My article in today’s Headline Bistro.
Today is the Solemnity of The Annunciation of the Lord. We recall the moment in God’s perfect time when He sent His Son into the world to effect its salvation. It wasn’t on Christmas, but this day when God took on human flesh and entered into the world. From the single-celled zygotic stage of human development, Jesus became a man like us in all things but sin- fully human while fully divine. It was through Mary’s obedient assent that salvation entered into the world, an assent born of genuine humility, an assent that is a lesson for us all.
We look at artist’s renderings of Mary and typically see visages of serenity born of an extraordinary holiness. Such visages are at once both accurate and illusory; they both guide and mislead us. They lead us to reflect on Mary’s virtues and how those virtues lived through her human nature and how they should live through ours, especially as we strive to encounter a civilization in the throes of moral anarchy and teetering on the brink of implosion. The images mislead because they don’t show Mary’s worries.
Mary is first introduced to us in today’s Gospel. From the outset, we see that she was troubled by Gabriel’s salutation, confused. How can this be? I’m a virgin. But Gabriel assured Mary that she had found favor with God, and that with God, all things are possible. It was an assurance that she knew in her heart to be true, born of a faith and obedience to God’s will that found her the favor of which Gabriel spoke. His visit did not instill faith so much as it was an occasion of grace building on a perfected nature. Mary worked at her holiness, but that holiness did not insulate her from fear, bewilderment, sorrow, hardship, and ultimately witnessing the brutal execution of her son. Her ‘yes’ to God would require embracing it all.
Could Mary have imagined that nine months later King Herod would slaughter all boys under the age of two in an attempt to murder her baby? Could she have imagined a self-imposed exile in the land of their former slavery, Egypt? Could she have imagined the crucifixion? Gabriel never mentioned the cost, or all that would be required. One can only imagine how she broke the news to Joseph, how she must have agonized over her choice of words.
We see salvation through a retrospective lens and count Mary’s sacrifices as worth the cost. Mary didn’t have the benefit of hindsight and could only see the present through a “glass darkly,” and the future, not at all. She lived in the present moment and relied heavily on grace, much the same as we do today.
There is a cost to our discipleship, and the cost can be enormous. Being a Catholic, pro-life scientist who embraces the Magisterium doesn’t endear one to many of one’s peers. It calls one’s objectivity and sanity into question and closes many doors. Tragically, many who similarly embrace the Magisterium receive similar welcome in their own parishes. Even among clergy such divisions exist. We expect rejection and derision from outsiders. It stings worst of all when it comes from our own.
In the 1981 epic miniseries, Peter and Paul, Anthony Hopkins masterfully plays a determined Saint Paul. In a wryly-humorous moment, Paul and Barnabas are taking their rest under a tree after having been stoned and chased from yet another town. As Paul stirs himself and arises with determination to move on, a weary Barnabas arises more with resignation than determination proclaiming, “Perhaps the stones will be softer in the next town.”
And so it is with us. There are days when I’m more Barnabas than I am Paul, still others when I’m more Peter who hears Jesus say He’s going to Jerusalem to die and suggests they go elsewhere. But I know that I’m really called to be like Mary, “Be it done to me according to your word.” Following that call, and living such simple submission is never easy, as I’ve learned repeatedly. Mary did it well because Mary refused to sin, and had the abundance of grace that came with such refusal.
I take great consolation and direction from the mighty Saint Paul, who wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:
“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
We are called to live somewhere between Mary and Paul.
So as we go about the arduous task of rebuilding a Culture of Life and a Civilization of Love, this is our feast day, the day when God took on human flesh and in such divine condescension elevated our humanity. This is the great North Star of Christian Anthropology. Through it all, Mary is our model and guide. She didn’t count the cost, and neither should we. Mary knew and accepted that which Paul (and we) needed to be told by God:
“My grace is sufficient for you.”