A reflection by Janine Goodwin on Romans 16: 25-27 and Luke 1: 26-38
I knew exactly what I would write this week: I would take the story of Mary and talk about what God wants to bring to birth in us. Then, as I sailed through the readings, I hit a snag.
The snag was one word in the very brief reading from Paul: obedience.
Obedience is a word that has been used to keep women down for so many centuries that I've come to wince when I hear it. It reminds me of Ephesians 5, in which a writer who may or may not be Paul tries to work out how the Gospel of love and equality can be lived out in the household code of the first-century Roman empire. That fifth chapter of Ephesians is still being used to preach the subordination of women, although slavery, its neighbor in that passage, has been repudiated by most societies over the centuries. In a lifetime of devotional reading, I have found many lyrical descriptions of Mary's obedience to God's call as contrasted with Eve's disobedience, all coming from people who valued obedience, and several works that praised Eve's disobedience and the rebellion of Lilith over Mary's supposed submission, all coming from people who value creativity and autonomy.
Early on, I was taught to define obedience as unquestioning compliance with the orders of a superior. There is no room for creativity, and little for dignity, in such a definition, that compliance which does not include full and free consent can be very far from any trust, mutuality, or caring. It is power-over, the power that corrupts and controls. My education as a teacher taught me that when a power struggle gets going, everyone loses. A teacher must be able to set and enforce fair rules, but they must be for the good of all. A student must be able to question the rules, and not just be trapped in resisting because they represent limits to her range of possible actions. When a cycle of oppression and rebellion gets set up in any group of people, creativity and dignity die. A family destroys its own, a classroom becomes a place where learning fails, a church becomes a cult. Since I believe in a God of infinite creativity who respects us all, this can't be what God wants. Obedience became a word I hated, the vow I was least likely to take. I believed it was a synonym for oppression.
As I struggled with the idea that God had given me the ability and the need to question authority, a wise Dominican priest told me that obedience came from the Latin "ob audire," and "audire" implied listening—a listening that went both ways, a listening that implied mutual respect, that took my concept of obedience more in the direction of consensus. Another wise Dominican, Herbert McCabe, says that obedience for St. Thomas Aquinas was about learning, not about giving or taking orders. It was a form of mutuality in community, a way of finding a shared identity. I began to live with the idea that a call to obedience did not have to mean the imposition of force, and the practice of obedience did not have to mean violence to a soul God loves. I wasn't sure quite how it worked, but it was better than getting into a power struggle.
These days, I am always looking for what Walter Wink would call a Third Way: neither oppression nor rebellion, but a creative response to the status quo that invites us out of the false oppositions we create and into a different way of being. I believe the life of Jesus and our life of faith is an invitation to the freedom of the children of God (Rom. 18:21).
It became clear to me that I wouldn't get anywhere with either the idea of obedience or with this meditation until I took more time with the passage about Mary and Gabriel. As I reread those long-familiar words, I began to see something that was new to me, something that displaced my previous impressions of it. As a child, I'd seen the appearance of Gabriel to Mary as something like the appearance of the fairy godmother who changes Cinderella into a princess. As an adolescent, I had used it to try and force myself into a docility that my culture told me was required of good girls. As an adult, I had avoided it for fear of finding out that Mary had no choice but to follow orders and comply with a plan God enforced upon her. What I finally saw, reading it over and over again, was not a power struggle but a dialogue; not a series of orders and objections, but a conversation. Mary has courage and a sense of her own dignity; she can meet the apparition of an angel (which is always a frightening experience in Scripture) with a cogent question. Gabriel does not say, "Shut up and do as you're told," but explains what will happen, and waits for her consent. Luke Timothy Johnson translates her response as "Behold the servant of the Lord," explaining that the "handmaiden" of most translations "might obscure the text's obvious implication that Mary is also a 'Servant of Yahweh,'" a reference to the great Servant Songs of the prophet Isaiah. Mary is not knuckling under to divine
force: she is consenting to participate in divine creativity. She knows her dignity and her worth. Gabriel invites her to be part of a holy undertaking. She asks to understand it better, to see her part in it. They enter into dialogue. She consents. The son she raises grows up to be someone who, when asked about himself, says not, "Do as I say," but, "Come and see."
Is this what God wants to bring forth in us? Can God be wanting us to bring our own gifts to birth, to appreciate our own worth, to accept a place in salvation history that places us with the prophets and allows us to talk as equals with angels? Does obedience to God mean entering the work of co-creation and accepting full freedom, dignity, and responsibility? I believe it does. Thanks be to God