Mary and Zechariah: Saying “Yes” from a Position of Spiritual Poverty

Annunciation to Zechariah (Fragment of Russian Icon, “The Execution of St. John the Baptist”)

I have recently spent considerable time in my prayer life and spiritual reading considering Mary’s “yes.”  But in order to begin writing what I expect will be multiple posts on this topic, I decided to go back to the initial source of the story, the Gospel of Luke, Chapter One.   The story of the Annunciation runs from verses 26-38.  The idea was to spend several days praying over these verses, allowing them to sink in and speak to me all over again.  As was suggested at the beginning of my reflection on the first chapter of John, I worked at entering the scene in order to enhance my prayer experience.

As I got started with this process, I read the verses of the Annunciation a couple times.  I then expanded my reading to the full chapter to provide better context for the story.  Few chapters in the gospels are as rich as this one.  It includes Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist, the Annunciation to Mary, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the Magnificat, the birth of John the Baptist and the Canticle of Zechariah.

As I read the full chapter, I found that my decision to go back to basics was quickly rewarded.  I noticed an interesting parallel between Gabriel’s discussion with Zechariah and the Annunciation.  The verses that caught my attention were Luke 1:18 (Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.) and Luke 1:34 (“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”).

In both stories, Gabriel is sent to announce the birth of a child.  Zechariah’s reaction is described as “startled and gripped with fear.”  Mary’s is similar.  She is termed “greatly troubled.”  In both instances, Gabriel responds by saying “Do not be afraid” and proceeds to describe the purposes the children will fulfill in the plan of God.  Zechariah and Mary then respond with the questions quoted above.       

On their face, the responses seem to be about the same.  Both persons have been confronted unexpectedly by an angel.  Both are not sure how to react to this development.  Both are in positions in their lives where the prediction of the angel seems out of place and unlikely to come true.  Both are wondering what this means and how it will come to pass. 

Up until this point, the stories have followed a similar track.  But now they diverge.  In response to Zechariah, Gabriel says “you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words.”  There is condemnation and perhaps punishment assigned to Zechariah for his response.  But in response to Mary, Gabriel is compassionate, patient, and sympathetic, providing her with this explanation: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

The inference is that there is a difference between the two questions even though they appear parallel.  After praying over this several times, I decided that Mary’s question (How will this be….) is inquisitive and has a certain amount of faith-filled humility associated with it.  She is not doubting.  She just wants to understand how the words of Gabriel might be fulfilled.  Zechariah (How can I be sure of this…..), on the other hand, demonstrates a lack of faith and a desire to control the situation.    

(If Mary’s faith were as deficient as Zechariah’s, the conversation likely would have ended, and we never would have heard of her.  The story would have quietly disappeared into history and God would have had to wait for another opportunity to fulfill His plan to come into the world.) 

Mary’s question thus has an air of acceptance about it.  She’s just being curious even though she has already decided to say “yes” to the proposition she has been given.

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This conclusion then led me to consider the differences between Mary and Zechariah.  What made Zechariah prone to faltering in his belief when this moment came?  What made Mary ready to accept, ready to say “yes”?

The easy answer is to refer to the Immaculate Conception, which appears to predestine Mary to saying “yes.”  I will address the topic of the Immaculate Conception in detail in the next post in this series.  For now, I am going to ask you to accept that Mary, like all human beings that have ever existed, was not predestined to accept and was indeed free to choose in this moment.  She could have said yes or no to Gabriel.  (Think of this in terms of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.  In the garden, Jesus says “not as I will, but as you will.”  Mary’s yes is similar.  Both she and Jesus had the choice, and both chose God when the pivotal moment occurred despite the appearance that their decisions were predetermined.  The dependence of love on free will within the nature of Creation makes this necessary.)     

What do we know about Zechariah?  What do we know about Mary?  What is the difference between them that led one to doubt and the other to believe?

From the text of the gospel, we know that Zechariah is old, he’s male and he’s a priest from the division of Abijah.  As a priest, he is in a position of prominence.  He is selected to burn incense in the temple, making him the focus of attention of the people assembled to worship, who wonder was has happened to him when he is delayed leaving the temple.  In verse six, he is described as “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s decrees and commands blamelessly.”  Despite this description, a few sentences later, in verse twenty, Gabriel describes him as “not believing.”  (I suppose this should make us feel a little better about ourselves.  Even the father of John the Baptist was not immune to lapses despite being a righteous man.)

Mary is young, female and, unlike Zechariah, without prominence in her community.  While she is described as “highly favored,” this favor exists in anonymity.  She is a young girl from a small town who no one would have been aware of no matter how highly favored she was.  She was set to embark on a life that was no different than any other young Jewish girl of the time.  She was betrothed to Joseph, a working-class carpenter despite being a descendant of David, and would enter his house as a typical wife and eventually mother.  She was certainly very pious and may have been known for that in her small community, but up until the day of the Annunciation there was nothing that would have drawn attention to her in a larger context. 

We have little record of her life before the Annunciation, but we can speculate based on her selection as the Mother of God and our own experiences. 

If we reflect on our own calls to the Franciscan life, we will likely see the same pattern developing again and again.  Few if any of us would report a single great encounter with the Will of God that caused us to seek out the Franciscan life.  Instead, we would more likely relate a nagging feeling that developed and matured over an extended time.  God called us often and continually and it took us time to respond.  He pursued us unceasingly and we are grateful for that.  Even though we are professed, we know that we often falter.  We rely on His resolute call to bring us back from our lapses and to help us recommit to an ever-deepening relationship with Him.  We are thankful that He is supremely patient and that His Love for us is so encompassing that He never stops calling us into His presence.

Francis’ early experiences are similar to ours.  The event in Francis’ life that is analogous to the Annunciation is the image of Christ speaking to him in the church of San Damiano.  This event is relayed to us in Chapter Six of The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul by Thomas Celano.  That chapter begins like this:

With his heart already completely changed – soon his body was also to be changed – he was walking one day by the church of Sam Damiano………….

Before his direct encounter with Christ, Francis’ “heart was already completely changed.”  God had been calling Francis continually, most likely from when he was a boy or a young teenager.  Francis, in the beginning, did not respond at all.  He was too focused on parties and becoming a knight.  He is captured and spends a year in the dungeons of Perugia.  During that time, he begins to hear and respond to the call.  When he is released, he tries to go back to his old life but cannot.  He spends time praying and seeking the meaning behind the compulsion he feels.  It takes an extended time for him to develop into the man that is ready to hear the voice of Christ speaking from the San Damiano Crucifix.

Next we apply our knowledge of our own calls and the calling of Francis to the life of Mary.  We can speculate with certainty that she also was called from a young age.  She likely did not suffer the same distractions as Francis, or if she did, she mastered them much sooner than he did.  (At the time of the Annunciation, she was likely younger than Francis was when he went into the battle of Perugia.)  We can assert that she was already a deeply prayerful person by the time the Annunciation occurred because she had already been faithfully answering the call of God for an extended time.  Despite her youth, she had already found her way into a certain separation from worldly concerns that made her ready to say a profound “yes” when the time came.  Like Francis, God had called her from an early age and given her time to develop into the person who was prepared to handle a visit from an Archangel without panicking.      

What I want to suggest is Mary’s long-term prayerful response to God’s call helped her learn to be minor by the time the Annunciation occurred.  She was, in fact, already the first Franciscan. 

As an unassuming young woman in an out of the way town, she had already embraced the life of minority that Francis cherished before it was possible to follow the example of Christ into that life.  The entire life of Spiritual Poverty that Francis developed and left us as his legacy is the life that Mary led even before the birth of Christ.  Thus, unlike Zechariah, who in the moment of his encounter with Gabriel fell victim to his own prominence and worldliness, Mary was able to maintain the integrity of her Spiritual Poverty and virtue. 

This is why I preceded this post with the post Mary as Holy Lady Poverty.  In that post, I suggested that Mary learned the life of Spiritual Poverty from her Son.  I want to now amend that thought by saying she was already well along the path to Spiritual Poverty before she became the Mother of Jesus.  Her long-standing prayerful answer to the call of God prepared her for the Annunciation and oriented her to a life of poverty and simplicity, thus making her the perfect candidate to become the Mother of Jesus. 

The life she experienced with her Son then perfected in her the discipline of Spiritual Poverty.  It prepared her for everything that was to come and allowed her to endure the pain of seeing her Son Crucified.  It allowed her to remain steadfast in faith and the knowledge that the plan of God would be fulfilled despite what her Son was asked to suffer.

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I often think of the Passion of Christ in terms of the response I hope it engenders in me.  When I think about the Love of Christ as represented by the complete self-giving of the Passion, I know that I must attempt, no matter how many times I falter, to always reply to that Love with an unequivocal love of my own that offers every fiber of my being to the Will of God.  This is the essence of what it means to say a complete and unambiguous “yes” to my own call from God.

Now I find myself thinking of the pain of Mary during the Passion.  Do I owe that a response as well?  Her “yes” led inevitably to that pain.  How do I honor that?  How do I offer my love to her as clearly as her love was offered to me when she said, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.”?

Article 9 of the Rule says this:

The Virgin Mary, humble servant of the Lord, was open to his every word and call. She was embraced by Francis with indescribable love and declared the protectress and advocate of his family. The Secular Franciscans should express their ardent love for her by imitating her complete self-giving and by praying earnestly and confidently.        

I think the answer is found here.  The instruction of the Rule to “imitate her complete self-giving” is a request to honor the “yes” of Mary.  We have all heard the saying “imitation is the highest form of flattery.”  In imitating Mary’s “yes,” not just at the moment of the Annunciation, but also in all the preparation that preceded that moment, we honor what she did for humankind by agreeing to be the Mother of Jesus.  We reciprocate the love she continues to bestow on us.  We revere and perhaps to some small extent share the pain that her “yes” cost her.

She was “open to the every word and call of the Lord.”  We must be as well.  We must be willing to imitate this in her as we go through our daily lives.  We must be willing to set aside worldly concern and embrace a life of Spiritual Poverty as surely as she did with the intention of offering her the love that is her due.

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Perhaps we can only hope for a momentous event in our spiritual lives when, or more precisely if, we achieve a deep enough relationship with God that we are ready for it as Mary and Francis were.  Although we might think their “yeses” happened at the time of these events, in actuality, their “yeses” developed over an extended time.  They were prepared when the momentous event presented itself and thus were able to respond with a final climatic “yes” that turned out for them to be irreversible.

This is what I am seeking for myself.  I am seeking to develop such a deep commitment to God, such a deep relationship with Him, that He might see me as fit for a wondrous encounter of my own.  I know that this is unlikely.  I know that I may never achieve such a state.  But there is no way to approach it if I do not set it as my goal. 

I long to someday make my own irreversible “yes” just as Mary and Francis did.   I know I am not there yet, but I pray for the strength to persevere.  There is no harm in dreaming such a dream. 

As I open my daily prayer, I ask specific saints to pray for me.  This always includes Francis, Clare, John the Baptist, Augustine, Peter, Paul and Andrew.  I then, just to be safe, invoke all the saints with this phrase:

“All you holy men and women pray for me that one day I might join your ranks.”

Perhaps if I persevere long and well enough in my quest to join their ranks I might also hear Christ speak to me from a Crucifix or be visited by an Archangel.

This is what I hope for. 

I invite you to hope the same as you consider how to say your own “yes” in imitation of Mary’s.

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