House of Deputies

Many Christians emphasize the submissiveness of Mary in the miracle of the Incarnation, focusing on her words to the archangel Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant; let it be to me according to your word.” According to the fifth century Syrian Orthodox writer Jacob of Sarug, however, the most important words that Mary spoke were not those of quiet acquiescence but rather, “How can this be?” Indeed, in Jacob’s account of the gospel encounter, Mary’s response is much more than a single question.  Instead, a teenage girl takes on an archangel in a theological debate and freely consents only when she has been convinced that the angel’s word is true.

In this interpretation, it is Mary’s eagerness to understand God’s plan and her own role in it that makes her exemplary rather than her meek consent. Jacob contrasts her behavior with Eve, who did not question the serpent that tempted her in the garden but uncritically accepted the claim that she and Adam would become like gods without testing the claim first.  In Eve’s case, “lack of doubt gave birth to death” because she simply believed whatever she was told and “was won over without any debate.”

Now, in the House of Deputies, we really love to debate! Thus, we could easily get a little too excited about an interpretive tradition like this one, which seems to give a patristic stamp of approval to our own preferred mode of behavior! But we can’t stop here, because Jacob goes on to contrast Mary’s questioning with that of Zachariah, who also interrogated an angel about his own son’s conception, but (according to Jacob) did so in a way that was disputatious, concerned with argumentation for its own sake rather than for the sake of the truth. While this interpretation may not be entirely fair to poor Zachariah, it seems clear that there is a right and a wrong way to argue, and Zachariah had to spend nine months in silence in order to be taught the appropriate mode of speech.

So there is a place for debate, but there is also a place for silence. Indeed, Zachariah was not the only one who spent nine months in silence. When “the Word became flesh,” the divine Word, the communicative principle of the entire universe, dwelt in silence for nine months in the womb of Mary. And when Mary finally gave birth, she and Joseph had to teach the incarnate Word itself how to speak.  

After nine months of silence, the Word was finally able to communicate in a more forceful and direct way, but not a way that was especially clear. It is profoundly unlikely that even Jesus came out of the womb saying, “Pardon me, but if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, I believe I would like to eat now”!  Many of my friends who are young parents relay their early fear of not being able to determine exactly what their crying child needs. Are they hungry?  Hurt?  Sick?  Lonely?  Simply upset by the rude awakening of having been born?

I confess that my own attempts to discern God’s will are often far more like trying to comfort a crying baby than receiving a clear annunciation from an angel. “Okay, God, clearly there is a problem here.  But what do you want me to do? No, seriously. Give me a clue. A tiny clue?” But perhaps I am focusing on the wrong questions. You can’t ask a crying baby (even Jesus) whether we should have a unicameral or a bicameral legislature, or what the percentage of diocesan asking should be. Those are all important questions, but what God often gives us is not a clearly articulated divine solution, but rather...Jesus himself. And this simultaneously fixes nothing and answers everything.

While I have little experience of human infants, I know somewhat more about baby goats.  My first night visiting an Episcopal convent, I was awakened in the middle of the night by hysterical screams, which honestly sounded to me like a small child was being tortured to death in the monastery kitchen! Wondering in horror whether I had somehow managed to begin discerning a vocation with the only community of Episcopal nuns that secretly practiced child sacrifice every Thursday night, I crept nervously through the hallways only to find....one very tiny and absolutely inconsolable baby goat, who was screaming loudly and knocking over pots and pans! The sisters were bottle-raising her after her mother had rejected her, but she was lonely and frightened now that everyone had gone to bed for the night.

I didn’t quite know what to do with a hysterical baby goat, but it was obvious that rational arguments would be futile here. And so I sat down, held her, and told her all of the stories that I could remember about goats throughout church history. (There are actually rather a lot!) As I told her about the talking, Christian baby goat in the Acts of Philip and how Jesus told everyone to let that baby goat come to church, she chewed on my hair with great interest. By the time I got to Saint Ephrem’s account of the Nativity, she was nearly asleep. “See? And Saint Ephrem says that the shepherds gave baby Jesus a little baby goat! And that the goat bleated happily when being given to Jesus to thank him for coming to free sheep and goats from having to be sacrificed! So that means the Incarnation was actually for you, too!” But she was sound asleep, caring nothing about my words and everything about the fact that I was there to hold her and watch over her.

And it’s this balance that I wish for all of us at Christmas and beyond. To have the ability, like Mary, to debate fearlessly even with an archangel when the truth is at stake, but also to know when to be silent, and to let the words fade away in order to simply be present, with God and with one another.