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Many years ago, an abbot named Bernard of Clairvaux offered a homily in praise of the Virgin Mary. His presentation focused on the importance, the crucial nature, of Mary’s response and he positioned it within a framework of a waiting world, a universe living in anticipation of her response and hoping it will be a positive one.
Given the weightiness of God’s call, the challenge of accepting news of an unusual pregnancy, to say the least, and the realization that her new status would bring her into conflict with Jewish law, Mary’s response was indeed a heavy load for her to bear. Its significance could never be underestimated. At the same time, the news was both difficult to receive and to share.
As Bernard phrased it, “The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent.” Can you imagine the anguish of a young girl faced with the enormity of her answer? Human freedom awaited her response. Our salvation was in her hands.
Bernard went back in time to trace history, finding key figures that still awaited Mary’s yes. From Adam to David, through all the patriarchs and ancestors, indeed the whole human race waited with baited breath. Their past, present, and future tinged with expectancy, trust, and hope, they—and we—wait for Mary’s acceptance of God’s call.
As is true with all waiting, we want her answer to come quickly. We want Mary to respond hastily to God. Decide. “Speak your yes in whatever manner you wish, but say it. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breath a passing word, embrace the eternal Word,” writes Bernard.
Bernard asks in his sermon for Mary to be humbly bold, confidently modest, prudently presumptuous. He asks that she speak out dutifully with a heart open to faith and lips poised in praise. He states that God is knocking at her door asking to enter. He warns delay might be disastrous. God might pass by while Mary ponders too long, while her fear overcomes her. Then will an overwhelming sorrow overtake her? Then it will be too late.
Is Mary’s call to action not our Christmas call, as well? Are we not being asked to give birth to a saving God in our world? Is it not our mission to enliven our planet with godliness? How long will it take for us to respond? Why are we delaying? Is it fear that keeps us from being, acting, giving, and receiving the good that God offers us?
What is it that causes us to be afraid of saying yes to God? What causes us to worry needlessly, to procrastinate, and to refrain from opening the gifts God wants so much to give us? Why do we keep the doors of our hearts, our spirits, closed to divine opportunities?
In the midst of her fear, with all her questions answered with mystery, Mary said yes to God. She faced the challenge of telling Joseph about her pregnancy. She had no idea what his response would be. Nor did she know what her family and friends would say or do. Would she be accepted, embraced and protected or left in isolation, loneliness, and alienation? Would she be subjected to the worst punishment of the law or would there be leniency?
Mary had no clear knowledge of the future. She acted in the present moment. She took a chance on God, believing deeply in divine goodness rather than divine retribution. She trusted, painfully and not without question, that somehow all would be well.
We know the rest of the story. We know Joseph did not abandon her. He, too, said yes to God despite all the questions that arose in him. We celebrate their responses and give each other gifts in remembrance of their giftedness to us, of God’s goodness in us.
At the same time, we know that their story is filled with paradox, with mystery, with journeying, and with questioning. They were called ever more deeply into the wonder of God’s working in our world, in our human history, to save us. Their story must become our story. Their deepening call is ours, as well. The weightiness of their continuing yes is contained and maintained in our life responses.
It’s nearly Christmas Day. While we’d like to sing joyous songs and gaze at an innocent Babe in a manger, it is also a time for us to stop our Advent waiting and begin our lifelong believing, praying, praising, receiving, and giving. It is time for us to inhale and exhale a spirited yes to all God has planned for us. It is time for us to see all as gift. It is time to realize and recognize that even the hard times, perhaps especially the hard times, the difficult moments, hold new birth for us.
It is time for us to do more than look at Mary as a model of acceptance. It is time for us to be that model, to be Mary in a world that sorely needs the gift of saying yes to God. Bernard asks that Mary arise, hasten, and be open to God. He wants that gift from her so that he can offer it in his way, in his time, in his universe, to others.
We can ask for the same resurrection in haste and with openness. We can ask to be a Christmas presence to a world wearied by war, poverty, injustice, and mercilessness. We can say, we can shout, a resounding yes and know without a doubt that Christ is born again, in us, with us, and through us. Do it as Bernard begged of Mary, “Speak your yes in whatever manner you wish, but say it. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.”
Do not delay. Do not be afraid. Believe, give praise, and receive. Open the gift. Be the gift. Enjoy the giftedness we are. Share the gift with all whom cross your life’s path.
My prayer for all is that we have a Mary’s Christmas, pregnant with joy that gives birth to peace and justice.