And then the angel left her

This story appears in the Advent 2014 feature series. View the full series.

by Phyllis Zagano

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Luke ends the narrative with a bang: "And then the angel left her." Mary agrees to the mystery and now is on her own. What does she feel, this young woman about to become pregnant who-knows-how? Alone.

There are what, 3.5 billion women and girls in the world? How many are alone? I don't mean without friends or family. I mean alone in their choices, in their situations, in their lives? How many look up and see, for just a moment, an angel to light the way? How many, like Mary, accept the will of God? 

No life is easy. 

How could Mary be so free? What fine cuts to her character prepared her to shine so? How did she manage, knowing -- as we must presume -- that her child would be just as the angel said: holy, the Son of God? 

I'd be scared to death.

Of course, we know little about Mary beyond Scripture's testimony. From it, before, during, and after Jesus' birth, we can assume that Mary spent a lot of time on her own. 

As the story unwinds this Christmas, Mary is still surrounded by men. The crèche figures near the Christ child are all male. There are shepherds, not shepherdesses. There are kings, not queens. Animals, yes, and in many depictions, a few angels hovering about. But following the narrative, no sister, no midwife, no female helper to be found.

Was the nativity an entirely male affair? Did Mary have female friends along the way to Jerusalem, or when she and poor, dear Joseph got stranded in Bethlehem? Did a midwife send Joseph out for warm water when her time came? Did a woman help her nurse him? 

Did "the girls" come round to see Mary's baby boy once the three of them got back to Nazareth? Did her mother and her sisters and her female cousins crowd into the little house to celebrate his circumcision? 

Why is all this testimony about the birth of a child, about the birth of this Child, so devoid of women?

Two points here: First, there is not one woman in the annunciation or incarnation narrative besides Mary, even as the angel calls to Elizabeth's pregnancy for proof of God's power; second, we can only assume that Mary sought and received the support of women, as she did when she went to see her cousin Elizabeth. But there is nothing more in Scripture.

Yes, there are women with her when her son died, but now it is Christmas, and the Christ is breaking forth into, let's face it, an all-male world. That is a silly and unnatural rendering of this most magnificent example of God's largesse. How could the God of our fathers -- and our mothers -- send his son to a world without women? How could the God who, according to the philosophers, is neither male nor female choose to be with only half the race? It makes no sense. In fact, it makes no sense at all.

Yet that is what the centuries have handed on to us today. That is how it reads in Scripture. But the God who is both mother and father to the ages and to us each and all could never be so selective. 

Mary knew this. Mary knew no doubt that, even though imprisoned by her culture, she could face the truth the angel announced and bring it into the world. Her choice, her yes, her fiat, resounded then and echoes now. Her yes serves to cheer along those other women, all alone, who follow her example and who follow their own roads and paths. 

There is very little we can do to unravel what may be a huge misreporting of the story, but there are many ways to encourage the women hearing it to pick up their heads and say -- no, to pick up their heads and cry out -- for all the world to hear: the story of woman, any woman, is not of subjugation, and it is not of fear. 

The world can and should call forth its own angels to be with the women who, like Mary, have impossible tasks before them. The world must supply the graces for the women living with improbable requests made by fleeting angels who brought good and wonderful news but who, when all is said and done, left them. 

It is up to the rest of us to take up wings and help those women stay the course. Then, may they and we welcome the Christ Child and, not incidentally, have a very Merry Christmas!

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and winner of the 2014 Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice. She will speak March 11 at University of Illinois, Chicago, and April 16 at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Ireland. Her newest books are Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest: A Crosscultural Anthology and Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches.]

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