In the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., hangs van Eyck’s The Annunciation, where a rainbow-winged Gabriel salutes Mary, blue-draped, arms open in prayer. Gabriel proclaims, Ave gratia plena, to which Mary responds, ecce ancilla domini. Her words are written in reverse because they are directed neither to the angel nor to the viewer, but to God. Van Eyck’s painting portrays the scene in Luke 1:38:
dixit autem Maria ecce ancilla Domini fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.
In the Douay-Rheims translation, “And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.”
Mary’s response in the Annunciation highlights her supreme, humble obedience to God’s plan. But in this humility lies something earth-shattering. Mary’s response to God’s plan is nothing short of radical. For, she does not merely accept this plan—a plan so terrifying its messenger finds need to warn her “be not afraid”—but she prays for it. Mary’s holiness lies in not merely accepting God’s path for her, but in wishing for it.
The key to understanding Mary’s response to the Annunciation lies in her use of “fiat” in Luke 1:38. In the Vulgate translation, “fiat” is used in the form of a present subjunctive; it is an independent use of the subjunctive, meaning that it is the primary verb in its clause. There are a limited number of usages for the independent subjunctive in later Latin. The hortatory subjunctive, as one use, can be rendered either as a command or a concession on the part of the speaker; translations and interpretations of Luke 1:38 in the Vulgate Bible seem to rest upon this meaning. Thus, with this interpretation, Mary acquiesces, either commanding the angel to do God’s bidding, or she makes a concession to God’s plan. Another possible use, however, is the subjunctive optative, or subjunctive of wish: “would that it be done” or “I wish it would be done.” While classical Latin requires that the subjunctive of wish use the particle “utinam,” later Latin regularly omits it. The subjunctive of wish can be rendered as “let it be done,” but the nuance of the meaning is entirely different; what is meant is not a command or concession, but a prayer. It is part of a regular formula in oaths, wishes, and prayers; here, one can render this as “I wish that it would be done.”
The Greek New Testament further clarifies Mary’s response as a wish. Luke 1:38 uses the word genoito, an aorist optative. The optative is a mood in Greek which does not occur in Latin. In fact, while the optative in classical Greek is common, exhibiting many usages, in Hellenistic Greek it is quite limited. The potential optative with the particle an (a frequent Attic usage) for instance, does not occur at all in the New Testament. The primary usage, then, is an optative of wish (particularly, the optative of attainable wish which occurs with the aorist tense—and yes, Greek makes a distinction between wishes which one can obtain and cannot obtain. (Would that English grammar allowed us such a distinction!) When an optative occurs in the New Testament, then, its primary use is to indicate that the speaker is wishing or praying. A negative particle mē accompanying the optative indicates that the speaker strongly deprecates what is before him—it can be rendered as a curse, as in Acts 8:20, an imprecation of evil. In Romans 3:4, mē genoito is translated by the King James Bible as “God forbid.” Requests or commands (one of the usages of the independent subjunctive in Latin) in the New Testament tend to be governed by the imperative, as in classical constructions. Thus, it is clearer in the Greek than in the Latin that a command is not meant with Mary’s response. Moreover, while classical Greek uses the particles eithe or ei gar with the optative to construct a clause of wishing, later Greek (as in the case of Luke 1:38), omits these particles.
The optative of wishing occurs thirty-five times in the New Testament; one of its attested times is in Luke 1:38, as marked by Burton’s Syntax of Moods and Tenses of the New Testament (1900), one of the foremost reference authorities on New Testament Greek. The optative of wish, moreover, as Burton explains, frequently expresses a prayer. J. H. Moulton in his Grammar of New Testament Greek, likewise, suggests that the term genoito, in particular, indicates an optative in wishes or prayers. He adds that genoito alone is a formula used in oaths, not only in the New Testament, but even in Hellenistic non-Christian material and in a later Christian, non-New Testament context. In Moulton’s volume on Greek moods in the New Testament, additionally, Moulton explains that the formula for wishing can be translated as “let it be x.” In this book, written in 1906, Moulton uses examples of anachronistic uses of the optative in colloquial English, including “would that it be so” or “be it so,” something comparable to the English translation of the vulgate’s fiat, “let it be done.” One can thus see how the translators rendered the Latin subjunctive fiat as “let it be done,” leaving open the possibility of readers interpreting it as a command, concession, or—what I think is the most compelling, grammatically—a wish construction.
What difference does an interpretation of a Vulgate subjunctive make for anyone other than the philolog? For me, reading genoito in the Greek New Testament changed everything. That Mary wishes or prays for God’s plan, rather than obsequiously conceding to it, alters my understanding of holiness. It fundamentally veers from the traditional view of Mary’s obedience and submission. Mary is braver than a concession—her response to something divinely terrifying is to hope for it. Her response is radical and wild. This use of the optative genoito underscores the difference between a mother of seven sighing, sweating, cursing under her breath as she reluctantly obeys God’s plan and a saint—for, it turns out that the holy hear God’s plan and wish for it. Would that I were as good as Mary. Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis.
Sarah Klitenic Wear is a Professor of Classics at Franciscan University of Steubenville.