What If Mary Had Said No?

Updated: Feb 4

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.

In the same way, God offers us choices. We can’t stop God’s work of liberation, but we get to choose whether we participate in it.

God is working in the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Their work among us is a work of liberation. And I believe that God offers the 21st century church a chance to join in and benefit from that work.

My former church said “no” to that invitation. Many churches say “no” to that invitation. Some do so out of earnest (though mistaken) convictions. Others say “no” for the sake of comfort, reputation, finances, or their place within a broader denominational community. I suspect that, in most cases, churches have mixed motives for refusing to join God’s work. I know that many of the leaders in my former church did personally hold conservative beliefs about gender and sexuality. At the same time, they also talked a lot about their reputation, the church’s finances, and everything they could lose if they “went affirming.” There was a lot of fear behind their “no.”

Churches like my previous community may one day decide to get on board with God’s work in the 2SLGBTQ+ community. Until then, they are missing out on everything that God is doing among us. They are missing their chance to experience our passion, our creativity, our generosity, and our love for each other. God has given the 2SLGBTQIA+ community insight into what it means to be community, into the nuances of justice and human diversity, into the importance of bodies, into the danger of religious harm, and into the connections between spirituality and sexuality. The church needs to learn those things from us. Maybe one day, the churches that reject us now will get on board and begin to benefit from what God has been doing among us. By that time, though, they will have missed their chance to play any key role in this movement of God.

Participating in God’s work is risky. By choosing to carry God’s child, Mary sacrificed her reputation. In cultures that don’t have official social security systems, family and neighbours are an important safety net. Mary risked losing that safety net. She risked losing her fiancé. The work that God called her to involved many hardships, including watching her son die on a cross. However, it also came with passion and joy and a place in history as the Mother of God.

When God calls us, there is a cost. There is also glory, healing, passion, joy, and life. Personally, I would rather take the risk of saying “yes.” I have found that, for those who have the courage to step into it, the benefits of participating in God’s liberatory work always outweigh the costs.

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