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Antiphon (a sonnet)

A poem I wrote over Christmas, which originally appeared in the February 2016 Sophia Network blog:


How many have said no who were not heard?
Men of all tongues have wielded will and might,
And the presumption that the sum makes right,
Against the impotence of Tamar's word.
The image jointly borne is two-ways marred:
One brutal face to face one framed in fright,
As ‘love’ unsatisfied engenders hate,
Faith fails, and hope seems hopelessly deferred.

But He whose strength eclipses any man's
Waits for a yes and, with a girl's consent,
Proceeds to bless the nations, bring down low
The mighty, raise the meek with outstretched hands;
A Word within a womb, expressed full vent
In answer to each disregarded no. 
Carolyn Whitnall, 2015

It happened that I spent much of December past grappling in new ways with Luke's Annunciation account. I'd not long since been reading 2 Samuel, and the story of Tamar's rape by her brother Amnon had resonated painfully with a slowly dawning realisation that 'rape culture' – about which I had been naive at best, dismissive at worst – is a widespread reality of varying insidiousness. One verse in particular stood out to me:
But he would not listen to her, and being stronger than she, he violated her and lay with her. (2 Samuel 13:14)
It is hard to imagine a pithier encapsulation of sexist oppression: women are ignored; they are overpowered; they are violated.

Reading the opening chapters of Luke with this in mind, I found myself mulling the question of Mary’s choice in the matter of Jesus’ conception and birth. Can one really refuse God’s purposes? Is there a sense in which Mary is another ‘overpowered’ woman? Luke doesn’t offer explicit, unambiguous reassurances – “And Gabriel asked Mary: ‘Will you agree to conceive in your womb…?’”, for example. But I do believe that the unforced nature of Mary’s willing involvement in God’s astonishing plans is profoundly implicit: 
  • In the ordering of events – God does not simply act and then inform Mary afterwards; there is scope for an alternative course of events if she refuses.
  • In the exhortation not to fear – nor, by implication, to cooperate on the basis of fear rather than devotion and trust.
  • In all that the Bible as a whole, and the Incarnation in particular, reveals about the character of God and His loving, gentle, self-surrendering, status-quo-overturning manner of drawing us – rather than compelling us – into life with Him.
A 'difficulty' of God's non-dictatorial, self-emptying dealing with us is that injustice and cruelty so often seem to continue unchecked. He does not simply swoop in and do away with all the 'bad guys' – but given (as Solzhenitsyn famously put it) "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being" (The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956) perhaps we should be at least as reassured by that restraint as we are tempted to feel discouraged by it. Mary and many followers of Jesus recognised and recognise in him the 'now and not yet' fulfilment of God's promise to once-and-for-all restore and redeem broken humanity (Luke 1:46-56); in the meantime, his un-self-sparing participation in human life and suffering (Philippians 2:1-11) offers comfort and a pattern for servant-hearted, status-quo-challenging living which contributes towards the increase of justice and healing in the here and now...

[Thumbnail image: Annunciation, artist unknown. Public domain.]