Mary’s Choice: What the Annunciation Story Tells Us About Moral Agency
In my twenty-five years of ministry I have often been challenged about my pro-choice theological position. It happens during the Advent season especially, when those who oppose my position exclaim in loud and sometimes threatening tones, “What would have happened if Mary had had an abortion!”
I am always stunned by such a remark, of course. How did that person get from the Advent story of the Annunciation to abortion?
The Annunciation story, and for that matter, the remarkable story of God becoming human, says nothing about abortion. But it does say something about choice, and perhaps that is why it is a lightning rod text for those who seek to deny women the right to choose a safe and legal abortion.
The season of Advent is, for Christians worldwide, the time of preparation for the birth of Jesus. The Annunciation story is found in the Christian New Testament’s Gospel according to Luke. One of the two gospels to tell the birth narrative of Jesus, Luke’s Gospel includes the story of two women facing unplanned pregnancies. The story of the Annunciation begins with the angel Gabriel and a young girl whose name is Mary.
Mary is seen in her room, reading Torah perhaps, or a book of prayers, when suddenly an angel of God appears before her. We like to imagine Mary this way because we see in her the ideal candidate for the role she is about to play.
The angel is in dazzling clothes, a sight to behold. “Greetings, favored one,” we hear Gabriel announce. Mary, not surprisingly, is perplexed by his words and wonders what might be happening.
“Don’t be afraid,” the angel continues. “You have found favor with God.” But what kind of favor is in store for Mary? The story goes on to tell us that the angel pronounces that Mary will conceive and bear a son, who will be named Jesus.
A pro-choice reading makes one thing very clear. Mary, the young woman who has just received a visit from an angel, is blessed by God with the ability to make a choice. Mary is a young woman charged by the holy with her own moral agency, a woman able to reflect on her life and on the world around her.
“How can this be?” Mary inquires. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most High will overshadow you.” The conception has not yet occurred. The possibility for Mary to decline this offer hovers between the angel and Mary. After all these words, it is now time for Mary to respond.
The author Frederick Buechner imagines the scene of Mary encountering the angel this way:
She struck him as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child. But he had been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of Creation hung on the answer of a girl.”
In Buechner’s book, Peculiar Treasures, there’s a picture of Gabriel above that brief description. He’s viewed from the rear. His hands are behind his back, and his fingers are crossed.
“Let it be done to me according to your word.”
The angel waited for Mary’s consent. And then we hear that Mary chooses to say yes to the angel’s invitation.
I am not suggesting that God took a chance on Mary. I don’t believe for a moment that God had any doubts that Mary would say yes. But I also hear in this well-loved scripture text the story of a God who understood that Mary could have a choice. It seems important to God that Mary agree to this pregnancy, that it not be forced upon her.
Time and time again we see how God gives God’s people choices in their decisions to follow in God’s way. The Annunciation story is but one of many pointing to a God who gives us the power to make moral choices and trusts that we will do so.
We pro-choice religious people value life. We also value the sacred dimension of decision making. I believe now as I always have that a pro-choice theology is a pro-life theology. Our sexuality is a divine gift. We are partners with God in creation and we are blessed and challenged to make choices, to decide about when and how we will give birth to the next generation. For life to flourish, the scriptures remind us again and again, conditions need to be right.
I believe that a society is strong only when its women are able to have choices and make decisions about their reproductive health. That has been one of the guiding truths of my life. When women are denied the power to determine their own reproductive futures, they are denied the power to earn a decent living, denied the ability to seek higher education, denied the chance to live fully into the women that God has created them to be.
And when a society is determined to grant those choices to women, the society is better able to adapt to economic change, social change, and even political change. That is a lesson not only for Christians during Advent for but everyone, year-round.