“Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’” [Luke 1:38]
God is God and only God is God.
At the end of the day, we humans are mere five ounces of ash. Separating God and humans is a profound difference, an impassable huge gap which we use words like “a chasm” to try and describe. It is a gap which humans on our own cannot bridge. For the salvation of humankind, the God of mission has a plan. God wants to cross the impossible chasm between God and humanity, by sending his Son to take on human flesh. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” [John 3:16]. Incarnation means God becoming human. To do that, God requires another human person to be the tabernacle for his Son, to form the bridge that facilitates the passage and the crossover from God to humans so that we shall henceforth have a complete and perfect Mediator between us and God Almighty. Mary of Nazareth, a young virgin betrothed to Joseph, is chosen for that singular mission of bridge-building, to turn God’s plan into a willing participation between God and humans. At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel reveals that God’s plan of salvation cannot work without the willing cooperation of the human subjects. We all have a role to play and Mary is the first to be put to the test. Mary has to show the way. That is essentially the message angel Gabriel delivered to Mary at the Annunciation.
What lessons does the Annunciation hold for our own mission in life, either as individuals or as a body of believers? When the St Ignatius Church in Kuala Lumpur celebrated its parish feast day in July this year, the parish committee selected the theme of “Fostering Unity Towards Mission” for communal reflection. In facilitating the reflection, we suggested a close-up look at three pointers from the Annunciation.
1. In faith, Mary submitted to the will of God
It is significant that Mary, recognizing in the words of the divine messenger the will of the Most High and, submitting to his power, says: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” [Luke 1:38].
- First, Mary recognized in the words of the divine messenger the will of the Most High.
□ This is spiritual discernment at its best.
□ Do we hear the word of God in our own lives? Do we recognize His message to each one of us? Do we discern God’s will for us?
- Second, Mary in faith trusted and accepted God’s power to do the impossible.
□ This is living faith at its most radical.
□ Do we drag our feet because we do not think even with the help of God, the mission-assignment he gives us can be achieved? Do we try and summon up enough faith and trust and courage to just get on with it?
- Third, Mary submitted her entire existence to the will of God.
□ This is radical co-operation with the Holy Spirit of God.
□ Mary shows us the way, that human spirit is at its best when it cooperates with the Spirit of God.
And that forms the starting point of our reflection on Mary’s understanding of mission – to co-operate with the God of mission, to be one with his will.
If you recall, the first beatitude in Matthew’s gospel is “Blessed are the poor in spirit” [Matthew 5:3]. In Luke, however, the very first beatitude is uttered by Elizabeth at the Visitation. Filled with the Spirit herself, Elizabeth speaks of Mary who is overshadowed by the Spirit and says, “Blessed is she who has believed.” [Lk 1: 45]. Elizabeth’s words to Mary hold the key to our understanding why Mary is to be honored, namely, her faith.
Mary’s faith involves abandoning herself to God, and willingly submitting to his will. She surrendered her plan for her life, and yielded to God’s plan, trusting that God would do what God said. This is “the obedience of faith” Paul talks about [Romans 16:26]. And that is why renowned Biblical scholars, both Catholics and Protestants, are in agreement that, at the foot of the Cross, Mary is the model of perfect faith, given to the beloved disciple John who represents all of us – the beloved followers of Christ. You could say that as Jesus closed the chapter on his own public ministry on earth, he set in motion a new era of the community of believers right at the foot of the cross where his mother was given to the Church, and the community of believers was given to her, with the singular call to foster unity towards mission after his own departure from the scene.
Mary’s missionary example is therefore her life of faith. She knows that even her faith is a gift of God’s grace. It’s all grace, according to Catholic doctrine. Mary, of course, knew this. That’s why she responded to Elizabeth’s praise with the humble yet exuberant Song of Praise known as the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” [Luke 1:46-55]. All praises accorded to her were lifted right back to God, the source of her greatness! The official Catholic teaching is absolutely clear on this. The Second Vatican Council made it clear that true Marian devotion lies in the imitation of her virtues, particularly her faith (Lumen Gentium, 67). It is not about chasing after apparitions and begging for cures, important though those things are to many believers. Instead, Vatican II stresses that Marian devotion is about imitating her virtues, as a child of God, a believer of Jesus Christ, in unity with God’s mission.
2. But, Mary’s submission is not without fear and terror
Like us, Mary is human. In our devotion to Mary, we must never speak of her as if she were not a member of the human race. We pay proper tribute to her, when we realize that precisely because she was a flesh-and-blood woman, that she was able to give a human nature to Jesus. In her humanity, therefore, lies her greatness. And we see that in Scriptures.
Chapter one of Luke’s Gospel gives two important details about Mary’s initial response to the angel’s Annunciation.
- First, at the angel’s greeting, “she was greatly troubled” [Luke 1:29]. She must be terrified. But who wouldn’t be? We do not know how and in what form the angel appeared and spoke to her. What we do know is this: in view of the Holy Scriptures, the kind of paintings on this Advent episode that can attract us are only those which present Mary as being troubled and in great fear.
- Next, upon the word of the angel, she was not only terrified but greatly perplexed as well. So Mary asked, “How could this be?” [Luke 1:34]. Her response has been described as: “Terror of all terrors that I bore the Heavens in my womb.” Isn’t that an apt description of a teenager suddenly confronted with the news that she is pregnant with the Son of God?
In this picture, the artist has incorporated several of Mary’s gestures of surprise: she pulls her cloak to her face, she averts her eyes, and she puts down her book.
Our own all-time favourite is a piece by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, where fear and terror is evident.
Yet, Mary was able to say yes. We are so familiar with this story that we have forgotten how terrifying and humanly outrageous a proposal God’s angel is delivering to Mary. Can we learn something from her so that we might also be able to say yes and agree to collaborate with God’s mission? In this regard, the question of how Mary could accept such a message from Gabriel is a meaningful question.
May be a good hint can be found in the very greeting of the angel Gabriel to Mary. He said, “The Lord is with you.” He didn’t say, “May the presence of the Lord be with you.” He actually said, “The Lord is with you”, in the present continuous tense – a sense which is evident in the original Greek text.
This is something we have often overlooked perhaps. Mary was able to say yes to God because she was, in her daily routine, already dwelling in the peace of the presence of God long before his angel ever showed up. So when angel Gabriel said, “The Lord is with thee” he was not proclaiming what was going to be, but was simply stating an obvious fact and a reality existing in the daily life of Mary of Nazareth.
This is of great significance to us because if the Lord was with Mary, then the Lord can also be with me and with you in just as real a way, even though not in exactly the same unique sense. What we need to do is to make a commitment to cultivate diligently in our hearts and in our daily lives the presence of Christ. And this is the thing, we are in a way so familiar with biblical stories that, despite scriptural reminders, we often tend to forget the reality of God’s presence and so we often fail to activate that presence so as to practise our Christian mission. And yet, it is God’s presence that brings the peace we need and the peace we can bring to others. So we thank God for the Blessed Virgin and pray that we may follow her example and learn to dwell in the grace and peace of God in our daily living, and not only when we come to Church for Sunday Mass.
3. Mary’s acceptance of motherhood is a complete openness to Jesus Christ
The Annunciation is fundamental in God’s plan of salvation, for it brought about the Incarnation of the Word the moment Mary accepted God’s mission. There, God’s plan received human acceptance, as the Blessed Virgin of Nazareth accepted her motherhood of the Son of God.
In all that, what we see is the human spirit of Mary co-operating with the Holy Spirit, working in unity with God. What we learn is that human activities are at their best whenever we see the human spirits cooperating well with the Holy Spirit.
The words “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord” testify to Mary’s openness of spirit. They express the fact that from the outset she accepted and understood her own motherhood as a total gift of self, a gift of her person to the service of the saving plans of the Most High. From then on and to the very end, she lived her entire life sharing in the life of Jesus Christ, her Son,
This basic fact of being the Mother of the Son of God is from the very beginning a complete openness to the person of Christ, to his whole work, to his whole mission.
Mary gained the singular distinction of becoming the Ark of the New Covenant only because she first agreed and accepted the Word into her heart. And that is what Christ wants to see us do. Jesus adds to her words by pointing to the source of all true blessedness or happiness – union with God in heart, mind, and will. “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it,” he says [Luke 11:27-28]. On another occasion, Jesus says, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” [Luke 8:21]. Whoever does the will of God is a friend of God and a member of Christ’s family.
Mission is of course God’s idea, and God’s project. To be drawn into the life of the Triune God is to be drawn into God’s saving project of transforming the world into his Kingdom. To be “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven” is not only to “sing God’s praise” but to live it out in involvement in the world. What is Christianly distinctive about our involvement, though? It is because it is done in the name of the Son and in the power of the Spirit. For a start, we Christians ought to be far more generous about recognising allies and fellow-workers, that we are all co-workers in God’s projects, whatever the work that we do. Our basic attitude should be one of constant striving for unity towards our common mission. “The spirit that we have, not the work that we do, is what makes us important to the people around us,” writes Sr. Joan Chittister.
May this Christmas fill us all with God’s Spirit of love and peace!
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, December, 2011. All rights reserved.
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