Many modern Christians have misgivings about Mary, but what if we checked those misgivings for a moment? There’s a powerful lesson for us in the life and example of this woman, a lesson about humility, obedience, and putting faith into action. And it all starts with a yes.
As the evangelist Luke gives the account, the angel Gabriel wings into view and tells Mary, then an unwed teenager, that she will conceive a child. And not just any child. This would be Jesus, the son of David, the “Son of the Most High.”
Mary asks, reasonably, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?”
The angel answers, outlandishly, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God . . . [W]ith God nothing will be impossible.”
Mary then answers, amazingly, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
The power and meaning of Mary’s yes
In Paradiso, Dante refers to Mary as the “fixed goal of the eternal counsel.” The whole plan of God led to her, in other words. Mary’s answer is amazing for that very reason. Whereas Israel was prideful and stiff-necked, Mary was humble. Whereas Israel was rebellious and unfaithful, Mary was obedient. Whereas Israel possessed the faith but little fruit, Mary’s faith yielded a goodly and godly bounty.
But her answer amazes further because Mary isn’t different than Israel. Mary is Israel. She is what Israel was always meant to be.
The great example, not the great exception
Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann used to say that Mary isn’t the great exception; she’s the great example. When told that we are to bring forth Christ in the world, our answer should be Mary’s answer: “[L]et it be to me according to your word.” Christians are called to follow in her humble, obedient, fruitful footsteps.
Luke’s followup to his gospel, the Book of Acts, makes this point in another way. Patrick Henry Reardon notes that the Holy Spirit is poured out on Mary in the opening of the gospel, and she brings forth Christ. Similarly, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the church in the opening of Acts, and the church brings forth Christ — taking the good news to the uttermost parts of the earth.
God may not be calling us to the far-flung corners, but he is calling us to bring forth Christ in our own way, to walk humbly, obediently, and yield the fruit of faith in our lives and for those around us.
Mary is a picture of us all. What might God do through us if we say yes like she did?
Side note: ‘Daughter of thy son’
Postscript: I couldn’t resist adding something more from Dante. In a beautiful and arresting phrase, he calls Mary “daughter of thy son” and then adds that she is “lowly and uplifted.” That’s the promise of life in Christ. In our lowliness, Christ elevates us.