Christmas is upon us, when we celebrate the beautiful, impossible assertion that unites Christians across our cultural and theological divides: God came into the world to save us. The season turns our thoughts to how it happened, the stories of Jesus’ birth.
Christ is the center of these, of course, yet someone else is always present, in a role far beyond supporting actress: she who said, “be it done unto me according to thy word;” the woman who gave half her chromosomes to the project of the incarnation, then in a Bethlehem cave bore the light of the world into our darkness.
Christianity is a historical religion. The belief that God acts in time, through people and circumstances, is not true of all religions and it has implications for how we practice our faith. It means we can legitimately look to real events and people’s stories to learn about God’s unfolding intention in human life and in our own lives. We do this with the heroes and heroines, prophets and priests of the Old Testament, with the apostles, disciples and the martyrs of the New. Mary has a power to reveal Christ particular to her unique and extraordinary role in the story of salvation.
The record of her encounter with the Lord begins with the appearance of an angel, who startles her by his greeting, “Hail, Mary, [highly] favored one.a The Lord is with you.” This leaves her “deeply troubled.” Apparently nothing Gabriel said accords with Mary’s own estimation of herself.
Our minds are always troubled when some idea of ourselves is proven false or inadequate. Think of the first time you did not do well academically at Harvard. The disjunction between what you thought your identity to be and the new information no doubt confused you and might even have produced panic: “Aren’t I smart? What if I’m not intelligent enough to make it here?” You had to formulate a new self-understanding as a student in the process of learning. This doesn’t stop with college. Life has a way of providing circumstances that make growth possible, and most of them are trouble.
The positive challenge happens when Christ comes into our lives as he came into Mary’s. Christ always brings an awareness of who we are meant to be in God’s eyes, a sense of being graced by the original holiness and justice God intended when He made us.b For us this has negative implications as well.c Since “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,”d this new self-knowledge is almost always excruciating.
A new or heightened sense of the reality of God and the graces God gives such as Mary experienced cannot help but bring fear and trembling. One of the most common troubles I hear from students when God becomes more immediate to them is uneasiness over whether God will ask something of them that they do not want to give.
All of us hold ourselves back from God in some ways. We fret over trying to understand what God might be saying to us while making sure we keep our own will firmly ensconced in the driver’s seat. Ask anyone long on the spiritual road. They will confirm that one’s will, even though it desires happiness, can just as likely lead to misery, and not infrequently does.
Despite this anxiety in some that God has monstrous designs for our lives to force us into a mold that will never fit — as though the perfect love that knit us in our mothers’ wombs to be exactly ourselves could ever want us to be false to that! — one of the most common desires I’ve heard from students is for a direct communication from God. “Just tell me what to do, God!” We assume a personal message from the Almighty would be consoling, that we would willingly undertake exact instructions if only God would give them. Scriptural evidence does little to justify such a hope: think of Jeremiah, Jonah and Elijah. Yet we persist in asking all the same.
Mary gives us indication of what a word from our Creator really means: a change in our understanding of ourselves so profound that our puny words can barely describe it. Ruth Burrows, a discalced Carmelite nun who dedicated her life to prayer, wrote in her classic Guidelines for Mystical Prayer that discomfort always accompanies God drawing close to us. What else could result when the infinite presses upon the finite, when perfect love enters this imperfect world? If we could see ahead to the growth God wants for us, we would thank Him for our uneasiness, even for suffering, as John of the Cross says we should, because we would never come to God without it.
God’s trouble is never the fruitless soul-destroying anxiety many of us have known. We are being stretched into a whole new being. That cannot help but hurt, but also feel freeing, like the loosening of a clenched muscle from a painful spasm.
The great consolation always given, even when we do not feel it, is this: we are not alone. To us has come Emmanuel, “a name which means ‘God is with us.”e He came to be with us, and He went first to Mary. She was the first to believe the angel’s words: “God is with you.”
Drawing on the Latin root of the word “conversion,” Catholics believe that throughout life we turn more and more toward God through God’s grace and our cooperation with it. A key moment in that turning is precisely this: when the idea “God is with us” becomes personal, as it did for Mary; when it becomes, “God is with me.” God didn’t just come to be with and to die for all of humanity.f He came to be with you.
Like Mary at the annunciation, we can but “ponder” this seemingly improbable proposition. If we ponder, again and again, even when no answer comes, at some point we will, as Mary, receive a word from the Lord. It may even be the one she received from pondering, repeated over three hundred times in scripture. “Do not be afraid.” It is both a consolation and a challenge. Letting go of fear is the prerequisite for growth in Christ. Fear keeps us from changing, shrivels us back into the half-life from which God would save us.
Only freed from fear could Mary give her famous fiat. “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word.”g Her yes to God had to come first for the rest of ours to follow. And so we treasure her as the first member of Christ’s mystical body, and follow her direction, saying our own “yes” to Christ as she did, humbly opening to Him, believing the angel’s final words to her: “for nothing is impossible with God.”
Then we too begin a movement toward our own “magnificat.” The more Christ’s Holy Spirit dwells within us, the more we will be able with her “to proclaim the greatness of the Lord.” We will not be able to stop ourselves, for our spirits too will have found our joy in Christ our savior.h
a Catholic Bible translations prefer to insert the adverb. They are influenced by the Latin Vulgate, one of the earliest translations from the Greek into the vernacular, in which the angel said Mary was gratia plena, full of grace.
b If these terms are unfamiliar, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 374-384.
c Catholics believe that Mary was without sin, so we would not attribute Mary’s consternation at the angel’s greeting to the sorrow that produces repentance, though other Christians might. Preachers through the years have suggested many explanations of her troubled state. I believe that the greeting troubled her because she was a humble woman, and Gabriel’s words implied she had a position of honor.
d Romans 3:23
e Mat 1:20-23
f 1 Tim 2:4-6
g Luke 1:38
h Luke 1:46-47
Faye Darnall is the Undergraduate Chaplain at the Harvard Catholic Student Center.