Mary: Our Voice, God’s Voice

Mary: Our Voice, God’s Voice December 13, 2012

Having completed two of my favorite Marian days of the year, the feasts of the Immaculate Conception and of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I can take a moment now to pause and reflect on what they mean together.


In the Immaculate Conception, Mary speaks for humanity.  That, I believe, is the deepest meaning of the Immaculate Conception.  Not freedom from some kind “stain” of original sin, but the completely free capacity to speak a full and resounding “Yes” on behalf of the human race.

Narrative criticism has helpfully illuminated this point in its re-readings of the Genesis 3 myth.   According to Genesis 3:20, Eve is named havva, But as Reuven Kimelman points out, hayya is the word that means “life-bearer.”  This verse is totally out of place where it is unless there is more to it, coming as it does at the climax of story.  And sure enough, havva is chosen because of its double meaning as “speech” and because of its etymological connection to the word for serpent, hivya.  Havva  is a neologism created by the author to combine the words hayya and hivya.  Eve becomes, at the end of the story, the speech of every human being influenced as it constantly is, by both the voice of the serpent and the command of God.  Eve bears within her both serpent and mother, and as such her speech represents the whole human race. We are all Eve.

What makes the Immaculate Conception so meaningful is that Mary, traditionally called the New Eve, speaks a pure speech, a speech untouched by the serpent that is inside of each one of us.  She speaks with an “immaculate” voice, and speaks a pure “Yes” to Gabriel.  By doing so, she is unique in the entire Bible.  Jane Schaberg points out astonishingly:

In none of the twenty-seven Hebrew Bible commissionings, none of the ten nonbiblical accounts, none of the fifteen other commissionings in Luke-Acts, and none of the nine other New Testament commissionings… are the commissioned ones depicted as assenting verbally and directly to their commission.

Mary is the only prophet in the whole Bible to speak a verbal consent to God’s commission.  There is no serpent within her.  Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) points to the uniqueness of this “consent” of Mary too in his new book on the Infancy Narratives.  He explains that “betrothal was unilaterally pronounced by the man, and the woman was not invited to express her consent.”  Yet God overrides human custom and, unlike her husband Joseph, asks for her consent.  In her consent, Mary is offered a chance on behalf of humanity to speak with pure, un-serpented, speech.  And she says her loud and clear “Yes.”

While in the feast of the Immaculate Conception Mary speaks for humanity, in the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mary speaks for God.  She relays God’s message of love and compassion to the Aztec people in a voice and language that they can understand.  She becomes forever the prophet that she was commissioned to be at her calling.  Having learned to speak with God’s voice at her commissioning, she spends even heaven relaying that voice to all who will listen.  Let us thank God for such a prophet as Mary.

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  • Knab Knob

    “Not freedom from some kind of ‘stain’ of original sin, but the completely free capacity to speak a full and resounding ‘Yes’ on behalf of the human race.”

    Why mutually exclusive? Since all language (especially theological) is analogical, aren’t “freedom from the stain of original sin” and “free capacity to speak a full and resounding ‘Yes'” just equivalent formulations? (Each of which analogy may illuminate something, but which ultimately can be “mapped onto” each other??)

    If you’re going to make a statement like this, I’d at least frame it in the “Think of it less like X and more like Y” rather than using a strong “Not” as if the usefulness of one analogy makes the other invalid.

    • Well, I don’t think we believe in “stain” any more. But maybe that’s just me. Anselm’s “privation” is more helpful I think.

      • Knab Knob

        “We don’t believe in ‘stain’ anymore”???

        C’mon. “Stain” is in the dogmatic definition itself. “We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.”

        That’s like saying “We don’t believe in ‘substance’ anymore.” Of course we do. People are free to formulate dogma in new language, of course, new analogical frameworks or sets of categories…but that doesn’t “invalidate” the old ones.

      • Julia Smucker

        I think Knab Knob has a point here. I freely admit that Nathan’s explanation is much more helpful to me than others I’ve heard that simply repeated the dogmatic formula that “Mary was preserved from the stain of original sin”, or one parish priest I’ve heard heavily overuse the phrase “worthy vessel”. At the same time, I attended Immaculate Conception liturgy and happily joined in the Marian antiphons saying, “How lovely are you, O Mary, in you there is no stain of sin.” Such terminology definitely needs other things to complement it and deepen our understanding, but it has a place.

  • Very cool philological exegesis here. I also hadn’t thought about Mary being the only prophet to verbally consent to God’s call – although I wonder how that squares away with Isaiah’s, “Here I am. Send me!” response. Granting Isaiah’s first response was, “Woe unto me, for I am a man of unclean lips!”, he didn’t reject God’s call per-se, he simply stated that he was not worthy to carry it out.

  • I suppose Schaberg might say that in the Isaiah commission, Isaiah hasn’t received his commission yet, since the commission follows after he says “here I am, send me.” But sure.

    • AfterIsaiah’s “Woe unto me” Isaiah is totally subservient to God’s will, at least to His initial call. If we must, I think it might be more helpful to read the “I am a man of unclean lips” as Isaiah’s initial “non-assent”; in this response he self-declares his own inadequacy (so God doesn’t have to). It is in this initial response to God that we might make a stronger connection between Mary and the Prophets:

      Mary’s first response, as we know, is not an assent, but a question: “How can this be, since I know not a man?” Yet there is a strong distinction between Mary’s initial response and Isaiah’s “Woe unto me”. Mary’s question, at the worst, might be seen as a kind of doubt, whereas Isaiah’s self-criticism is a confession of sin and inadequacy. I know some exegetes who would argue this makes Isaiah more righteous than Mary (because of his humility and recognition of his place before God), but of course this is where the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception renders her response more intelligible: Precisely because she does not express her inadequacy, and yet has been chosen to bare the Messiah himself, we see that there is something different about Mary. Indeed, God never moved to humiliate Mary in her call (as he did Ezekiel, Isaiah, etc.), nor did Mary humiliate herself (like Jeremiah) – and so perhaps we see that Mary, as one who was sinless, was in no need of of such deprecation.

  • Julia Smucker

    After two years of being Catholic – having accepted the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in theory at least, but never being able to champion it with any enthusiasm, though being curiously fascinated by the observance of the Marian feasts – I think you have just made it make sense to me in a way it hadn’t before. Thanks.

    Your statement that Mary speaks with “a speech untouched by the serpent that is inside of each one of us” is especially evocative. That’s an image that will keep.

  • I don’t really like the idea of the immaculate conception. There’s no basis for it in the NT, it makes no logical sense, and most of all it denigrates the historical Mary. The thing that is so special about Mary in the gospels is that a frail, vulnerable, flawed human being was considered good enough, was brave enough, to be Jesus’ mother. The church, though, seemed to think she needed some cleaning up first, and that says a lot about how the church views women.

    It’s not just me 😉 Bernard of Clairvaux, Alexander of Hales, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas all disagreed with the idea of an immaculate conception.