact that Mary could have said “no.” In his book, “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives,” Benedict XVI wrote “God seeks to enter the world anew. He knocks at Mary’s door. He needs human freedom. The only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free ‘yes’ to his will. In creating freedom, he made himself in a certain sense dependent upon man. His power is tied to the unenforceable ‘yes’ of a human being.”

It is an understatement to say that a great deal was riding on Mary’s response. Benedict cites a sermon by Bernard of Clairvaux that “portrays heaven and earth as it were holding its breath at this moment of the question addressed to Mary. Will she say yes?”

Bernard of Clairvaux attributes Mary’s hesitancy to her humility. While I am reluctant to disagree with a Doctor of the Church, there was more than humility behind Mary’s hesitancy. Mary understood that God was asking for more than her assent and cooperation — He was asking for her complete and total trust.

As Father James Martin put it in “Jesus: A Pilgrimage,” we should remember that “Mary was told that her son would be the Son of God, not that he would be tortured, put to death on a cross, and then rise from the dead. Mary says yes to a future that she does not know.” She did not know that saying “yes” meant that a sword would pierce her soul. (Fast-forward to the 14 minute mark.)

Mary and Joseph (let’s not forget him) “both face confusion, both have vivid experiences of God, both are confronted with a never-before-made decision, both assent to God’s will, and both then prepare themselves for a life that will be, needless to say, confusing.” In the face of “something utterly baffling [they] did what God was asking of them anyway.”

Mary didn’t know. But nonetheless she said “let it be done to me according to your word.” That’s why, since then, all generations have called her blessed.

Magnificat anima mea Dominum;

Et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo,

Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae; ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes.

Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est, et sanctum nomen ejus,

Et misericordia ejus a progenie in progenies timentibus eum.

Fecit potentiam in brachio suo;

Dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.

Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles.

Esurientes implevit bonis, et divites dimisit inanes.

Suscepit Israel, puerum suum, recordatus misericordiae suae,

Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros, Abraham et semini ejus in saecula. – Luke 1:47-55


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