Today, we invite you to explore historical details that bring us closer to understanding Mary as a real human being, with the help of feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson; engage how Catholic Social Teaching has used Mary to perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes; and embody the radical, empowering story of Mary’s “yes” to God with lectio divina and the example of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas.
One more YHWH spoke to Ahaz and said,
“Ask for a sign from YHWH your God;
let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!”
But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask!
I will not put YHWH to a test!”
Then Isaiah said, “Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary those around you,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore, the Holy One will give you a sign:
This young woman will become pregnant and will give birth.
You will name the child Immanue-El.
Which means, “God is with us.”
Response: Here am I, Adonai, I come to do Your will.
You, who wanted no sacrifice or oblation, / opened my ear;
You asked no burnt offering or sacrifice for sin.
Then I said, “Here I am! I have come!”
R: Here am I, Adonai, I come to do Your will.
In the scroll of the book it is prescribed for me / to obey Your will.
My God, I have always loved Your Law / from the depths of my being.
R: Here am I, Adonai, I come to do Your will.
I have always proclaimed the justice of Our God / in the Great Assembly,
Nor do I mean to stop proclaiming, / as You know well.
R: Here am I, Adonai, I come to do Your will.
It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats
to take away sins.
And this is what Jesus said, on coming into the world:
“You who wanted no sacrifice or oblation
Prepared a body for me.
In burnt offerings or sacrifices for sin
You took no pleasure.
Then I said, just as it was written of me in the scroll of the book,
‘God, here I am!
I have come to do your will.’”
In saying that God doesn’t want burnt offerings and sacrifices
– which are offered according to the Law –
and then saying, “I have come to do your will,”
Jesus abolishes the first Covenant in order to establish the second.
By God’s will, we have been sanctified
through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all.
Six months later, the angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town in Galilee named Nazareth,
to a young woman named Mary;
she was engaged to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David.
Upon arriving, the angel said to Mary,
“Rejoice, highly favored one!
God is with you! Blessed are you among women!”
Mary was deeply troubled by these words
and wondered what the angel’s greeting meant.
The angel went on to say to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary.
You have found favor with God.
You will conceive and bear a son,
and give him the name Jesus — ‘Deliverance.’
His dignity will be great,
and he will be called the Only Begotten of God.
God will give Jesus the judgment seat of David, his ancestor,
to rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and his reign will never end.”
Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be, since I have never been with a man?”
The angel answered her,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you
— hence the offspring to be born will be called the Holy One of God.
Know too that Elizabeth, your kinswoman,
has conceived a child in her old age;
she who was thought to be infertile is now in her sixth month.
Nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the servant of God.
Let it be done to me as you say.”
With that, the angel left her.
The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved.
The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.
The Catholic tradition celebrates Mary the mother of Jesus with many titles, applied to her long after her lifetime, including Queen of Heaven, Star of the Sea, Mother of Mercy, Our Lady of Sorrows, and Blessed Virgin. In Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson argues that Mary “has been symbolized to such an extravagant degree divorced from her own history,” that it becomes difficult to conjure a clear picture of her in our minds (xiv). Moving away from lofty titles, she proposes that we shift our thinking about Mary “from transcendent symbol to historical person.” Drawing on the wisdom of historians, biblical scholars, and contemporary feminist theologians, Johnson asks us to imagine: what might Mary really have been like?
As a first-century Galilean Jewish woman living under Roman occupation, Mary lived in “an economically poor, politically oppressed, Jewish peasant culture marked by exploitation and publicly violent events” (161). She was both ethnically and religiously Jewish, and likely entered a betrothal arranged by her parents around age 12 or 13, in keeping with the local customs of that time (190). Betrothal lasted about a year and was legally binding, thus carrying more weight than our contemporary notion of “engagement.” Engaging in sex outside of this betrothal was considered adultery, and constituted grounds for divorce.
Equipped with this historical perspective, we can better come to see the more radical elements of today’s Gospel story, the Annunciation, in which the angel Gabriel appears with an extraordinary message to Mary, that she will bear a child. How astonishing that this is, where God chooses to enter the world – in a poor and politically oppressed corner of a vast empire. And this first revelation of God’s coming relies on the consent of this young peasant woman, agreeing to something that places her in danger of divorce and social ruin. Remarkably, the revelation doesn’t take place in a house of worship like the temple, and it isn’t mediated by a religious authority. In a patriarchal culture, it is also remarkable that neither a spouse nor father is consulted; this is a direct encounter between Mary and the angel.
Elizabeth Johnson digs deeply into the textual details of the original Greek to reveal important details of this story unavailable in the English translation. For example, she argues that the verbs are theologically significant when Gabriel says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” and “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Johnson points out that the first verb – eperchesthai in Greek – is explicitly not sexual; rather, it is the same empowering verb used in Acts 1:8, when Jesus says to his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” In other words, God is not overpowering Mary here, rather, the Holy Spirit is empowering her. And the second verb – episkiazein in the Greek – is not meant to diminish Mary. Rather, in the scorching heat of the Middle East, the verb is often associated with the cooling, safe shade of a passing cloud. The divine presence draws close to Mary and protects her here (251-253).
More challenging for us is the word often translated as “handmaid” or “servant.” In Greek, the word doule literally means female slave girl. Rather than trying to explain this away, Johnson argues, we must accept the limitations of our own scriptural tradition, which carry with them the human sinfulness of unjust, violent social structures. Only in recognizing the historical harmfulness that word connotes, and approaching the text as a whole with a liberating interpretive lens, can we see the working of God in the Annunciation: what Johnson calls “a powerful declaration of the relationship between this peasant woman and the Spirit of God” (251).
Contemporary Catholic Social Teaching (CST) affirms that women and men are equal, because both are created in the image and likeness of God. As a result, CST upholds women’s rights to be paid an equal salary to men, to be safe from domestic violence, and to participate in civil society (although this has never been extended to full participation in the life of the church, i.e., priestly ordination). Juxtaposed with this affirmation of equality is a parallel strand in CST that insists upon the distinctiveness of women from men. This is most clearly seen in Mulieris dignitatem, an apostolic letter published by John Paul II in 1988, on the occasion of “the Marian Year.” The letter, “on the dignity and vocation of women,” does mention equal dignity for men and women, but mainly focuses on what John Paul II calls the “feminine genius.”
For John Paul II, there are two options for a woman’s vocation: motherhood or virginity. However, they are not presented as opposites, for he argues that both are ultimately grounded in the “very physical constitution of women” that “scientific analysis fully confirms … [as] naturally disposed to motherhood” (18). Extrapolating an existential conclusion from a biological capability, he argues that all women (virgins and mothers alike, there is no other kind of woman in this understanding) are called to “spiritual motherhood” (21). Motherhood “profoundly marks the woman’s personality” (18). Mary is recognized as the paradigm of a woman, because “These two dimensions of the female vocation were united in her in an exceptional manner, in such a way that one did not exclude the other but wonderfully complemented it” (17).
Feminist theologians like Elizabeth Johnson have expressed concern that this sets a physically impossible standard for women: Mary is put on a pedestal as BOTH a virgin AND a mother, when biological motherhood precludes the possibility of virginity (and vice versa) for the rest of us. Equally problematic is how this framework reduces the personal dignity, not only of Mary, but of all women, to their sexual activity or lack thereof. The radical, empowering, liberating story of the Annunciation is lost.
It is important to note that no such letter exists on the dignity and vocation of men; nor such a strong emphasis on the physical proclivity of men to fatherhood. Thus, both the content and the very existence of Mulieris dignitatem indicates the inequities women face in the Catholic Church. Additionally, the gender essentialist binary of masculine/feminine that underpins this notion of “feminine genius” neglects the realities of intersex biology and the increasing social scientific consensus that gender performance and biological sex do not always overlap.
How would Catholic social teaching look differently if written by those of us on the margins of the church’s power? What deeper theological insights could emerge on pregnancy and motherhood, if official church teaching on these realities were written by people who had themselves experienced them? And even more importantly, how might other teachings on economic and social issues be enriched by the perspective of women, who are disproportionately under-compensated for the work they do? We have rich Scriptural stories on the powerful figure of Mary, and a diverse global church with more than 50 percent female membership. We have the resources for a more robust and capacious presence of women in the official teachings of our tradition.
Using a lectio divina format, we invite you to meditate on the Annunciation story: After reviewing the historical context provided in the “explore” section, let your imagination settle into a first century Jewish community in Roman-occupied Galilee. Imagine Mary as a 12 or 13-year-old. Slowly read through the passage, seeing where the Holy Spirit draws your attention. Then read through a second time, seeing what new insights emerge out of this familiar story. How does this relate to you now? Do you feel moved to ask questions of God, the way that Mary does? Do you feel moved to say “yes” to an invitation God presents to you now, as Mary does? Allow yourself to conclude your contemplation however you feel drawn.
Annunciation House is a volunteer organization in El Paso, TX, dedicated to accompanying migrants, immigrants, and refugees. Situated just ten blocks away from the U.S.-Mexico border, the cluster of houses offers hospitality, including long and short-term housing, for migrants facing asylum. Volunteers live in the houses with those who they serve. As a community of welcome, Annunciation House takes its name from today’s feast, when Mary welcomed the angel into her home and consented to God’s radical invitation. Annunciation House also cites Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 as its animating principle: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me…just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
In addition to providing material assistance to those in need, Annunciation House prophetically denounces the social structures that exclude and demonize migrants as part of their ministry.
For example, in 2018, when the U.S. government inhumanely separated hundreds of migrant parents from their children, Annunciation House offered housing and legal services in an effort to help these families reunite, staging a press conference to draw attention to this humanitarian crisis.
It is worth remembering that in the Gospel of Matthew, the peasant girl, Mary, and the newborn Jesus also become migrants, fleeing the murderous policies of the insecure King Herod. In our own day, Annunciation House ministers to those whose social locations mirror those of the Holy Family.
Image description for the art: Against a background of an orangey-brown log cabin, Mary with brown skin and a halo encounters the angel Gabriel, also with brown skin and a halo. Both wear red and blue robes, and the angel has light blue wings. Both bow towards the other. Behind Mary hangs a blue tapestry on the wall, with a crucifix hanging over top of it.
After re-situating Mary in her historical context, as we have done in the rest of today’s entry, it can be spiritually enlightening to see how different artists have undertaken the perennial reimagining of Mary as a woman of their own time (those Renaissance paintings of Mary as a blonde queen are just as historically inaccurate as any recent artistic representations!) The more images we see, the more we can allow them to disrupt our preconceived notions. “Annunciation” by self-taught Haitian painter Castera Bazile (1923-1966) reimagines today’s Gospel story in the artist’s own context of 20th century Haiti. The vase of daffodils, the framed background painting, and log cabin walls take Mary out of first century Palestine, and into 20th century Haiti. The crucifix on the wall is of course anachronistic – these depictions of Jesus’ death were not popularized until centuries after his death. Perhaps Bazile includes it here to remind us of what is to come… this astonishing moment of the Annunciation will lead Mary and Jesus both down a path of great suffering, but also of great joy.