Delivered on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2014 at Saint Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois.
How delicate these last days must have been for Mary—these last days before the birth of her son, Jesus, the son of the Most High. These last hours when, as it does for women about to go into the ever-deepening cycles of labor, the time becomes ever-fuller, the senses heighten, each breath a bit more noticed, a bit more conscious and intentional. Having lived for nine months with Gabriel’s message, perhaps her mental life was like what we call today “centering prayer”—her centering word, “Jesus.” Each breath, one breath closer to seeing Him, to holding Him. Each breath, one breath closer to hearing Him cry, to feeding Him, rocking Him to sleep. Each breath, one breath closer to being changed by Him—not into a different person but into more of who she was called by God to be from the first moments of her own immaculate conception: the Theotokos, the Mother of God, the bearer of He who will reign over the house of Jacob for ever.
Unlike Adam and unlike Eve, Mary was never apart from her God-given vocation. She was never cut off from God’s will for her. Early Christian legends about Mary—non-canonical and not part of the authoritative biblical literature, to be sure, but still widely read and disseminated in the early Church, and hence influential in Christian tradition and our living memory today—told of Mary being conceived to her elderly parents, Anne and Joachim, also through a kind of angelic annunciation. The angel said, “You shall give birth to a daughter who shall be blessed throughout the world,” as one legend tells it. It was said, “all of the house of Israel were happy with her and loved her.” Those around her, and her parents at her conception, saw, or perhaps intuited in a still unfocused way, a mystery about Mary—something of who God made her to be. Her vocation was woven into her being, inseparable from her existence, and never denied by her family, her priest, or Mary herself.
It may be that the Annunciation that Saint Luke describes between Mary and the Angel Gabriel was in fact not the first moment that Mary learned of her vocation. It may be that, like the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, where Jesus is given but the fullness of his own vocation through the descent of the Holy Spirit as a dove and through the words of His Father—“Thou art my beloved Son with thee I am well pleased”—because we know that something of his vocation to be the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was not only known before this baptism, by the twelve year old Jesus as well as his parents and relatives, yet somehow by all creation knew of Jesus, through whom all things were made, all things perfected—for Mary, too, there were inklings of her vocation, her predestined identity, while still in her mother’s womb, and upon birth and her subsequent development, all of which was then confirmed by Mary by her glorious words to Gabriel: “Let it be to me according to your word.” And so, Our Lady’s “Yes” to God can teach us about the Sacrament of Confirmation, when one learns about and then accepts his or her vocation to the general priesthood, the ministry of the laity, what is taught in this parish as a form of ordination.
For just as with the Sacrament of Confirmation, the person accepts Jesus to be the central focus of the rest of his or her existence, in his life and into the next, so with Our Lady. Gabriel tells Mary that she is to be the Mother of Jesus, that the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. Mary accepts this invitation, confirms this vocation given by God—and her son becomes the ever-blazing heart of the rest of her breathing.
And can we doubt that what also was announced to Mary was a sacramental imagination, a Catholic imagination? Can we doubt that Gabriel’s message permanently sealed Mary’s very being, her very view of all reality? Whether it was an abrupt shift in conscience, or one gradual, is difficult to say when we remember that Saint Luke’s account of the Annunciation comes 90 to 100 years after the fact, give or take a decade or two. Perhaps Saint Luke wisely leaves this detail out, and invites us to consider Mary’s reaction to Gabriel, to live into this experience as we are able—what it would be like to be in her shoes. For every moment when we ourselves have a hint or a glimpse into the truth of our own vocation, who we are meant, even predestined by God, to be, then by analogy we are just like Mary with Gabriel. For some of us, the truth of our vocation startles us, shocks us, throws us for a loop. For others of us, we are not so much as disoriented as we sink into a state of deep awe and wonder, even speechlessness. Aspects of our past come together; we see them as providential: we thought we were alone that moment so many years ago, but God was there, gentle guiding us toward Himself. Some of us resist or even deny our vocation. Yet can be there a more troubling form of sin that to deny God’s will for us? It is nothing less than the Capital Sin of pride, the root sin, and it is deadly.
Let it be said loud and let it be said clear—to question, to inquire, to be puzzled by, and to not fully understand our vocation is absolutely not a form of sin. God reveals His will for us when we are ready to receive it, when we can bear it, when the time has a fullness about it, a consonance within it, and we are able to respond. He knows that our vocation will be heavy, will be weighty, truly, like an anchor. I daresay he expects us to inquire to him, even argue with him, to examine this revelation with the full capacities of our earthly life—our reason, our intelligence, our emotions, our bodies, and our heart, the seat of our choosing.
If it sounds wrong for me to say that God expects us to inquire and argue with him about our vocation, then Mary too was wrong, for she said, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” But she is not wrong—she is not questioning God’s authority, nor his power. Mary believed God. She took His presence very seriously. It is a sign of our seriousness, of our maturity, when we can believe in God’s utter sovereignty and at the same time honestly interrogate what God appears to be telling us. This is called “the discernment of spirits,” and the key to it all is humility, is openness before mystery. God knows how powerful and how provocatively deceptive Satan can be, how skillful Satan is in twisting God’s words into grave distortion, as he did with Adam and Eve. God equips us with brains with which to think, communities and families with which to discern, the mystical family of the Church through the parish with which to live, he provides opportunities for us to verify and test our vocation. God gives us sacraments and our liturgical prayer life.
“How shall this be?” is the question that is the foundation of being a disciple. In still shorter form, the question is “Yes, but how?” This by analogy is the same question the first Christians asked of Saint Peter at Pentecost, the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, also a product of Saint Luke’s authorship—for after they heard Peter preach on text from the Prophet Joel, how the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, and about the crucifixion and the resurrection of Our Lord, and that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ, how what was kept secret for long ages but now disclosed and made known to all nations—what was the first response from the people but the words, “Brethren, what shall we do?” A “Yes, but how?”—an echo of Mary’s own devout interrogation of God.
It is not self-explanatory how to center our lives around the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, truly God and truly Man. It is not a matter of merely being “good people.” It is not a matter of merely reading the Bible on one’s own. It is not a matter of merely learning the right doctrinal words in the right doctrinal order. It is not merely about coming to Church. It is not merely finding quiet moments to talk with God. It is all that and a whole lot more, according to the pattern of the Church, its Regula. Spiritual guidance or direction is essential to work through what seems like an overwhelming jumble of spiritual possibilities, of spiritual insights, of doctrine, of piety.
When presented with the fullness of God’s purpose in creating us, and his promise for us, “Yes, but how?” becomes perhaps the only sane response. By asking God, and our priests, our catechists, and the holy people in our lives, “Yes, but how?” “How shall this be?—and then, listening to God’s answer—we invite God to lead us still closer to him, ever closer to Christ’s nature, ever closer to who God has called us to be, has chosen us to be, in him before the foundation of the world. We need to be reminded daily of Mary’s commitment to God so that our own commitment to God becomes more like Mary’s. Without a daily relationship with Mary’s commitment to God, a daily relationship within our conscious prayer life, we deny ourselves the sure and certain means for being formed more fully into disciples of the Son of the Most High.
Pray for us, O holy mother of God. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.