Summary: Faith is critical, but it was not enough in the life of Mary, and it is not enough in our own life. What is needed is the obedience of faith.
Fourth Sunday in Advent 2014
My most intense memory of today’s Gospel–which unlike the rest of this year is taken from the writings of St. Luke–is of singing it at a Mass celebrated where the angel appeared to Mary. It was in Nazareth, in 2005, with a pilgrimage group. The experience of being right outside the hole in the ground where Tradition says Mary and her parents lived was awesome. I choked up several times, because it was there that God had fulfilled the promise He made to our first parents when they had committed the first sin, when they had set humanity on a path of rebellion, sin, weakness and death. There, in a Nazareth hovel, a young virgin, as the Fathers said, reversed the disobedience of the virgin Eve. There she said “yes” to God, even as Eve had told Him, “no.” There a new man, a God-man, took shape entirely from His virgin mother, just as thousands of years before a new woman had come from the side of her man.
Have you ever meditated on the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done,” as words Jesus must have learned from His mother? It was Mary who responded to the divine invitation to become the mother of David’s royal descendant by saying “be it done to me according to thy word.” It was Mary who launched Jesus on His Messianic career with a simple request at a poor couple’s wedding feast: “they have no wine,” and with a simple command to the serving people, “do whatever [Jesus] tells you.” No other person, man or woman or child, in the whole Bible did with so few words the wonders that Mary did in her lifetime.
Why is this important? It is important because in every other human lifetime, it would be a bald lie to call any of us “full of grace.” What am I–what are you full of? We are full of weakness, full of faults, full of bad habits, and–if we are unredeemed–full of sin. That’s why we come to Mass. We don’t come to Mass because we are strong and wonderful children of God. We come to Mass because we are weak and rebellious children. The Father and the angels of God don’t celebrate because they need our praise and love our singing. They celebrate because we are needy and come to be forgiven our venial sins and renewed and strengthened by the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. I marvel at the forbearance of God, who sees my weakness and sin and not only invites me into this sacrificial banquet of life, but calls me to minister to His people. Talk about undeserved gift! What love the Father has, what love the Son shows by creating us, redeeming us and filling us with the Spirit of them both, the Spirit whose proper name, St. Thomas tells us, is love. No wonder even unbelievers must feel something special during this week. The gift God gives is almost impossible to ignore, and its value is way too large to imagine.
But there is more yet. Jesus Christ, the Son of God become son of Mary, did not save us as individuals. He calls us together, as St. Paul wrote, “to bring about the obedience of faith.” St. Paul and all the other New Testament writers are clear: it is not faith alone that brings us to salvation. What saves us is the obedience of faith. Mary believed. She heard the word of God and believed the angel. But she responded by obeying the word of God, by making God’s will her own will. She lived her whole life in obedience to God’s saving purpose. When Simeon in the Temple of Jerusalem told her that her heart would be pierced in God’s plan–we would say that her heart would break–she said “be it done to me according to thy will.” When Jesus gave Himself up to torture and an unjust execution, as the price of Mary’s and our redemption, she answered in the same way. She lived a life in the obedience of faith.
And so must we. Belief is not enough. We stand every Sunday and say or sing “I believe in one God.” Is that enough? St. James is clear when he writes, “You believe in one God? The devils also believe, and tremble.” They did not live the obedience of faith. They rebelled, and paid the price. If we rebel, we will not inherit the kingdom of God that the Trinity wants as our ultimate reward.
But even if we rebel, as we have all rebelled in the past, there is hope for our inheritance. When God had to choose between justice and mercy for our first parents, he chose mercy. Even the act of chasing them from Paradise was merciful, for if they had eaten from the tree of life they would have been condemned for all eternity to separation from Him. When the whole world rebelled sometime afterwards, and His justice demanded the great flood, he saved one family to repeople the earth. When God has to choose between His majesty and sovereignty on the one hand, and solidarity with us on the other, He always chooses solidarity. He is so much on our side that He became one of us, and not just one of us, but the lowest one of us, a slave dying a slave’s death, yet raising us to victory in the very moment of His defeat.