A Life of Freedom
The Solemnity of the Annunciation. Fr Toby Lees notices something about Our Lady’s name.
After not enough sleep, we awoke to cheers of the Pope’s arrival on a racetrack in Sydney for the final day of World Youth Day. Bleary-eyed, but slightly keener of ear, I listened to his reflection on the Annunciation, as the Pope and I (and a few hundred thousand others) prayed the Angelus. He spoke of the fear that Mary must have had when the angel first appeared; and then came the phrase that has stuck with me ever since: he spoke of Mary’s ‘Yes’, her resounding ‘Fiat’, as being ‘the pivotal moment in the history of God’s relationship with his people.’ He went on to say that as ‘As Mary stood before the Lord, she represented the whole of humanity. In the angel’s message, it was as if God made a marriage proposal to the human race. And in our name, Mary said yes.’
All of history turns on the Annunciation and the Incarnation that results. In that quiet ‘yes’, Mary facilitates that humbling of the divinity to share in our humanity, so that we might share in the divinity. It’s the pivotal moment of salvation history.
If we were asked to talk about the pivotal moments in Mary’s life, we might be tempted to say that the Annunciation was the central one. But, I’d argue that, while it’s a moment that transformed our lives, we would be wrong to describe it as a turning point in Mary’s life. This would be to misunderstand who Mary is: her whole life is a ‘yes’ to God. Her fidelity to God didn’t begin at the Annunciation and it doesn’t end there; her work extends to the Cross and beyond, to her continuing mediation in heaven.
Mary’s ‘yes’ is a wonderful example of how God works out our salvation through His human instruments. It is a mark of the dignity He has given us that He doesn’t save us without us. When we look back through salvation history, we can think of many other crucial figures. However, when reflecting on some of those who came to mind, it struck me that many have something in common, which Mary does not share: Peter, Paul, Abraham, Sarah, Israel . . . the names by which we know them now are not the names they grew up with: Simon, Saul, Abram, Sarai, Jacob. Their lives are marked by a clear before and after, and God marks this ‘after’ with a new name, signaling a new identity in living according to His will or in a markedly different relation with Him.
But with Mary, there is no such change. When the angel Gabriel greets Mary, he greets her with a title, ‘Hail, full of grace’, he tells us something about who she is, just as God, in our first reading last Sunday, tells us something about who He eternally is when He reveals His name, ‘I AM’, to Moses in the Burning Bush. Mary is not undergoing a conversion, no change of heart is required for Mary to act in accordance with God’s will at the Incarnation, because her ‘yes’ is in accordance with her whole life. Mary’s ‘yes’ at the Annunciation is a defining moment in her life, insofar as it shows us who she really is, but it’s of a pattern with the rest of her life.
In this, as in so many other things, Mary is a model for us. We ought to aspire to be the sort of people for whom saying ‘yes’ to God is our basic disposition, not people who bargain with God so as to attempt to keep some sphere of our lives free from His interference as if that could ever be to our benefit.
There’s a tragic tendency to oppose our being truly free and our living out of God’s will. Pope Benedict across his writings speaks of a crisis of trust in God, which goes all the way back to our fall in Eden. We become convinced that being free means to be able to live in accordance with the ebb and flow of my desire, but objectively my freedom, in this manner, is not more than that of a dead fish buffeted around and around by the waves. We lose sight of the connection between truth and freedom, we become so scared of death to self, we become trapped in ourselves. Into this counterfeit notion of freedom, Mary’s ‘yes’ continues to challenge and provoke. To some she is less handmaid and more slave: if she couldn’t say ‘no’ to God, how can she be free? But, it is her ‘yes’ that makes possible the ending of our slavery to sin and death, and we will not be free until we add an enduring ‘yes’ of our own to the invitation of her Son.
Image: detail from ‘The Annunciation’, c. 1660. Oil on canvas. 142 x 107,5 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, photographed by Lluís Ribes Mateu