Tonight, I am speaking to some of our students as they celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe. This is a copy of what I will read.
Advent has just begun. This is a period of time that marks the beginning of the Catholic year, and it marks a time of preparation for the birth of Christ. Adventus in Latin means “coming” or in better English we might say, “arriving.” God is arriving among us in Christ. We are preparing.
Catholics have a strange understanding of time. Strange is good: here it means that, for Catholics, every year is a time when the Incarnation – the Word (God) becoming flesh; that is, Jesus’ whole life – happens all over again. Even though it took place thousands of years ago, it happens again. Year after year, we celebrate what happened and it lives in us again. This is why we prepare for Christmas again and again: it is happening in our hearts.
I bring up Advent for us right now because Our Lady is fundamental to it. She is the first person that Jesus comes to, arriving to her as her very own child, carried in the secret darkness of her own body. Mary knows what it means for God to arrive, and she still knows. She teaches us how to know. Among many other things, her life teaches us this: God asks us to be fiercely brave. Incredibly brave.
When I think about Our Lady, the first thing I remember about her is her fiat, her “let it be,” her Yes. I imagine her in the dark of her room – I always picture this event in the dead of night even though Luke never says what time of day it was, but I think of the dark because the mystics of the Church say that God is a brilliant darkness – and I imagine Mary whispering her agreement to the angel Gabriel. I think she said it softly. Softly because many of the most wonderful and daring things in the world are soft. And what a world-shifting moment this is! Such simple words, and they are enough to change everything. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a whole prayer to Mary about this moment. He begs her to say Yes, trembling in that breath between when she listened and when she spoke: “Answer, then, quickly to the angel yes.” Her words are simple, simple action, but they require a tenacity that sometimes frightens me. I do not know if I can be that fierce.
Think about it: how much she gave in that moment! Not only did Mary give her very body to the task, but she also offered much more. Her faith, her life. Her reputation probably collapsed. Everyone in her small town probably figured that she’d had some kind of affair. This is what Joseph thought before his dream (Mt 1:18-25).
Mary’s life was transfigured in that moment, in her Yes in the brilliant dark, and it reveals the presence of God in a fearsome light. Surrendering deep and human things for God seems so hard, and even if she wasn’t thinking of all that at the time, Mary still agreed. This is why God loves her so much: when she acted, she threw everything she had into the action, even her own flesh. The early Fathers of the Church loved to talk about this, about how important her very flesh was. She gave of her own flesh! This is what she gives to her Son! I don’t imagine that she really understood what she was doing – what teenager would? – but that makes her more daring.
Did she even try to defend herself? The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar takes her silence in the Gospels to be a real silence: she left it up to God to defend her. She did not explain what had happened. This might seem like an offensive idea, like a timid response. For Balthasar, though, Mary chooses silence, and she does so because she is brave enough to trust God. Mary does the one thing that is so hard for everyone in the Old Testament to do, so hard for us now: she trusts. She is willing to be vulnerable, willing to open herself to the possibility of being hurt – very much hurt – knowing that she will be protected under God’s wings. Here is a woman who knows when to speak, and when not to speak. When to act, and when not to act. “Where words are many,” says Proverbs, “sin is not wanting; but those who restrain their lips do well” (10:19). This understanding of how to act and when to act is an important theme in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, especially Proverbs. Much later in history, around 1200 A.D., Mary came to be associated with wisdom. She is called the “Seat of Wisdom” because she held Christ, because she agreed to God’s wisdom, and because she understood the mystery of acting and of letting be.
Mary goes to her cousin, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. She goes to be with someone who needs help, which is always where God goes too. In fact, she brings God with her to Elizabeth. That is, she brings Jesus with her. I always imagine that Mary went alone, though this probably isn’t true. I imagine her alone because I am trying to find some way to understand her solitude: it is lonely when you do something people don’t understand. So I imagine Mary walking fearless and alone on an open road under a starry sky.
Mary is powerful because she isn’t powerful. This is a Christian mystery. All she has is her Yes, and even that is given to her. But she offers everything and she moves quickly to where God needs to be, and in her everything she offers God. God has made this possible to her because she made room for God’s infinite possibility. Saint Irenaeus says, “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by Mary.” Mary trusted that God can do anything and everything.
Mary’s song, the one she sings after Elizabeth greets her, emphasizes her powerful trust. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” she says, “the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Lk 1:46, 49). She even talks about how God throws rulers from their thrones, scatters the arrogant, and keeps his promises (v. 51-55). Mary in some way grasps that God’s entrance into the world always upsets world order, always challenges. God’s entrance into her life upset every expectation, after all, and challenged her profoundly. But here in the Gospel of Luke, she’s singing and she’s happy because she knows that God never does anything without making it new and wonderful again. I do not know how a vulnerable teenaged girl can stand torn from regular society and be able to see that, but she does. I cannot imagine the strength that takes.
In the East, Mary is called “All Holy,” and I am fond of this title because it stresses her active holiness. Holiness is not just a lack of sin: it is something positive, something good. Something to sing about; something to topple kingdoms. Mary angers the dragon in the Book of Revelation, threatening the dark order of things, and she continues to do so when upsets expectations in the Americas. She appears to a simple peasant, Juan Diego, someone like her, and blesses a persecuted people. Our Lady is the patron of the Americas because she chose to appear here, because she wanted to lift up the native people rather than the powerful.
Mary is, for us, a blend of powerful symbols and youthful simplicity. I try to remember both when I remember her, though I think her poverty and youth are often forgotten. But without these, you see, her courage is forgotten too. The incredible power Mary has is found in her willing vulnerability. In her very smallness. In how she didn’t know everything that was happening, but trusted God anyway. I try to remember this, especially during Advent, as everything happens all over again. Think of what it is like to lift our empty hands and open our empty mouths to God when we receive the Eucharist. Here is a moment where our smallness and fragility are made obvious: we have so little. But if we say “Amen” – which means Yes – and give everything to God, he will give everything to us. He is everything. He gives himself.
So let us prepare.
Let us be brave.