Slideshow image

Could Mary have said 'No' to Gabriel, God's messenger?

If she could, what does that mean for you?

The Annunciation

Gabriel’s announcement to Mary – the Annunciation – is recorded in the ancient and holy text of Luke 1:26-38. Take a moment to read and ponder this rich scene.

As you read, you’ll note that Gabriel used language that indicates – or at least, appears to indicate – that Mary had no choice in what was about to happen. For instance, the angel used the word “will” numerous times: “You will be found with child” (1:31).

Then there is Mary’s statement (1:38): “I am the Lord’s servant, … may it be to me as you have said.”

I was pushed off balance by the Greek grammar of Mary’s response.

Grammatically, “may it be” is not passive but middle voice; not indicative but optative mood. What does that mean?

The middle voice suggests co-operation, not passivity.

The optative mood indicates possibility, not certainty.

Did Mary have a choice to make?

What some say

Well-known and reliable commentators seem to differ on this question.

On the one hand, some refer to Mary's statement as “an expression of resignation to the will of God” (Barnes) – Mary’s passive acknowledgment of an invariable sovereign decision.

On the other hand, some understand her words as active consent. Here’s one sample (Pulpit Commentary):

God's message, writes Godet, by the mouth of the angel was not a command. The part Mary had to fulfill made no demands on her. It only remained, therefore, for Mary to consent to the consequences of the Divine offer. She gives this consent in a word at once simple and sublime, which involved the most extraordinary act of faith … Mary submitted herself of her own free will to what she felt was the will and wish of her God. 

Did Mary have a choice to make?

What if ...

If Mary did have a choice, what if she had said 'no'?

For sure, God’s ultimate purposes cannot, and will not, be frustrated.

Paul writes, “when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman …” (Galatians 4:4). This holy text says, "born of a woman"; it does not say "Mary." It is speculation on my part, but if Mary had said "no," Jesus would still have been "born of a woman," but not Mary. At that point in divine salvation-history, the Son was sent; the Savior was born; God took on complete humanity (the incarnation). Nothing could frustrate that – not even Mary.

Again, this is speculation, and, as such, it may be accused of intruding into holy things. Considering the question "what if ..." calls for humility and reverence.

Let it be known that Mary did not say, "no." She said, "I am the Lord's servant, ... may it be to me as you have said."

Malcolm Guite

Some time ago, I was introduced to a poem by Malcolm Guite: self-described as a priest, poet, and rock’n’roller who lives in Cambridge, UK. 

With Malcolm's kind permission, here’s his poem “Annunciation”:

We see so little, stayed on surfaces,

We calculate the outsides of all things,

Preoccupied with our own purposes

We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,

They coruscate around us in their joy

A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,

They guard the good we purpose to destroy,

A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world.

But on this day a young girl stopped to see

With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;

The promise of His glory yet to be,

As time stood still for her to make a choice;

Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,

The Word himself was waiting on her word.

There’s no doubt how Guite understands this scene.

On another level

With the question asked, I wonder what issues it raises for you and me.

When the Lord asks you to participate with him in moving his purposes toward completion, do you have a choice to make?

What if you say “no”?

For sure, God's ultimate purposes cannot, and will not, be frustrated. Will it simply, yet profoundly, mean that you exclude yourself from participating in what God is doing?

Let Mary's words guide and encourage you: "I am the Lord's servant, ... may it be to me as you have said."

Let her words influence your mind and heart as you’re invited to cooperate with God—whether in something small and apparently insignificant or large and utterly unimaginable.   

May you be richly blessed in the fullness of the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Click here to listen to this as a podcast.

FORWARD DO the next post in this series

BACK TO Joining What God is Doing          

Listen to "Mary, did you know?" by clicking the link below.  

Photo credit: Emily Barney via / CC BY-NC (altered by cropping out frame) 


Click "yes" to receive resource-rich newsletters.

Helpful resources provided to 'living theology' subscribers.


Want to follow Jesus more closely?

Get your FREE copy of "Listening Well to Matthew."