As I continue to work my way back into a regular routine of writing for the blog, I went back to reread the posts in the series, On Saying Yes.
After reviewing the last couple posts, it seemed to me that the next step was to concentrate my meditation on the verses (1:26-38) in Luke that contain the detailed story of the Annunciation. I began by reading the full chapter for context, then concentrated on just the verses in question. I read these repeatedly until my attention was drawn to a single set of words. I then allowed these words to roll around in my consciousness as part of my prayer routine. I also tried to let the Spirit prompt me to recall them at other times during the day, stopping what I might be doing to give my attention to the Gospel when He called.
(As part of my Lenten practice, I am wearing my prayer rope whenever I am out in public. It is just uncomfortable enough that I find myself fidgeting with it, which serves as an impetus to stop and separate myself from the world for a few moments.)
I settled on these words from verse 35:
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
The angel Gabriel has informed Mary that she has “found favor with God” and that she will “conceive in her womb and bear a son.” Mary has responded with a question: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” These words are part of the response from Gabriel. She then replies in turn, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”
As usual, I have attempted to place myself in the scene and invite you to do the same.
As a man, entering the scene poses some difficulties. I have no experience that allows me to understand the full import of what it means to be pregnant. I am the father of three children, but even so, I think I might find myself in trouble with my wife and female friends if I said I could completely empathize with that condition. It is not something I have ever had to face, so I find it difficult to imagine the consequences entailed in saying Mary’s “yes.”
I also live in a society where pregnancy outside of marriage is not unusual. It carries no shame or other disparagement. In Mary’s time, such an occurrence would have been life threatening. If Joseph had not responded positively to the angel in his dream and accepted Mary into his home, she might have been stoned to death for her perceived sin. At the very least she would have become an outcast in her society and her child would have been equally scorned.
Then there is the whole angel appearing thing. I also have no direct experience with that. How did having an angel as the messenger complicate what Mary was experiencing? When you enter the scene, her ability to remain cool, calm, and collected is even more impressive.
How do I sympathize with what was being asked of Mary?
On the other hand, even as a male Secular Franciscan, I am called to a motherhood of sorts. In the Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, which serves as the Prologue to the OFS Rule, Francis says this:
We are mothers, when we carry him in our heart and body (1 Corinthians 6:20) through divine love and a pure and sincere conscience; we give birth to him through a holy life which must give light to others by example (Matthew 5:15).
Article Six of the Rule echoes this instruction:
Therefore, they should go forth as witnesses and instruments of her mission among all people, proclaiming Christ by their life and words.
The requirement to “give birth to Him” is not confined to the women of the Order. It is every bit as incumbent on the men. We may not be used to thinking of ourselves as mothers, but, nonetheless, Francis calls us to do so.
I might not be able to imagine the physical reality of saying “yes,” but I do need to come to grips with the spiritual reality of being responsible for enabling Jesus to enter the world. The instruction to “go forth and proclaim Christ” by word and example is a call to do just that. My voice, my hands, my eyes, my expressions, and my actions all must serve as a gateway by which Jesus can appear in this world and impact and improve the lives of every person I encounter.
Mary birthed Jesus into the world at a specific moment in history. I am responsible for birthing Jesus into the world on an ongoing basis, repeatedly, day by day, so that His Incarnation remains ever present and ever effective. I am called to repeat the “yes” of Mary to the best of my ability in all circumstances.
It is not just me. Each of us has this responsibility. Each of us is faced on a regular basis, even a daily basis, with a version of the proposition that Gabriel made to Mary. It is possible that despite the difficulties, there is no more important scene in all the gospels to enter than this one. We may not be as Holy as Mary, but we still are accountable for emulating her response to Gabriel.
As Franciscans, our profession and our rule make it incumbent upon us to say “yes” as completely and ably as we can. To emphasize the quotes, we must prepare ourselves “to go forth as witnesses and instruments……proclaiming Christ by our life and words” and to “carry Him in our hearts and bodies” that we might “give birth to Him through holy lives that give light to others by example.”
It is a daunting calling. In a world that continually seeks to distract us, how do we stay ever present to this task? Mary, because she was Immaculate, seems to have had help saying “yes” and living with the consequences. Can we realistically expect to emulate that “yes” even though we have not been similarly graced?
The next post will, with the help of St. Maximillian Kolbe, consider the Immaculate Conception in more detail. For now, we can consider the nature of the help made possible by Mary’s Immaculate state.
It is easy to read the words I have selected as being related to the physical conception that Mary experienced. When Gabriel says, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you” and the “power of the Most High will overshadow you,” we might think that he is talking solely about the mechanics of how the Incarnation will occur. He is likely referring to that physical manifestation, but he is also referring to much more.
Place yourself back in the scene. Imagine that Gabriel has appeared to you. He proposes a task to you just as he did to Mary. It is a somewhat different task, but still a meaningful and urgent one. The conversation starts the same:
“Greetings, (your name here), the Lord is with you!”
Like Mary, you are troubled at the sudden appearance of an angel. You are trying to discern what sort of greeting this might be. Just like with Mary, Gabriel recognizes your apprehension and moves to comfort you.
“Do not be afraid, (your name here), for you have found favor with God. Behold, God wishes you to go forth as His witness and proclaim Christ by your life and words.”
Like Mary, you are a person of humility. (This is why you have been approached by God and Gabriel in the first place?) In the past, you have attempted to fulfill this task as part of your Franciscan calling but you know that you have often failed. You respond with unassuming words:
“How will this be? I am a sinner. I am a simple person, not educated in the ways of public speaking or in the fine points of evangelization. I feel completely unprepared to do this. How can I ever hope to succeed?”
Gabriel responds to you by saying,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Nothing will be impossible with God.”
How will you respond?
Mary’s Immaculate state allowed her access to the Holy Spirit (her Spouse) and the “Most High” (her Father) in a singular way. This special access gave her unfettered entrée to the help she needed to cope with the extraordinary circumstances she faced. In all of Salvation History, only Mary has been confronted with a request to become the Mother of God. God had good reason for giving Mary unique qualities. He had good reason for helping her in a mysterious way.
Even if Gabriel does not make himself physically present to us, the scene above is not just an exercise. Each of us is asked to go forth and birth Christ daily even though we often miss or forget the call. It is not the same as what Mary was asked, but it is our unique vocation. We do not need the same qualities as Mary to respond, but we do need to find a way to say our own resounding “yes.” Mary is our example, inspiration and advocate, but we need to respond in the context of our own gifts and circumstances.
We must remember and believe that we do not have to be Immaculate to receive the help of the Holy Spirit and God. They wish to be as intimately united to us as they were to Mary, to be our Spouse and our Father. “The Holy Spirit will come upon us, and the power of the Most High will overshadow us,” even if we are not Immaculate. We simply need to invite them. We need to say “yes” to them.
God will never ask us to do something we are incapable of doing. He knows our weaknesses and our sinfulness better than we do. If He asks us to give birth to His Son, He will equip us for the task. He will not abandon us, but will remain with us, ever our Aid, ever our Hope, and ever our Encouragement if we acquiesce to the Will He has expressed to us.
How will we respond? Will we acquiesce? Will we say without hesitation the profound “yes” that is due our Creator?
Enter the scene again using the words I have substituted. Stay present in just that portion of the scene. Repeat it multiple times over multiple days. Pray over it unceasingly during your prayer time and whenever the Spirit helps you to recall it. Give it ample time to affect you, to convert you.
Stay with it as long as it takes for you to be ready to say your own complete and confident “yes.”
Stay with it as long as it takes for you to be able to say, alongside Mary in her scene,
“I am the servant of the Lord, may it be to me according to your Word!”