A visit by one of the seven archangels would have been scary enough. But the words he spoke were far more terrifying: the Holy Spirit was to come to her, the power of God would overshadow her, and she would give birth to the Son of God.
To all this Mary responded: “May it be done to me according to your word.” In the Latin, May it be done to me was shorted to the word fiat, which is often used to describe the whole of Mary’s response. Fiat. In that moment, what was it like for Mary to completely surrender herself, entrusting her life and future to God — because surely that is what you are doing when you are told the Holy Spirit will ‘come upon’ you and the power of God will overshadow you.
One answer comes from the Old Testament in the story of Jephthah’s daughter. As told in Judges 11, Jephthah is a son of harlot who becomes a warrior general in Israel. Once, as he’s facing battle against the Ammonites, he makes a vow to God: if God delivers the enemy into his hands he will offer the first person he sees upon his return home as burnt offering.
Jephthah ends up prevailing in battle and marches back home. Tragically, the first person he sees is his daughter. He breaks down in grief and discloses the vow he made. She responds, “You have made a vow to the LORD. Do with me as you have vowed, because the LORD has taken vengeance for you against your enemies the Ammonites.”
She asks of only one thing — that she be permitted to mourn her virginity for two months, roaming the mountains with her companions.
Jephthah grants her request. When the two months are returned, the vow was fulfilled, but Scripture is mum on the details: “At the end of the two months she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. She had not had relations with any man.”
The story is so disturbing that it has been easily forgotten or overlooked. In the past, when it has been addressed, the daughter has been presented a foreshadowing of Christ. (See my previous article on that here.)
The most obvious connection between Jephthah’s daughter and Mary is their shared, perpetual virginity. Though Mary has many forerunners in the Old Testament all of them eventually become married and have children in the usual way — Eve, Sarah, Hannah, and Esther come to mind. (Here is a list of all 14 women of the Old Testament usually considered to be types of Mary.)
Jephthah’s daughter is likely the most prominent never-married virgin in the Old Testament, making a comparison with Mary inescapable. And, as we dig into the story, more parallels emerge. In particular, is the daughter’s absolute and total surrender to her fate. Because Jephthah has made a promise to God her surrender ultimately becomes a submission to the will of God. In a way, she has made her father’s vow her own.
In the story of the Annunciation we see this repeated and taken to its logical conclusion: Mary now steps forward to consecrate herself to God—no man speaks on her behalf. Her surrender is not vicarious but direct and immediate.
But can we really compare what Jephthah’s daughter sacrifices to Mary? I believe so.
First, just as Jephthah entrusted her life to God so also did Mary. Remember, that in the Old Testament no one could ‘see’ God and live. In a way, Mary was going to do more than just this. She was going to have a unique once-in-history encounter with the power of God. She surely was putting her life in God’s hands.
Second, although the Old Testament account is ultimately ambiguous, its emphasis is clearly on the sacrificial nature of the daughter’s virginity. Likewise, the Church also holds that because she became the sacred vessel through which God became man, Mary remained untouched by another man. This too constituted a measure of sacrifice for her.
Third, much of the sadness surrounding Jephthah’s daughter is that she would never bear him and grandchildren (as this author points out). Mary did have a child—only to experience losing Him. This happened on the cross when Jesus appoints John to take her in as his mother and it is foreshadowed in the finding of Jesus in the temple—which was preceded by Joseph and Mary ‘losing’ Him.
We are surely right in thinking of Mary as a sacrificial figure — a martyr. This is suggested to us very early in her story, in Simeon’s prophecy that a sword would pierce her soul. And it is consummated at the foot of the cross where she participates spiritually in Christ’s sacrifice.
Such a sacrifice is a ‘total gift of the self.’ For Mary it becomes so total that her entire identity is bound up with her son. This was affirmed earlier this month in the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, which we believe happened because it is inconceivable to us that Jesus could be in heaven without Mary.
Mary’s way of living her life entirely for the sake of another is illustrated by one particular detail in the story of Jephthah’s daughter — she is never named, making her identity entirely a function of her father’s.
Likewise, we see Mary’s identity effaced in the Gospel of John, in Jesus’ repeated references to her as the impersonal ‘woman.’ Contrary to how this is often misinterpreted, Jesus is not distancing her from Him. She does, after all, remain at His side all the way to the cross. And that’s the whole point — Mary’s whole way of being is for another.
When presented with God’s awesome plan for her life, Mary completely submitted her whole self, body and soul, to His will. The simplicity and humility of her response is signified in the terse Latin word used to translate it: fiat. The story of Jephthah’s daughter reminds us just how radical of a response this was.