“The Annunciation” by Paolo de Matteis, 1712.
In today’s Gospel, Luke presents his account of the Annunciation. In this most holy event, the Virgin Mary discovers that she is to become the mother of God. There is a lot going on in the Gospel we encounter in this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent. There are also many misunderstandings about what is going on in this Gospel. At the center of it all, though, is Mary consenting to be the Mother of God… she agrees to bear the Lord and Savior. Though she does not immediately understand how this can be, nevertheless she assents to God’s divine will; she tells Gabriel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” This assent of Mary to God’s plan is key to our understanding the heart of this passage.
Some of you may know of Father Mitch Pacwa. He’s a priest who’s on television from time to time; he has written some books and speaks all across the country. I had the pleasure of meeting him and spending an afternoon with him one day. It was very unexpected. One of my college professors from Ave Maria is a personal friend of Father Pacwa’s and one day Father just walked into the classroom.
He spent the day with us and said something that really stuck with me. He told us that in his experience, the most successful priests — those who were most faithful to the calling — were the ones who had a deep relationship with the Blessed Mother.
This really intrigued me for two reasons. That was when I was still discerning my call to the permanent diaconate, and I reasoned that if it was true for priests it was probably equally true for deacons. In the years since, I have come to believe firmly that it is very true: if you want to truly live your calling, run to the Blessed Mother, cling to her, and never let go.
The second reason it intrigued me is that at that time, I didn’t have any sort of deep or personal relationship with the Blessed Mother. I had a very deep respect for her, but that was the extent of it. The tradition I came from did not really stress any sort of relationship with the Virgin Mary beyond that respect. It was clinical and historical — respect for a figure — but not a relationship with a person.
I thought to myself that Father Pacwa probably didn’t get the reputation he has for no reason. I figured I ought to give it a try. I ought to try to cultivate an actual relationship with our Blessed Mother.
I don’t think I can really overstate how transformative that was. You see things through an entirely different lens. Now, this wasn’t an overnight occurrence. It took years; it’s still an ongoing process. I found that my tastes and interests changed, and changed for the better.
For example, if before turning on the television, you ask yourself, “Would my friend the Virgin Mary want to sit here and watch this with me?” and give an honest answer, you might find yourself not watching programs that you previously enjoyed. It’s not a matter of depriving yourself of them; it’s more a case of completely losing interest. Things that once seemed interesting become trite… boring… maybe even a bit repulsive. And certainly not worth spending time on.
Now, as I said, Father Pacwa spoke of priests, because that was the topic we were discussing that day. I think if Father were here now, he would be in total agreement with me when I state that a deep, genuine relationship with the Blessed Mother will make a better person of everyone. Priests. Laity. Bishops. Saints. Martyrs. And everyone in between. Some here today have that sort of relationship. I’ve seen it, and I’ve recognized it at work in the individual’s life. Some are working on it. Even those in the first category would say they are still working on it. I know I am. Like so many things in the spiritual life, it’s a journey — not a destination, because — after all — every friendship is a journey.
Some folks maybe aren’t thinking so much about such a relationship… yet. Maybe some of those folks are like I was when I heard Father Pacwa speak of a transformative relationship with Mary. If you’re in that group, maybe it’s not something you’ve encountered. It’s not something you’ve had an opportunity to consider. You might not know where to start. You might not know why to start.
What does Mary have that makes her the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of the Universe? Queen of Heaven and Earth? What does Mary have that she can teach to all of us who seek to be her friend?
Many things. Love. Obedience. Humility. If pride is the root of sin, then what Mary represents is the antithesis of sinful pride. It is the opposite of that which leads us into sin.
I hope you will agree with me that if we are receptive to the will of God, then we are obedient to God; we do what God desires us to do. God desires that we do not sin. God desires our authentic good. God wants the best for us. Therefore, when we are obedient to God we are acting in our own best interest. We are doing what leads to our authentic good. What better friend to have on that journey of coming to know, to love, and to serve God than the mother of Christ herself? If you want to learn what authentic human obedience should be, then Mary is the very model and exemplar of that virtue.
It is one thing to be obedient to God. After all, God is perfect… and as I just said, to be obedient to God is always to act in our own best interest. What about being obedient to another person? And why would you do such a thing? How about this: because you are growing in two other virtues of which Mary is a fine example — love and humility.
It is love — the desire to authentically love our neighbor as ourselves — and humility — the ability to recognize God as the origin of all that is good and to see the image of Christ in our neighbor — that leads us, with Immaculate Mary, to a holy obedience. This is not a pie-in-the-sky theory that I’m talking about; it’s not something that would be nice if everyone did it, but no one does and so no one should even bother. Is it easy? No. Is it possible? Yes. Is it necessary for our salvation? Well, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.
We know that the path to destruction is wide and easy, while the road to salvation is narrow and few find it. It is smart to have a friend on that journey… especially when it can be someone who knows the road. I can think of no better guide than Mary our Mother, who always leads us to Christ. Mary’s eternal beauty shines in her love, humility, and obedience. If we make ourselves her friend and truly learn the lessons of virtue that she wants us to know, we will do well for ourselves as we journey on the narrow path toward Christ, who waits for us with open arms.