What if this story is all about Mary’s brain?
The beats of today’s Gospel reading are familiar to most of us. Here at the Monastery, we recount them in the Angelus, which we pray before Morning and Evening Prayer. “The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary . . .” pause, “and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
So much happens in that pause. And what if it’s all about Mary’s brain?
Of all the young women God could have chosen, God chose Mary. And what is the first thing we find out about her? That she hears the angel’s news, is perplexed, ponders over his words, and questions him. The first thing we find out about Mary is that she responds to God by using her own God-given faculties of reason and intelligence.
Byzantine writer Nicholas Mesarites provides a cognitive description of this episode: “The word comes to the hearing of the Virgin, and enters through it to the brain; the intelligence which is seated in the brain at once lays hold upon what comes to it, recognizes it by its perception, and then communicates to the heart itself what it had understood.” This then leads Mary to question the angel to determine the truth of the angel’s words. Only after she verifies the truth does Mary gives her yes to the angel, and to God.
In this telling, the Incarnation, the putting on of humanity by God in the person of Jesus Christ, is the result of a process of perception and cognition. It’s about how Mary hears the words of the angel; how she receives them, debates them, and understands them; and how she makes and offering in return: her consent to bear God to the world.
This process is a beautiful metaphor for us, especially of our life of prayer. God’s word come to each of us in infinitely varied and subtle ways—but it doesn’t land on homogenous ground. God has made each of us to be wonderful creatures. God has equipped us with the senses not only to hear God’s word to us, but also to see, to smell, to taste, and to feel it. And God has given us unique minds to receive, interpret, and understand what we perceive. Like Mary, what we offer back is unique to each of us, our unique response to God, our unique way of bearing God to the world.
 Quoted in R. Betancourt, “The Virgin’s Consent,” in Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages(Princeton, 2020), 35.
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