“Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’” —Luke 1:38
Today, especially in those communities within the Church in which the new evangelization is (rightly!) emphasized, a strong jargon has developed about what it means to be Catholic. We hear the call for “intentional disciples,” “dynamic Catholics,” “amazing parishes,” and so on. And these concepts contain much that is good. We do need to be, in the words of Pope St. John Paul II, “new in ardor” as we live and share our faith today.
But sometimes we can get ardor mixed up with aggressiveness or self-assertion, and so we should never forget that the first Christian act, the definitive act we see Our Lady perform in the Gospel appointed for the Solemnity of the Annunciation, is what we might call a passive act. Mary is available. Mary receives the message of the Archangel Gabriel. Mary is passive before she becomes active. Mary is reactive when she expresses her great faith by speaking those words that made the whole Christian life possible, because they welcome Christ into the world: “May it be done unto me according to your word.”
St. John Paul II called this receptivity a hallmark element of the “feminine genius.” It is the very opposite of aggression or even self-assertion. It is the very opposite of a sinful act. It is the way you act when you are “full of grace.” It is a model for every one of us who are disciples of Jesus Christ.
Our Lord tells us in Luke’s Gospel that “out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks” (6:45). Only a heart as full of grace as Mary’s could say what she said. She was holy in an utterly unprecedented way, and so she could say “yes” to an utterly unprecedented proposal from God.
Yet each member of the Church has his own “yes” to say to God. And it would be natural to worry that because the hearts of sinners are not full of grace, saying “yes” is impossible. Or perhaps saying “yes” is manageable, but living it out with persevering fidelity is not. Sometimes, after a few years of marriage, religious consecration, or priestly life, Christians can be tempted to doubt their “yes” — whether they really meant it, whether they were even capable of meaning it, whether they are capable of staying faithful.
Pope Benedict XVI has some words of consolation for those who are tempted to doubt or discouragement. In his book Dogma and Preaching (Ignatius, 2011), he writes:
“The mystery of the grace that takes place in Mary does not create a distance between us and her and make her unapproachable, turning her into an object of mere (and therefore empty, meaningless) wonder. On the contrary, she becomes a consoling sign of grace, for she proclaims the God whose light shone on the ignorant shepherds and whose mercy raised up the lowly in Israel and the world. She proclaims the God who is ‘greater than our hearts’ (I Jn 3:20) and whose grace is stronger than all our weakness. If John the Baptist represents the unsettling seriousness of the divine summons, Mary represents the hidden but profound joy that this summons brings.”
Much could be written about what it means to offer one’s own “yes,” or “fiat,” to God. For today’s Solemnity of the Annunciation, perhaps it suffices to affirm that each Christian is capable of saying this “yes” and living it faithfully, looking to Mary’s example and trusting in her help.
Fr. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome.