What If Mary Had Said No?

Updated: Feb 4, 2021

Today’s post in our Lenten series is a longer guest post from Tara Glowacki, a bisexual Christian and co-facilitator of the Winnipeg Generous Space Group.

In the month-and-a-half since Christmas, I have found myself musing about Mary’s choice. I have occasionally heard it noted that Mary consented to carrying God in her body. I love that idea. God did not force Mary’s participation. God gave her a choice.

I was reminded of that fact again this December by my pastor (who happens to be Jamie from the GS staff). He noted that if Mary agreed to the incarnation, that would imply that she could have said “no.” I began musing about that possibility. If Mary had said “no,” I imagine that the incarnation would still have happened. God could have moved on, chosen another woman, and continued with Their plans. But what would Mary’s life have looked like if she had refused to carry God’s child?

What if, instead of the story recorded in Luke’s gospel, it had happened like this:

The angel appeared to Mary and said “Greetings, you who are highly favoured. The Lord is with you and you are blessed.”

This was a strange greeting that left Mary feeling disturbed. The angel told her that God favoured her and that she would conceive a child who would be called God’s Son and who would reign on David’s throne.

“I can’t have a child. I’m a virgin,” Mary objected.

“The Holy Spirit will come on you,” the angel explained, “and the holy child will be called God’s son. Even Elizabeth, your barren relative, is having a child in her old age. God can do anything.”

Mary just stood there, frozen. What would her parents, her neighbours, and her fiancé think if she became pregnant now?

“When will this happen?” She asked the angel. “Can it happen after I get married, so that the child will be seen as Joseph’s?”

The angel replied. “It has to happen as the prophets foretold. They said that a virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and he will be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, prince of peace.”

Many thoughts swirled through Mary’s mind. She thought about the honour of being chosen by God, and she thought about everything it would cost her. She thought about what a child planted by the Holy Spirit could be like, and she wondered how she would raise that child. She thought about Joseph and her dreams of a family with him. She thought about her family and her neighbours. She thought about the way that they respected and supported her. If she said yes to carrying God’s child, she could lose it all. “Do I have to?” she asked.

The angel replied, “You can refuse. God will respect your choice and choose someone else, but you will have missed the chance to play a central role in God’s salvation.”

The longing to be part of God’s plan wrestled in Mary’s heart with the desire to keep her place in her family and her community, with her dreams of a life with Joseph, and with her fear of the stigma that accepting God’s plan would bring. Finally, she made her choice. “I can’t,” she answered, and the angel left.

What would Mary’s life have looked like if she had said “no”? It might have been easier in some ways. She would not have had to face the scandal of being pregnant outside of marriage. She would not have had to tell Joseph she was pregnant or face the possibility that he might leave her. But escaping the risk would have meant missing out on the joy and passion. She would not have written the Magnificat. She would not have heard temple workers refer to her baby as God’s salvation. There would have been no visits from shepherds or magi. And, of course, she would still have had to go through the usual hardships of being a woman in a patriarchal society, in a land that was occupied by a foreign empire.

She and Joseph would still have gone to Bethlehem for the census, but they might have been able to stay with relatives, rather than being the disgraced cousins who were given the worst space outside with the animals. She would not have had to flee to Egypt. She would probably have had her own children with Joseph and raised them in Nazareth. But maybe they would have stayed in Bethlehem for a while, first. Maybe she would have lost her first child in Herod’s purge.

Being the devout religious couple that we see in the New Testament, Mary and Joseph would likely have continued traveling to Jerusalem for major festivals. I imagine that she would have heard of Jesus, both back home in Nazareth and in Jerusalem. Would she have seen him when he spoke in the synagogue, cleared the temple, rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, or was crucified? Would she have remembered the angel’s visit, all those decades ago, and wondered if this could have been her child?

Would she have eventually gotten on board and joined the early church? Maybe, and maybe not. Even if she did, she would never have had the honour or influence of “the messiah’s mother” that we see the actual Mary having in the early church. She would not have been remembered by history as Theotokos, “God bearer.” I don’t think that she would have forever missed to chance to participate in what God was doing. In my experience, God gives us numerous chances to change our minds and join Their work. However, Mary would never get a second chance to carry the Messiah in her body.

Mary had a choice. She didn’t have the power to stop God’s plan of liberation, but she got to choose whether she wanted to participate in it.